Thursday, December 18, 2014

What's Behind Door Number One? Experimentation and Innovation: Tools and Solutions for Specialized Populations

The final panel of the day modeled how the educational mission of IMFTI might take many forms: academic lecture, episodic entertainment oriented around humor, or impassioned call to action from the perspective of non-governmental advocacy.  Despite some technical difficulties, the final trio of papers of the day was ably moderated by IMTFI stalwart Scott Mainwaring, an HCI researcher now based in Portland who has had a leading role in a number of UCI think tanks.

"Risk Preferences, Time Preferences, and Willingness-to-Pay with Mobile Money versus Cash in Bangladesh" was presented by Jonathan Morduch of NYU, but he gave credit to his NYU colleague  Jean Lee and to two other co-authors.  As one of the authors who created Portfolios of the Poor, Morduch has maintained a high scholarly profile on issues of financial inclusion.  In his talk at IMTFI he emphasized "new ways of thinking through new ways that people spend money," including new approaches to risk preferences, time preferences, and models for willingness to pay.  Although his study focused on the highly successful electronic currency efforts of bKash, he wanted to account for “monetary ecologies” that might be more complex.  He also aimed to go beyond existing US research on attitudes about cards vs. cash to understand how mobile phone currency might be different from traditional currency for citizens of a developing nation.

He prefaced his talk with some historical background about bKash, which was founded in 2011 by BRAC Bank and has counted IFC (International Finance Corporation) and the Gates Foundation among its investors.  It has garnered some impressive statistics, including about 14 million subscribers and 105,000 agent points that allow the company to offer both money transfer and mobile wallet services.  Sold and advertised as a payment platform – with advertisements featuring students, garment workers, and other economic actors -- Morduch argues that bKash functions in monetary ecologies of behaviors, resources, services, and products.

Morduch's team poses a significant question drawn from the IMTFI's own calls for proposals: "Does the digitization of money dematerialize the symbolism and physicality of money, and does it have consequences for decision-making involving spending and saving?  In other words, for those in Bangladesh, does 1 Tk in cash equal 1 Tk in mobile money?

Morduch notes that The Social Meaning of Money by Viviana A. Zelizer makes the argument that money depends on who earns it and how it is earned, so that different kinds of money are spent differently.  For example, money on mobile a phone sent from daughter working in a garment factory may be differentiated from money in cash derived from farm work by those remaining in rural life.  He pointed to other work in the US about credit cards vs. cash and observed that the use of this research in mobile money studies may obscure an important functional difference, in that such cards decouple the moment of spending from the moment of payment and thus involve notions of liquidity and the nature of credit.  Such currency functions as "play money," as Priya Raghubir and Joydeep Srivastava assert in their influential article "Monopoly Money: The Effect of Payment Coupling and Form on Spending Behavior," which examines how much experimental subjects were willing to pay for nine items on a menu without prices.  By adding a credit card logo to the menu, researchers noted behavior changes, just as a study of how $50 of gift scrip vs. the same amount of cash for use at a grocery outlet might influence how potential customers might choose items in favor of expensive soups over cheaper soups or expensive pens over less expensive ones in a phenomena that could be characterized as "spending more when not spending."

Researchers focused on the Gaibandha District in the Rangpur Division in Bangladesh near the Indian border.  The country has a low rate of food consumption, which is worsened by a famine season or "monga" condition.  Working with the NGO Gana Unnayan Kendra (GUK), which helps women to become garment workers and places them in jobs in the capital Dhaka, researchers also had to account for seasonal variability in incomes.  Morduch's team was interested in possible unexpected effects of remittances, if mobile money was considered dematerialized and not weighed with same consideration as cash money.  Using Raghubir and Srivastava's research with the monopoly money paradigm, researchers wanted to look at how a different context and time might shape risk preferences.  The sample studies was derived from families sending migrants to Dhaka, and the methodology was intended to account for the impacts of gender, class, occupation, and age.  By looking at risk preferences in work pioneered decades ago about sets of gambles that might be considered analogous to bets placed on head flipping, researchers can look at how subjects might choose a safer lower yield bet (such as 33/33) in comparison to a more risky tempting one (such as 0/95).  At this point they have completed stages for recruitment and consent, baseline surveys, time preferences, and willingness to pay.

"Mobile Money Financial Literacy via Television Comedy" by Andrew Crawford of Monash University looked at mobile money in Cambodia in the context of financial education campaigns rather than just at the uptake of a particular service, in this case Wing.  Crawford opened by reminding the audience that the financial system had been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, that US dollars had been used for a period of time afterwards.  Although there were micro finance competitors, Wing -- like M-PESA -- "flows through the economy," and digital currency circulates with loan payments, money transfers, payroll, multi-currency conversion, e-commerce, ATM cards, and deposits.  Nonetheless, financial policy makers were well aware of the problems with mobile money observed by researchers, including the fact that it was expensive to conduct financial education, curricula were slow to rollout, and language and lack of interest issues could stymie retaining and applying information.  (At this point he noted that boredom from conventional presentations like own PowerPoint presentation could cause little to be remembered from his talk.)

Crawford argued that TV comedy could provide a viable alternative to conventional public information campaigns, given that 98% of people in the country watch television and that penetration is particularly high, because many people also watch shows on buses, where corporate synergies between broadcasters, such as  CTN and CNC, and bus companies present opportunities for the Cambodia Microfinance Association and ADA Luxembourg.  Crawford showed several episodes with a couple who progress from very small businesses in barbering and food service to larger enterprises that require more capital and financial planning.  As the relationship matures, along with their banking and credit skills, his hair gradually becomes tamed and his affect becomes less outrageous.

Crawford's research team wanted to find out if there was any impact in both short-term and the long-term financial literacy from watching the show.  Furthermore, can any impact measured in focus groups be extrapolated across wider populations?  The group focused on garment factory workers, because of a desire to focus on women, who represented about 400,000 workers, providing labor for major brands, who were paid in cash with no method to save and thus often remit to family.  In the past the transfer of money was effected via motorbikes with locked boxes, which was inefficient.  Subjects were usually young (in Crawford's opinion often too young to be working full time) and watchers of TV.  The methodology involved three groups: 1) Treatment 1, which experienced generic financial education with a five-minute slide presentation video, 2) Treatment 2, which experienced financial education entertainment with a five-minute comedy show, and 3) Control Group, which experienced a generic comedy show and received no financial literacy education.  Crawford explained that he wanted to combine quantitative research from surveys with qualitative research that involved 1-on-1 interviews with researchers and focus groups after each screening.  Follow up sessions conducted after 3 months to test long term effectiveness Phone surveys – CEO of Wing owns TV station, wife is host of Cambodia’s Next Top Model Country-wide changes – New mobile money accounts, demographics of new clients, general mobile savings trends Novelty Background, Effectiveness, Share results – final research paper

"The Formal Disguise: Financial Inclusion Among Flexible Workers and the Self-Employed" by Ana Echeverry and Coppelia Herrán of Inspira Lab focused on Colombia and the tough competition faced by workers often forced to pay-to-work in positions lacking any social safety net for health and education targeting an unskilled or low skilled labor force, in fields that include outsourced textile production and manufacturing, food and restaurant services, retail and sales, car maintenance and services, and fitness and beauty, where workers often must pay a fee for using the commercial space and bring their own equipment and supplies.  Such workers must often even pay  fees for keeping the place of employment clean, and half of their wages may go to the owner of the commercial space.  Unlike the "temptation costs" described in the previous panel, on this panel Echeverry and  Herrán depict highly disciplined workers willing to invest in the site of employment.  Nonetheless these workers may be extremely disenfranchised.

