In the first panel on"Money Cultures: Identity, Wealth & Poverty" at the IMFTI annual conference researchers told stories about urban informal economies that might be at variance with the official narratives of international development, conventional charity, and even newer microfinance schemes.
The first presentation “Beyond the Failed State: Capital Mobilization, Investment and Entrepreneurship among Somali Refugees in Nairobi, Kenya" by Kenneth Omeje, who has presented at IMTFI before, and John Mwangi countered conventional tales of woe from the region about child soldiers and humanitarian catastrophes in which refugees from failed states never appear as economic actors and only take the stage as "poverty-stricken parasites" like those shown in this Google search for "Somali refugees" above. Instead Omeje argued that one could look beyond the one million "highly deprived" people in refugee camps suffering from the impacts of climate change as well as political instability to include the financial activities of 150,000-200,000 people in the densely populated suburb of Eastleigh, which is also known as “little Somalia” or "little Mogadishu" in the region, where shopping malls like the one pictured along side the Google search result screen present a very different picture of the Somali immigrant experience in Kenya. Omeje admitted that it was often difficult to study the underground economy, because it may involve piracy, trafficking in small arms or drugs, or other obviously illegal activity, but he also thought that the area was characterized by much more than its criminal element. (See this NPR story for more about these neighborhoods in which refugees and Kenyans of Somali origins co-exist.)
Omeje asserted that the role of community values, kinship ties, and Islamic dictates to use money to help others was often overlooked and that studying economic competition from businesses rooted in Indian diasporic communities and the ethnic Kikiyu population might also provide a worthwhile perspective on these transnational citizens and their economic behavior. The study of Omeje and Mwangi was based on interviews with 136 people, about half of whom were refugees. Others consulted included Kenyan police officers and members of rival Indian business communities. Because interviews often were conducted during business hours or broached sensitive topics, the data from the community was necessarily incomplete, but the researchers argued that there was definitely enough information to counter the prevailing stereotype of the economics of the failed state. As he concluded his presentation, Omeje showed photographs of a local branch of Chase Bank on the main street of Easteligh, fresh fruit hawking, a shot of First Community Bank, and a business plaza. The spectacle of dilapidated roads juxtaposed with modern shopping malls owned by refugee populations showed how the failures of infrastructure often coexisted with the successes of entrepreneurship.
(See this video of the Madina mall for more.)
Although efforts to "give the poor a stake in India's booming economy" have focused on giving Indian peasants title to the lands that they work, Syed Aiman Raza's study of landless tenant tobacco farmers attempting to capitalize on higher world prices emphasized the immediate context of decision-making in which the future may be less bright. In his study of 56 households, "Harvesting Death: Do Tobacco Growers Need Financial Inclusion? An Analysis into the Monetary Problems and Prospects Enshrouding Farmers Harvesting Tobacco in Basti District, Uttar Pradesh, India," Raza's claimed that his case study of Sikandarpur village shows that fertilizer input of DAP (diammonium phosphate), urea, or manure might not seem a worthwhile investment to farmers worried that landlords might evict them at any time. Although the area's Muslim farmers might have appreciated the 11% per annum loans offered by Purvanchal Gramin Bank, the cap on loans at 25,000 rupees might spur most farmers to also make agreements with money lenders, despite interest ranging from 5% to 10% per month if profits dependent upon the quality, color, and weight of their tobacco crop would benefit from the financial risk. Raza's data showed how pests and price volatility could wipe out even the most economically savvy farmer and how romanticizing financial inclusion might ignore the challenges of competition in global financial markets.
Sepideh Bajracharya's work on Nepali informal economies presented some of the most dramatic research of the day, as she attempted to explain the function of Dhukuti activities, which translates as "Treasury" or "Cash-Box," but may describe much less traditional economic activities of newly affluent Nepalis that model lottery schemes, rotation schemes, or bidding schemes that are characterized as "lucky-draw," "number system," or "releasing and eating" respectively. Her study, "Untouchable Wealth: The Moral Exchange of New Wealth among Women in an Urban Nepali Untouchable-Caste Community," chooses to present a somewhat different narrative about the sweeper caste Emukhel in the Kathmandu Valley who lived before the 1980s in houses of straw and mud once situated on a public defecating ground. These one-time untouchables no longer live in a "shitting ground." Instead their houses are of brick and cement with paned glass, closets, sofa sets, and gas stoves in communities with paved roads and attractive parks.
Bajracharya noted that although changes that generated this new wealth may be based on participation in the state and may be development-based, since city municipalities began hiring people as state-sanctioned sweepers, it is Dhukuti, or informal credit associations, often independently run by women in their forties and fifties, which inhabitants credit for allowing them to build and furnished their houses. She pointed out that there were significant differences between an "Economy of Need," which is an aid and development-based economy, and an "Economy of Pleasure" that is determined by access to and desire for consumer goods and services. She observed that the "pleasure element" of thrill, risk, uncertainty, risk, and flight marked the "late neoliberal moral economy" that she was describing in which social capital and income disparity may have served as critical ingredients.
Bajracharya detailed the activities of four dhukutis that she studied, which were based on rotation and number systems. Her informants were participants in both formal and informal economies who made little distinction between different kinds of credit and saving cooperatives. She argued that such people were most comfortable when their money is circulating, since there was a "certainty associated with a lack of trust. By not trusting any one in particular and focusing on "where you put your biscuit money," dhukuti participants might see enormous sums change hands. Bajracharya described wealth transfers occurring in "ten minutes" in a restaurant with "kebabs and dumplings." In this high-stakes environment, if you needed more money for the month, you would have to bid more. She observed that participants often adopted the same vocabulary as gambling, and that dhukuti might even be associated with dramatic murder cases, police raids, and numbers on the back side of an accounting book. Her future research would pursue the practices "historical dimension" and incorporate a "comparative perspective." (See this study for more about the practice.
The final panelist, Svetlana Tyukhteneva, regaled the audience with her tale of economic and ethnic difference in "Tell Me How You Earn and Spend Money - And I Will Tell You Who You Are," which followed the IMTFI tradition of presenting at least one paper about how livestock function as currency in households, as Tyukhteneva explained the value of camels and yaks, particularly at weddings and funerals, accompanied by a slideshow that began with an image of a man carrying a sheep.
The research idea is that the daily cash practices can serve as a symbol, marking the boundary between rich and poor, but also ethnic and cultural markers between living in the neighborhood of the two peoples. Their ways of making money, their methods of conservation, storage and use, the Altaians and the Kazakhs are different.
She explained the ethnographic value of certain stereotypes in the region, such as "Kazakhs bargain"; "they bargain at length." Furthermore, "if one neighbor buys a Mercedes, the other neighbor will do everything to get the same car." In contrast, "the Altai live poorer than the Kazakhs, but they sleep better." Such generalizations could be documented in more complex ways that foster economic understanding, and she provided copies of detailed accounting records of animals given in support of funeral feast as an example. Some of this cultural difference might be explained by religious preferences, beliefs and practices, since the Altai people were Shamanists and Buddhists for whom monetary passivity might be linked to their idea of fate. But her presentation that began with livestock reminded audience members of the built environment in which her subjects lived by showing graffiti on the wall of a marked that could be translated as "The Money is finished, Love - never."
Respondent UCSD colleague David Pedersen noted how these papers "set in the present tense" and were devoted to "identifying certain kinds of conjunctures" in which "when something happened, something else tended to happen," which could be visualized in "images and maps." He also observed how the papers did not work with the neat divisions of "public sector" and "private sector" that might be more familiar to Western audiences oriented around formal economies.