This team before had worked with "bottom of the pyramid" workers outside of the formal system, but those adopting what  Echeverry and Herrán call "the formal disguise" in many ways are just as desperate as those they had studied before who were using technology through gaming networks and "betting on chance."  Among these barely legal formal workers 43.3% were self-employed, 46.4% earned below the minimum wage, and 50% lacked social security coverage.  The team focused on 24 informants and took a direct approach in public spaces and via referrals with video ethnography and semi-structured interviews trying to the understand the scope of problem.  By interrogating "different views and perspectives," they characterized their work as "exploratory research" about contrasting behaviors and identifying underlying factors driving behaviors, such as values, attitudes, and perceptions.

The group focused on identifying those with contrasting behaviors with a 360 degree view of human personalities that included the careful planner, the risk taker, the person ending a career, the formally trained worker, the submissive economic actor, the spontaneous personality, the risk averse, the independent, the apprentice, the tech-enthusiast, and the technology averse.  By identifying common patterns among diverse people, researchers hoped to identify common strategies and attitudes reflected across personality types.  Informants talked about work, money, and risk with researchers and described an environment of "in and out mobility" instead of "upward mobility."  Such workers depended on using word of mouth and referrals for finding jobs, reliance on social networking, trust, honesty, and willingness to work.  Such workers constantly battled the fact that temporary employment makes it difficult to establish relationships.

This population of vulnerable workers seemed to be avoiding account deductions.  They were not using mobile money, because they realized that the bank takes money, and they also wanted to continue staying below the "fiscal radar" to reduce costs.  Researchers observed a pattern of withdrawing all money on payday and a complicated mental logic in regards to risk.  Their subjects were willing to make certain kinds of investments, even if they did not map onto the conventional architecture of financial inclusion.  These workers might expend pocket money to get better healthcare or divert savings into building home additions for future rental as a retirement strategy.  They might funnel saving towards equipment with hopes of enhanced employment opportunity, but more living those savings went toward financing the inevitable with planning for their own mortality.  In other words, many had little hesitation about shouldering the costs of funeral insurance – in light of their knowledge that this is an event that they know will happen.  Unlike the relatively transparent investment schemes in funeral insurance,  Echeverry bemoaned the fact that 90% of the people subsidized 10% of those who used government services, which fostered a further lack of trust in the system.  Instead workers assumed all risks and operational costs as a consequence of flexible and emerging contracts.  Often workers had to splurge on costly training courses as well.  Echeverry opened by likening many of the country's educational investments to DeVry-style extraction.

Echeverry noted that children become a priority when people are so exhausted and desperate.  The parents researchers studied were willing to do anything for their offspring.  They also were extremely dependent on communication networks, especially those that involve access to word-of-mouth information.  Researchers marveled at the fact that most people in the population they studied had smart phones, which were a "tool for the job."  In fact,"many of them had phones better than ours."  To stay competitive and reduce costs, many opted out of mandatory requirements.  The Inspira team described them as "quite organized," and asserted that "most of them do financial planning."  For such labor-intensive poverty vulnerability the "concern isn’t healthcare but not being able to work."  Thus most can barely afford mandatory insurance services, which would come to about 15% of their income.  Rather than rely on a risky calculus around public health and modern medicine, they were more likely to focus on "protecting oneself from risks" in other ways, including by relying on "religious elements," such as obeisance to the patron of jobs and workers.  Echeverry said that she observed similar behavior in her own nephew around the game Magic the Gathering, which is likewise about rules for "special powers.  These workers in casual labor markets feel compelled to "insure yourself with saints."

Because of government turnover and policy reinvention, researchers have had to delay the implementation phase of research.  Their current action items for lawmakers emphasize an agenda for worker-centered change, which includes the following elements: 1) Offer incentives to compensate for social protection benefits, 2) Provide social dialogue tools that bring together dispersed workers and employers, 3) Offer tools and services that ensure a better future or  living conditions for children, 4) Leverage referrals and social networks into employment services, 5) Make loans or credit eligibility visible to the user, 6) Recommend related products or services into the experience of payroll accounts, such as insurance or investments, 7) Promote add-on complements to mandatory insurance at a minimum, 8) Structural social security reform to include lowering costs through customization, and 9) Promote alternative investments.

To emphasize pragmatic approaches and direct attention to new opportunities for the business sector, the Inspira research team also catalogued a number of "innovation opportunities" that follow from worker-centered principles.  First, researchers discouraged companies from thinking about desktop computing as a platform for Internet and emphasized analogies to social network sites and mobile applications.  For such workers digital recommendations serve a number of purposes, and mobile technologies can also congregate dispersed, independent, and flexible workers to facilitate exchange of services and spread opportunities.  This approach would help workers make informed decisions, and stay up-to-date on legal, insurance and financial topics.  Second, in thinking about money matters, researchers urged financial service providers to offer savings incentives toward specific goals.  For example, in explaining eligibility for loans, allow prospective borrowers to visualize pre approved loans.  Third, companies could develop micro-insurance to provide alternative products that personalize one-sized-fits-all mandatory insurance or respond to specific needs that might be constantly present in workers' imaginations, such as eldercare or high school as expenditures.  Fourth, innovations could emphasize closing the loopholes created by flexible labor laws designed to help Colombians to become competitive in the global market.  Mobile technologies can help workers meet in a place for business relationships, social dialogue, and financial and risk management services.

Listening to Echeverry, I was reminded of the work of Lilly Irani about the flexible workforce that provides so-called "Mechanical Turk" services too difficult for automated computerized AI to be tasked to do.  Irani has had technology workers rate employers to turn the table on systems that before could only rate workers.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Female Financial Literacy: Gender in Mobile Money and Financial Practices

In introducing this IMTFI panel, Rebecca Mann of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation argued that "gender is important," because women are less likely to be involved in the financial sector and among the poorest of the poor may thus find it harder to respond to financial shocks and to capitalize on opportunities, particularly because women earn money in smaller increments, even if they do so more regularly, which are dissipated in household expenses relatively quickly.  By highlighting "research that we are seeing" that "documents behaviors of women and girls," Mann expressed her hope that the daily expenditures of the very poor could be better understood.  She also took a moment to promote the Grand Challenges initiative, which in the past has tackled design challenges that range from the toilet to the condom, and its efforts in a new program for "Putting Women and Girls at the Center of Development."

In "Mobile Money, Social Capital, and Financial Behavior of Women’s Cooperatives in Rural Nigeria" by Onyima Jude Kenechi and Onugu Charles Uchenna of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, researchers asked the following question: "What are traditional ways of storing and transferring wealth?"  This fundamental baseline provides a key way for understanding how was/would mobile money be transformative, if "mobile money adoption changed the financial behavior of rural women."  Among their informants, 38% had no formal education, and 73% came from households with more than six occupants.  Among them were office cleaners, casual workers, petty farmers, hawkers, sales attendants, and apprentices.  99% own mobile phones, but they used them primarily for calls, texts, and downloads of music and pictures.  93% did not have ownership of a bank account, and only 5% participated in micro finance institutions.  In this demographic only 8% of respondents had heard of mobile money, and only 3% have used such services, as opposed to 46% awareness statistics in urban areas in which 16% of residents are also users.  Researchers attributed slow uptake to a number of factors, but singled out  lack of coordination between the National Communication Commission and the National Bank of Nigeria as a key problem.  Despite entry into the Nigerian market by 10 mobile money operators, relatively few of those most in need signed up for accounts.

Many informants mentioned the role of community leaders, particularly for authority figures and peers among church attendees, as important influencers in their decision making.  For example, researchers reported statements such as "I will use it if someone I trust like our priest educates me" or "I am not comfortable with it, but I can use it if our church member encourage it" or "If it’s that useful, how come other women in our church do not use it?”   Valuables were often kept by ministers, who might also participate in lending activities, serve as guarantors, or provide advice about financial services.  As the Ghana research team reported, the role of deities was also significant in the Nigeria study.

Issues of trust and difficulties in cooperatives also emerged as factors when "arguments and quarrels" were seen as likely consequences for business relationships outside of family structures.  Many respondents were still using advance payments to accumulate capital, despite a relatively strong home saving rate of 20%.  Other mechanisms included informal savings clubs, cooperatives, and thrift collectors.  (For context, respondents reporting spending 30% of their incomes on food.)

Women had access to a number of methods of storing wealth, however, including holding membership in groups, managing the marriage of a girl child, and benefitting from the role of in-laws, as well as from apprenticeships, church sources, title taking, and deities.  Material stores of wealth included jewelry, livestock, utensils, palm oil, and tubers as storage media.  Mobile money adoption had no significant effect on traditional modes of storing wealth, although it did reduce the use of bus drivers, relatives, and others for in-person transfers.  These new financial products also seemed to reduce the risk of being subject to creditors of a debtor coming after family members or being coerced into making sacrifices to deities.  They also appeared to reduce dependence on advance payment instruments.  Mobile money's effects on attendance at cooperative functions was not significant, because there were other socio-cultural reasons for attendance, although it did facilitate certain forms of joint liability by providing a means for peer screening, peer monitoring, and resolving information asymmetry.  Its role in kinship ties among cooperative members and growing a level of trust seemed significant, although fears of members performing transactions without anyone else’s knowledge remained, although members acknowledged it could be helpful in spotting fraud.  At 8% adoption, researchers argued that novel approaches needed to be pursued.  They asked another significant question: "How sacrosanct are the words of religious leaders in money matters and how could they be used to propagate and instill trust?"  Although they still wondered under what conditions could a bank-led model be preferable to operator-led model, they thought that religious leaders could certainly at least promote awareness.

"Assessing the Impact of Financial Knowledge on Adoption of Mobile Payment Systems among Enterprise Owners in Dharavi, Mumbai" by Mudita Tiwari and Deepti KC of India's Institute for Financial Management and Research presented a study conducted in the slum of Dharavi in Mumbai that gathered data from 100 business owners, 20 suppliers, 115 clients, 2 bank managers, and 25 banking agents in order to promote understanding movements of cash.  Researchers reported a strong cash preference, which could be attributed both to savings on taxes and to a lack of awareness and trust in financial products.  Consequently they argued for context-specific financial literacy modules for two groups: migrants and female entrepreneurs.  Despite a range of financial services available, including Tatkal agents able to remit money and employers able to transfer salaries to bank accounts directly, many still prefer informal economies and unbanked financial practices. Researchers showed a range of unconventional saving strategies involving hiding places that have become common practices of money management for women.  Money may be hidden in dirty boxes, talcum powder jars, and other nooks and crannies, but discovery often leads to domestic disputes and even violence from male partners.

First the group described their financial literacy strategy for their target group of 120 migrant workers, which was structured around 3 visits within a month.  34% were aware of mobile banking and 87% visited banking agents after training sessions, and they also seemed better equipped to control gambling, consumption of alcohol and cigarettes, and other “temptation expenses,” despite erratic income, leading to an almost 50% decrease in spending practices that undermine financial stability.

As a co-author of the comic book textbook, Understanding Rhetoric, I was particularly interested to see their financial literacy tools for women, which emphasized graphic media for storytelling and sequential art as a means of communication.   Before adopting this approach they found that the lack of information impeding financial uptake was compounded by apathy toward generic information that "didn’t click."  Those needing advice wanted to relate to stories and characters to understand how cash-only vs. cashless tradeoffs worked, their long-term savings capabilities, and possible improved decision-making processes.  Forgetfulness was also an important issue.  To provide context an interactive story-telling approach using comic books was deployed featuring two memorable practitioner-characters: Radha, who is always struggling with financial adversities, and Saraswati, her sensible money-managing friend who offers approachable solutions that reduce savings inertia over the long term.  Researchers actually used real-life stories to compose the narrative.  Next steps include expanding efforts to  Utter Pradesh and Bihar, making training videos on YouTube that animate the content, and translating existing comic books in different languages.  Audience member Jing Gusto was so enthusiastic about this approach, based on his own experiences of the educational value of telenovelas and SMS questions, that he proposed adapting 3 of the 7 stories of the Indian researchers for use in the Philippines and was counseled to emphasize  how to increase savings as a priority.

"Women, Monetary Practices, and Technological Innovations" by Kone Nara Kanugui Idriss of ENSEA emphasized that although the time of intense crisis in Côte d'Ivoire may have largely passed, which required many women to take children into their families, the financial repercussions continue.  He noted that Orange Money became the first mobile money services in Côte d'Ivoire, but was soon followed by MTN Mobile money, CelpaiD, and Flooz.  Yet even with four providers of mobile money services and 5 million accounts created between 2008 and 2014, obstacles remain.  His team of researchers designed a questionnaire with five sections: access, use, perceptions, monetary practices, and demographics.  Drawing upon a simple random sample of 477 respondents, drawn from Guro market women, one third of whom were single.  Many of those studied only had a primary school education, although they did benefit from a quasi-universal access to cell phones.  Mobile money services were popular among women, who identified their principal sources of information as being entourage influences, media messages, advertisements, and panels.  Only 32% had mobile money accounts, and 4 in 10 users were at the earliest stages of experimenting with mobile money. Trade was the main reason they ventured into novel financial products and services, although they reported occasional misadventures with PIN use, suspicions of agents, and long wait times.  Despite a general perceived ease of use and level-headed approach to risk, doubts sowed by the possibility that "they don’t give you all your money" remained.  Questions were designed to differentiate benefits.  For example, question eighteen dealt with gaining time "in your daily activities," while question nineteen addressed possible increased revenue.   More than a third of women surveyed still appeared to have serious doubts about mobile money services and reported low levels of financial inclusion in an environment in which 8 of 10 might have no access to financial inclusion.  In filling out the profile of a typical mobile money user, the women who emerged had secondary school education, reported perceived ease of use, and had access to the more established Orange mobile network.

Moderator Rebecca Mann challenged panelists to consider financial services beyond savings, including insurance and agricultural investment.  The Indian group of researchers did describe programs for mortgage payments, “good saver” programs that offered low-interest loans, and potential construction of women-only banks.  In the question-and-answer session, the audience expressed admiration for the Indian researchers' abilities to build such trust that the women were willing to show their secret hiding places.  Tiwari and KC explained that these results were the product of multiple trips, going without paper and pen, talking about their own lives, and telling stories with aggregated effort in 20-25 trips over two months.  "That’s why our sample size is so small!"

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Ties That Break and Ties That Bind: Re-Imagining Money and Identity in Rural Contexts

For a panel at the annual conference for UC Irvine's Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion about practices far away from a metropolis, it should not perhaps be surprising that some of the presenters were not able to span the distance and attend in person, although discussant Arnol Jadhay of GSMA mAgri managed to moderate a lively conversation in any case.

This panel's first presentation "Pastoral Adaptation to Market Opportunities and Changing Gender Roles Among Afar in Ethiopia: Aspects, Trends, and Prospects" by Uthman Hassen of Adama Science and Technology University had to be pre-recorded and transmitted from a remote location that required three hours of effort for the upload to be successful. Hassen's team of five female researchers and seven male researchers has been examining how pastoral livelihoods in Afar are being disrupted as the traditional symbiosis between economies of mining, fishery, and cattle that date from the time of partition have been undergoing fundamental changes.  At this point in their study, researchers have completed transcription and categorization efforts and have issued initial progress reports.  Although some respondents were interviewed in their homes, most of the data was collected in markets, shops, and offices with queries conducted in Amharic or Afarifa.

Hassen expressed some frustration with his subjects' reluctance and lack of availability, and he explained that it was difficult to organize FGDs (focused discussion groups) as planned.  Furthermore, he worried that his informants might have had a tendency to overemphasize issues of policy.  His final sample was 89 informants drawn from three generations: the oldest generation boasted about cattle and camels in lives circumscribed by their villages, the middle generation had some education and mobility, and the youngest generation was often employed or engaged in commerce that allowed them to have access to urban market opportunities.

The themes of pessimism that emerged were dying pastoralism, economic inflation, deepening social divides, weakening tribal spirit, impoverishment, and khat addition All informants viewed wealth as a sanctuary of morality and identity, a banner of traditions and obligations, and a source of values that were social rather than private.   Hassen noted the absence of microfinance institutions, even though banks were often inaccessible.  In closing, he pointed to other changes involving gender roles and relations and to social transformations tied to greater mobility and the fact that communal assets were becoming commodities.

Prince Karakire Guma had to join the conference via Skype to present "Reimagining Rurality in Mobile Money Times: Life, Identity, and Community,"  His account of social life and sociality, community, and rural identity emphasized how emergent mobile options had the potential to shape the lives of those most at risk of rural poverty and social exclusion.  His central research questions emphasized how forms of identity, community, and lifestyle are emerging in conjunction with new monetary technologies.  He asserted that it was important to get beyond belief in rurality as a static concept and to avoid stamping rural residents with an otherness that obscured the totality of their livelihoods, as those lives could be understood best through the eyes of actual residents.  Guma examined mobile money as a substitute in a number of critical areas: 1) saving, 2) remittance, 3) making monetary payments, and 4) transfer of money.  He argued that mobile network operators "have displayed enormous character" by actively investing in the social markets of rural Uganda and by introducing innovations that range from launching gadgets (including handsets) to promoting new fashions in SMS discourse.  Of course, many of these services and products merely substitute for applications that already exist, because ways of saving and assuring remittances have been parts of traditional culture for a long time.  Yet, as fixed and traditional methods are being replaced, these platforms also become used for saving, even if Ugandan mobile money was not designed for that purpose.

Guma found that mobile money could promote a positive social vision in a presentation that contrasted sharply from the pessimism of Hassen's presentation.  He described how mobile money could maintain community by reinforcing “obuntubulamu,” the idea of philanthropic relations within a community.  Thus mobile money served as "a non-threat to ingrained and indigenous communal ideals," because ubiquitous access to digital currencies could reinforce these relations.  Because mobile money "allows a collective manner of operation in spaces of scarcity," it can serve to strengthen village sociality and social networks.  In many cases, the whole community would have to share a single gadget, which might have to be charged by a car battery or by a community member who must travel to an urban center.  Mobile money turned out to serve as a socioeconomic tool that balances social obligations and strengthens the village.  Although mobile phones are increasingly conferring on village society norms from urban setting, the rural seems to have also attained a new identity in which change in manifested in specific practices of farming and family chores.  Guma described how villagers only migrate to a technology when convinced the new innovation provides better service.  In asking how companies might introduce rural-friendly applications, he questioned many of the basic categories of differentiation.  In other words, are rural elements being preserved or changed or recreated in urban form?  Furthermore, will mobile money change how we feel about rural space, and what does it mean for the rural to be “authentic” and should rural authenticity matter?

The closing presentation on the panel focused on "Hand Held Wealth? Mobile Money and Food Production in Rural Potosi."  Bolivian researchers Maria Isabel Balderrama and Oscar Gerdy Rocabado of CIDES-UMSA hypothesized that Tigo Money might play a role in the productivity and implementation of new technologies for food production.  This highly successful telecom company that was already in 14 markets in Africa and Latin America seemed like promising financial actor for change in the region.  The researchers had compiled results from 561 surveys in two municipalities with 25 questions each and had synthesized findings from 68 structured interviews with key informants, including academic experts, along with their own participatory observations.  Although there were some rural-to rural transactions related to coca production,  84% of mobile money transactions followed an urban-to-rural flow.  They found themselves noticing how females used Tigo Money.  Women made up 60% of users, and those ages 40-49 emerged as a key group.  Often sons or daughters in urban hubs had introduced them to the service, and suspiciousness of Tigo seemed to be low.  48.84% of respondents chose the service because they were pleased with how the money arrived quickly, and 14.43% became users because they perceived it as reliable.  As researchers summarized their findings, "if they need it, they will use it," because Tigo Money represented less paperwork and less time to be invested than formal banking.  Most of them actually utilized a different cell phone service provider rather than Tigo in order to access Tigo Money, because of their preferences for the government provider.  Although some users did invest mobile money in sprinkler systems and greenhouses, researchers did not find much diversifying of crops and did not find a meaningful impact on yield either.

Valuing Connection: The Interface between Tradition and Technology

At the sixth annual conference for funded researchers at the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion, director Bill Maurer introduced the proceedings by acknowledging the limitations of the closed knowledge forms rewarded by academia that present "neutral academic perspectives" in peer-reviewed journals.  He also noted that Silicon Valley ways of knowing may also be inadequate for understanding perspectives from the Global South.  In particular, he observed that cash may be criticized as a vulnerable currency that is easily stolen and even eaten by vermin and exotic creatures such as elephants, but cash also represents important "public infrastructure," a state-supported means of value transfer that is available without fees or tolls.  By aiming to include "the voices of those who would be most impacted" to understand the collision between traditional values and new monetary technologies, IMTFI aims to include people in remote areas "not just people in urban centers" visiting the U.S. "from Delhi and Manilla."  This particular scholarly occasion is also intended to support ongoing collaborations throughout the year with "resources to help people get in touch" as they negotiate realization of what is always understood to be a "midstream" presentation of research each year.

The first presentation about "When the Dead Decide: An Investigation into the Influence of the Ancestors in the Decision to Use Mobile Technology in a Rural Community in Northern Ghana" presented a unique fieldwork approach that incorporated traditional divination as a research method. Francis Niagia Santuah from the University for Development Studies and the West African Resilience Innovation Lab  presented the bulk of the findings with Martin Alichimah of Roots and Futures available to discuss the somewhat unconventional methodology that researchers used.  Although "the ancestors" might generally only communicate in response to yes/no questions through the interface of a diviner's probing stick, researchers argued that their influence in the use of mobile phones in the rural community in northern Ghana that they studied was significant, especially given the larger cosmic vision of inhabitants in which "the dead, the living, and the unborn" all shape decision-making in contemporary life.  Santuah argued that in designing products and services for customers debates about the existence of ancestors or dismissals of so-called superstitions were counterproductive when the influence of dead over the living was a fact of life for many.  Although Santuah said he was "not here to say whether the ancestors exist," in the question-and-answer period he explained the utility of this form of social connection in his own life.

Santuah and Alichimah explained that Ghana has a robust 84% mobile phone penetration rate in a country in which there were more phones than people.  Nonetheless, remote rural communities often don't have access to the technologies available in urban centers.  The research team wanted to focus on the use of mobile phones for community development among the Kasena in northern Ghana with focused group discussions (FGDs), key informant interviews (KIIs) with lineage heads able to represent their clans, and with divination.  While working in the Kasena-Nankana District, researchers did encounter obstacles.  Interviews were scheduled during the rainy season when communication might be disrupted.  Two soothsayers declined to serve as mediators, and one ancestor declined the interview when the divination process was initiated.  Furthermore, compensation and investment in traditional culture was an issue: one soothsayer complained that the consultation fee was “too small,” and one ancestor requested the sacrifice of a ram after a successful divination session.  Finally, planned randomization was resented by informants as disrespectful of existing processes.  Despite all of these hindrances, researchers asserted that "the ancestors blessed the study," since they were able to successfully present preliminary findings in the United States.

The team from Ghana shared several impressions from the field that corroborated their hypothesis that ancestors might influence the decision of residents in the area to use mobile phones.  For example, in one interview an informant commented that "I have heard they can send money through 'Atogedevio' (through the air) for you to go and collect at a place."  Although paying clinics and supporting tuition might be lauded, ancestors and clan heads were also wary of the social disruptions that new technologies might bring.  One interviewee bemoaned the fact that "you see a girl talking on phone and suddenly she disappears," and another chided the young texting on footpaths for not giving way to their elders.  Certain forms of news sharing still required traditional face-to-face contact.  For example, a mobile phone should not be used "to inform me that my in-law is dead."  The consequence for this inappropriate communication would be that "I will not attend the funeral because you are not serious."  In closing, Santuah described how his own use of the mobile phone changed in interacting with his own father, once he realized that his father's silence signaled censure for inappropriate multitasking behavior.  Now "I leave all my phones in my room," he declared, because the "relationship" should be privileged over "ease of communication."

Maurer reminded participants who might be tempted to scoff at the idea of "marketing to the dead" that the Institute had authored a very inclusive document about possible financial services models in a catalog of Design Principles.

Because of catastrophic weather ravaging the Philippines, Bernadette M. Gavino-Gumba of Ateneo de Naga University was unable to deliver her presentation on "Storing and Transferring Money in a Cash-Strapped Fishing Municipality in the Bicol Region" in person.  Mrinalini Tankha delivered Gavino-Gumba's paper, which looked at a very poor community around the municipal center of Poblacion. (For those new to the financial inclusion discussion, studies of fishing communities and mobile money have shaped some of the "classics" in this new scholarly literature.  For example, Robert Jensen's "The Digital Provide" was questioned in this lively IMTFI discussion in a previous year.)  Researchers hoped to provide an overview of the socio-economic profile of selected fishing families, explore the processes and nature of mobile money transactions, and analyze the factors that influence the engagement of the fishing households in mobile money transfer and storage.  Critical factors spurring adoption included close family ties and a culture of "keeping in touch" in which members help each other and also place a high value on their children’s education, which might be occurring in other towns or supporting the care economy of nursing abroad.  The community that Gavino-Gumba examined also supported a variety of small businesses, which needed infusions of capital for daily replenishments of inventory and small transactions.  The remoteness of the area and poor transport services also encouraged mobile finance networks.  At this point, she has completed primary data-gathering and concluded key informant interview surveys.  The analytical framework was shaped by findings about the genders of household heads, their educational attainment, household size, dependency ratio, members outside the town studying, migrant worker family members outside the country, the number of members in skilled jobs, and monthly household incomes and expenditures.  Monthly statistics were also gathered on the use of service providers, amounts of money stored and transferred, and the frequency of usage.

The final presentation on this panel came from Sibel Kusimba who focused on "Mobile Money and Coming of Age in Western Kenya" and considered how the transition from boyhood to manhood in "a ritual with economic, social, and spiritual dimensions" in Bungoma County, Kenya might be transformed by access to mobile phones.  Kusimba argued that the rites of passage described by Günter Wagner in the 1930s to serve the purpose of severing a male child from maternal kinship and binding him to his patrilineal clan were undergoing significant changes, even as the elements of circumcision. seclusion for instruction in war, sexuality, and adult responsibilities, and public presentation as an adult member of society remained relatively recognizable in traditional form.  (Wagner -- who studied with Franz Boas and received Rockefeller funding -- is an interesting character.  He is interviewed here and debunked for his Nazi sympathies and post-war racism here.)   Kusimba examined 40 households that planned to circumcise and recorded evidence of the growing role of mobile money in visiting, feasting, and gift-giving, as well as how phones played a role in managing invitations and documenting the ceremonial event.

Even if the ceremony takes place in a hospital, traditional customs must be observed.  Beginning in July, the boys practice songs and dances, and families construct additions to their homes to make room for the father's age-mates (Bakoki) from his own circumcision cohort, as well as for other visitors, and to provide a place to drink beer.  Marketplaces are also important sites of activity, particularly for purchasing traditional pots.  The mother of the house is responsible for hospitality and may activate an M-PESA account just to make sure they don't lose face by being unready for guests or running short on beverages and food.  As one informant observed, "there is underestimation always."

Of particular interest to Kusimba was the "thirteenth cow" that is provided by the mother’s brother, which is central to the ritual, serves as a traditional mechanism for saving, and can even be used to finance the boy's education, if need be.  She also showed images of the boys recuperating after the procedure in skirts and carrying slingshots from their time in seclusion.  The nurturing role passes from the mother to the paternal aunt at this juncture; she serves as more than the father’s sister in a role of symbolic mother or wife.  Her customary gift had been a goat, but this has now been supplanted by other customs.  Often her symbolic gift now is a mobile phone, which for most boys is the first time they will have ownership of this possession.  This aspect of the ritual now is part of "creating a socially connected person in Kenya today."  In closing she contrasted how mobile money facilitates saving that is private, short term, and in small amounts, while the thirteenth cow represents a form of saving that is public, long-term, and both of symbolic and economic value.  She referred the audience to Hutchinson's work on cattle among the Nuer for the context for different kinds of savings mechanisms.   She described how research done two years ago did not show as much saving behavior with mobile money, because M-PESA currency was cashed out immediately or sent out in response to social pressure to send remittances.

In the question and answer period, panelists responded to questions about "different social contexts" at a time in the year when, as Kusimba pointed out, the last part of the boys' ceremony would be taking place this weekend with more gifts.  In answer to a question about people "left behind," she asserted that they were not "left behind" but "living in two worlds."  For example, she described a couple coming home to have the ceremony for their son despite being civil servants in Nairobi.

Santuah's claim that a belief in the role of one's ancestors could provide a way to organize life in meaningful ways and to facilitate social connection seemed legitimate to me, as someone who often communicates with remote family members across generational divides.  In recent years, as I use mobile money myself with my own adult children to send money to them on my cell phone from sites around the world (including from the remote location shown below), I do find myself valuing those connections, even if they may often be unseen and intangible.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

CALL TO ACTION: How sharing approaches and methods can improve our research in global finance

By Erin Taylor and Gawain Lynch

These days, it seems that everywhere we turn in consumer finance–banking, microfinance, mobile money, payments–we're told that we need to be more customer-centric. But people are immensely complex, and consumer finance is changing fast. How can we possibly hope to understand people's financial behaviors?

Photo by Ken Teegardin
One major problem is that we have limited information about people, and so the stories we tell about them are also limited. Consider the following stories:

Sitting in a trendy café in downtown Manhattan, a forty-something professional logs into her Bank of America account using her smart phone. She glances at the balance in her checking account, makes a payment on her credit card, and sets up a direct debit to pay her new cleaner.

Over 7,000 miles away, a young man living on the outskirts of Nairobi signs up for M-PESA. He had never had a bank account and he needs an alternative to sending money home to his family who live in a remote area of rural Kenya. A cousin gave him his old mobile phone when he moved to the city, meaning that he can now, for the first time in his life, access a formal financial service.

These two scenarios are often held up as typical scenarios of banking in wealthier and poorer countries. Stories like these help us envisage global inequalities in access to financial services. They represent a real need for financial inclusion programs to focus their efforts upon under-served regions of the world. 

But they are also, in some ways, completely wrong. 

In fact, we can flip these stories around to paint an entirely different picture:

Sitting in a café in uptown Manhattan, a middle-aged man remembers that he has to cash a check. He heads off to an exchange house around the corner where he makes his transaction for a fee. This service would be cheaper in a retail bank, but he hasn't had a bank account for years. Unhappy with the services they provided and unable to find time, he abandoned formal banking for more expensive, but far more convenient, shop-based services. 

Back in Nairobi, a wholesaler shuts up shop for the day. She heads to the bank to deposit her cash takings, which are far less than they used to be as more and more customers pay her using mobile money. While waiting in line, she uses M-PESA to transfer some money to her nephew, who has just moved to the city. She also sends money to her daughter, who has recently relocated to New York to attend college. 

While we might intuitively know that these stereotypes are wrong, our consumer finance research tends to reinforce their geographical and technological assumptions. In fact, the more that financial services go global, the harder it is to draw “typical” stories about people using financial services. We are even less likely to make comparisons between users of different kinds of financial products. For example, we don't normally compare retail banking customers with mobile money customers or informal financial services such as rotating savings associations with smart phone financial applications in Manhattan.

Are the ways people use financial products really all that different? If we start making global comparisons, across populations and financial product types, could we learn anything useful that would help us to understand changes in global consumer finance today?

Advancements in technology, financial infrastructure, and global regulation mean that customers and providers everywhere are facing similar issues: more products, more consumer choice, uneven use of technology, and changing markets. So we certainly do stand to improve our understanding of people by looking beyond our national borders and our own areas of expertise.

Our project, Consumer Finance Research: Global Approaches and Methods, is investigating how different sectors–development, commercial, academia, and government–are innovating to understand the consumers of financial products. It's clear that no one method–ethnography, interviews, data analysis–is enough to provide us with adequate profiles of people using these financial products. Our key idea is that sharing knowledge across different sectors of consumer finance research will benefit us all.

We are producing knowledge products aimed at anyone working to understand financial consumers, including researchers, user insights specialists, designers, managers, and development workers.
For example:
A provocation paper that outlines major challenges in consumer finance research (Click here)
A toolkit that showcases qualitative and quantitative methods being used to understand consumers
Blog posts here on the IMTFI's website
Discussions on our Google Group and Twitter hashtag (#IMTFI)

Given that the aim of the project is to share knowledge, we can't do it alone. The more people we have involved, the better our global comparisons will be, and the more we can all benefit. We encourage you to share your stories: 
Your insights from your research and engagement
Your innovations in methods
Your perspectives on global changes in consumer finance
Your ideas for better tools and collaborations

So, please join in the conversation. There are lots of ways that you can link up to the project. You can join the discussion right here on our blog posts, and you can contact Erin by email at If you have any ideas, feel free to share them or even start your own initiative! 

We look forward to working with all of you to develop the future of consumer finance research.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Snapshots of Gender and Financial Inclusion

These snapshots of gender and financial inclusion provide a glance at some of the ways women interact with different forms of money in a shifting global financial landscape. Based on research conducted by IMTFI researchers all around the world, these snapshots address the way gender relations get reworked when money circulates through digital technologies and is regulated by new financial institutions.

Do new payment systems and financial services give women more autonomy in decision making about their everyday economic lives? How do women creatively use these new technologies and other financial instruments to reconstitute their role in society? What are some of the challenges to women’s financial inclusion?

Research from the Philippines, Kenya, Paraguay, Nigeria, Mexico and India demonstrates that women’s access to and engagements with money are extremely varied and strongly influenced by entrenched socio-cultural and economic modes of exclusion. Therefore women employ a host of different financial management strategies as means of empowerment – from hiding money in coke bottles, to rearing ruminants to speculating in gold. Moreover, financial education of women emerges as an important prerequisite for financial inclusion and one IMTFI research team recommends the use of cartoons and visual media to achieve that goal.

Read more here: Snapshots of Gender and Financial Inclusion

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Making Change in Peru: Big Bills, Financialized Development, and the Potentializing Limits of Fungibility (Part 2)

By IMTFI researcher Eric Hirsch

At the core of my IMTFI-based investigation were the cash experiments I conducted with market vendors in the Chivay market in Peru, as I began describing in my previous post. I have been longitudinally tracking fifteen of these market vendors over the course of a year. Fourteen of them are women, and one is a man. With each, I have routinely purchased inexpensive items with a 50 or 100-sol bill; as vendors decided on various strategies for completing (or calling off) each purchase and making change, I interviewed them, asking them to describe what they were doing as they took the intermediate steps to make change. In addition to the tie-forging and strengthening effects I found to be an immediate result of a vendor’s making change by drawing on one’s market vendor colleagues, I also learned that many vendors would earmark big bills “for savings” and larger expenses, as Reina told me. They are reserved for the “bolsa familiar,” or diverted toward large purchases like painting the house or supporting her daughter’s university education. Making change, furthermore, is an obligation when one is able: the few vendors in the market who refuse to do this lose later opportunities for help from their neighbors with making change and offering supplies when something runs out.

Big bills, as other vendors told me, tended to enter the market and circulate at much higher rates when the Colca Valley became a popular site for mainstream tourism, which began over the last two decades in the wake of major infrastructure projects in Colca and Peru’s national reopening to the world following decades of internal violence. The place has found an increasingly prominent place on the tourist map over the past fifteen years, as attractive for the beauty of its canyon as for the living Collagua and Cabana culture (two local ethnicities that date back to the years before Inca rule) its people are putting on display. Thus, the presence of big bills might even be seen as an indicator of the effort by municipalities and non-governmental organizations in the region to revalorize indigenous culture and, more generally, of the region’s increasing inclusion in national and transnational economic networks.

Making change at Brígida's breakfast stand. Photo by author.
I also compared the market scene with two other case study sites for observing the sociocultural ramifications of money’s non-fungible dimensions. I looked at a small association of homestay tourism entrepreneurs in the Colca Valley community of Yanque, a group of four families, in which profits, costs, and customers are sometimes shared as a collective. At the same time, I have been longitudinally analyzing the use of big bills as part of one rural household’s long-term savings practices. I found similar results in these sites. The tourism business cooperative works in a way that the profits and development project investments it receives often come in the form of unwieldy cash denominations, which means that association members rarely, if ever, equally possess the same actual amount of money in a given moment, even though the organization technically shares its profits. In order to do so, the cooperative’s president must make an “activation purchase,” using a big bill to buy a small thing in order to transform the profit into a more fungible, division-friendly pile of cash units. This almost compulsory purchase, meant to keep that large cash unit moving, directly connects the association to the broader local economy, stimulating the economy through its consistent supply of purchases (however small). The association also presents a site of longer-term collateralized profit holding, in which relationships and alignments within the group are constantly reinforced by the fact that somebody is owed and somebody owes all of the time.

If the first two case studies reveal that big bills clearly mediate social relations, the household I have been following sheds more light on how large cash denominations help to organize savings practices. This household consists mainly of an elderly couple, the two family members who actually live in the house. Their resources also often extend to the larger local family of adult children and grandchildren, many of whom are their neighbors. Big bills, here, have tended to become long-term savings and value storage devices. This became clear one day when the couple sold some 400-soles of alpaca wool: they told me that the four 100-sol bills would be safely stored until the time came to make a major repair to the house or a large community expense, such as access to the irrigation system for their farmland. The bigger the bill, the better hidden it tends to be. These big bills tend to be used as a kind of portable savings box, storing deactivated latent value, kept in safe hiding spots in the home. As value storage tools, big bills orient a family in space by structuring its members’ obligations and investments in the broader community, and also in time as a long-term savings device, by helping that couple configure its relationship to the future, imagine the most significant expenditures they will face in the coming years, and plan the wealth and resources they will pass on to their children.

The Chivay market. Photo by author.
Together, these sites help us begin to answer important questions about the everyday practices that surround the usage of money. How mobile is cash? Are big, unwieldy cash denominations like the 50 or 100-sol bill uniquely mobile, or uniquely stationary, in rural market centers like Andean Peru’s Chivay? In this past year’s IMTFI conference, Scott Mainwaring pointed out that the use of big bills in Colca suggests a concept of cash “heaviness.” There, small coins (especially the 1-sol and 5-sol piece) are the most desirable units. They make market transactions and small purchases easy. They are light. They move quickly. In contrast, the much “heavier” big bills do very different things. They present unwelcome moments and challenges that force vendors and entrepreneurs to draw on a limited store of social capital. They keep value in one place. They move either very slowly or very quickly. Both kinds of cash units hook actors up to what Viviana Zelizer calls broader “circuits of commerce” (2011), but each lays out a different pathway into those circuits.

So, thinking about the rich social dimensions of ordinary, everyday cash use at the micro level suggests that fungibility is not an automatic function of money, but money’s goal. Fungibility is something that must be achieved. Cash denominations can perhaps be imagined as falling on a fungibility spectrum, ranging from “immediately fungible” on one end, to “fungible through extensive intersubjective mediation” on the other. The many intermediate steps one often needs to take to achieve money’s fungibility in Colca are socially significant, culturally generative, and ethnographically revealing.

The implications of this idea also go beyond cash exchanges, illuminating some of the key puzzles of mobile money technology and the essential questions surrounding the idea of alternative currencies that preoccupies the IMTFI. However mobile it may be, money is not purely liquid. The social and political structures surrounding money, always a partially liquid medium, reveal a bigger picture of the contexts of financial inclusion and exclusion in which that money comes to be at work. They also offer an avenue for broadening the reach, and deepening the impact, of development interventions engaged in the effort to stimulate local economies to be more equal and more just. As my investigation has illustrated, those initially unwelcome transactions that lead to hesitation, conversation, and the use of social ties to lubricate what will always be an imperfect medium of exchange have much to tell us about how money comes to be at work in everyday decisions about what is important.


Zelizer, Viviana. 2011. Economic Lives: How Culture Shapes the Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Read Eric's full research report here.
Read Making Change in Peru (Part 1) 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Making Change in Peru: Big Bills, Financialized Development, and the Potentializing Limits of Fungibility (Part 1)

By IMTFI researcher Eric Hirsch

In a December post on the IMTFI blog, Dr. Liz Losh, a UCSD-based media scholar who live blogged IMTFI’s 2013 Conference, referred to the “inherently unwelcome nature” of my research experiments for exploring cash use in an Andean market town. Why might this research have been so unwelcome, at least at first? As part of my broader investigation into how development projects have become engaged in stimulating the cultivation of indigenous identity and putting that identity to work toward creating more economic vibrancy in Andean Peru, I tried to get a better sense of what development actually means at the level of cash changing hands. For my project, that meant repeated attempts to purchase relatively inexpensive items—avocado sandwiches, vegetables, socks, and other wares being sold in the Chivay market—with large cash bills, namely, 50 and 100-sol notes (about $17.50 and $35, respectively).

I set vendors on this potentially annoying task to find out how fungible cash really is in practice. Of course, in theory, money is fungible: any five dollars is mutually interchangeable with any other five dollars, and the same goes for one-hundred soles, two-thousand rupees, and any other money amount. Conceptually, it does not matter what notes or denominations or media might be used to compose that particular amount of value. That’s one of the reasons why money has been so important throughout modern history. As a medium of exchange, money has lubricated countless economic transactions. It has long been seen as a technology that eliminated the cumbersomeness of barter. And much more recently, money has taken on even more liquid forms, from credit to today’s mobile money platforms, a core interest of IMTFI. Because of this liquidity, as social theorists have long argued, economic interaction has become so seamless that it has almost completely ceased to be something social.

The central market of Chivay. Photo by author.
Yet if buying things with money were really so easy, why would my research experiments be so unwelcome? If cash use strips the economic interaction of its social component, why did my annoying attempts to purchase small items with burdensome big bills find relief in vendors’ social ties?

This research attends to the non-fungible dimensions of those big bills. Based on what I have found, I argue that in Colca big bills often cannot be spent without the mediation of certain social relations. In other words, a bill’s denomination, or the unit of value it designates (for example, 10 soles, 20 soles, or 50 soles), is sometimes a structural obstacle to cash fungibility: a 50-sol bill can’t always be used to buy a 3-sol bag of tomatoes, and even if it can, the exchange can’t happen immediately if the vendor does not have the right amount of change to return to the buyer. And as a structural obstacle, denomination actually ends up coloring market exchanges, making them more human, more intimate, and even more political than standard social scientific approaches to exchange would have us imagine. This research builds on a number of recent anthropological studies—notably work by Jessica Cattelino (2009), Julie Chu (2010), Bill Maurer (2005), as well as an upcoming collaboration with institute affiliates Anthony Pickles, Vivian Dzokoto, and Taylor Nelms—suggesting that exchanges of money could be key moments of forging social ties, ordinary self-making, cultural value creation, and articulating a broader political orientation.

When I would give a 100-sol note for a 3-sol item to one of the market vendors I have been following, I set for them a temporarily unpleasant task—making change—that was both time-intensive and entailed drawing on one’s ties and social networks within the market. They would, in rare moments, tell me that they could not make change, preventing the transaction (a process that can lead, in the aggregate, to significant loss, as Beaman, Magruder, and Robinson [2014] pointed out in a study of Kenyan market vendors). Usually, though, to complete the sale, vendors would initiate the process of creating change in one of two ways. If they had the smaller denominations on hand, they would simply put the change together themselves. More often, though, they would run to a market neighbor or nearby friend to ask if they could sencillar—a Spanish word that means “to simplify” but idiomatically also means “to make small change” (or sencillo)—their large bill.

Peru's 100-sol bill. Photo by author.
One morning, I attempted to purchase two small avocado sandwiches from Reina, one of the breakfast cart vendors I had been following. She was able to make change, but saw my use of a 100-sol bill as an opportunity to urge me to purchase more, so that the change-making process would be slightly less burdensome for her. Hesitating before closing the exchange, she asked, “¿Dos no más?” “Just two?” Here, the large bill afforded a chance for salesmanship. She wanted me to sweeten the deal, making clear the social element of the exchange actually made it a more profitable one. Brígida, another vendor who tends to ask a small selection of friends for help making change, told me that large cash denominations were like any new tool. People simply had to learn how to use them.

So, as a structural obstacle, denomination becomes fungibility’s “potentializing limit,” as Justin Richland puts it (2011). The vendor’s need to figure out how to make change opens up what I have noticed is a productive moment of hesitation. The customer may also hesitate, deciding not only whether to buy something and what to buy, but also, what configuration of coins and bills she or he will use to pay for it, considering the cash she or he will have later that day. These moments of hesitation allow for many parallel interactions to happen: casual conversation that enables customer and vendor to strengthen their alliance, which could play a role in fostering customer loyalty; a moment in which one of the actors is waiting on the other, allowing the vendor to complete another sale; or a pause in which the vendor or customer can observe what else is going on by the town square, and tune in to the broader public culture. Of course, moments of hesitation can also cause harm, bringing about distraction that can leave a vendor or customer vulnerable to robbery (something very rare in Chivay) or miscounting.

Yet overall, I found that the interactional moments afforded by the need to economically “activate” the value of large bills by making change, however initially annoying, tended to create and reinforce relationships between customer and vendor, between a vendor and colleagues in the market, and between market actors and the larger public of the market town.


Beaman, Lori, Jeremy R. Magruder, and Jonathan Robinson. 2014. Minding Small Change among Small Firms in Kenya. Journal of Development Economics 108(C): 69-86. (accessible here:

Cattelino, Jessica. 2009. Fungibility. American Anthropologist 111(2): 190-200.

Chu, Julie Y. 2010. Cosmologies of Credit: Transnational Mobility and the Politics of Destination in China. Durham: Duke University Press.

Maurer, Bill. 2005. Mutual Life, Limited: Islamic Banking, Alternative Currencies, Lateral Reason. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Richland, Justin B. 2011. Hopi Tradition as Jurisdiction: On the Potentializing Limits of Hopi Sovereignty. Law & Social Inquiry 36(1): 201-234.

Read Eric's full research report here.