At IMTFI's sixth annual conference in December 2014, I had the opportunity to sit down with several past and present research fellows to discuss their experiences with IMTFI, as well as timely issues in financial inclusion. Although they come from different institutional and disciplinary backgrounds, did research in different places, and examined different technologies, communities, and financial practices, five common themes emerged from our discussions: comparative work across different scales; collaborations and partnerships with a wide range of actors; qualitative research as a complement to quantitative analysis; IMTFI's role in helping to build a global network of researchers; and rethinking financial inclusion.
|Vivian Dzokoto (Photo by Steve McCord)|
Comparison is also helpful for getting a better sense of the myriad actors and interests in financial inclusion efforts at different scales. “I think I've become more curious,” Anatoly “Jing” Gusto explained, “trying to know more and hear more stories, both from indigenous peoples from my country as well as experts from different parts of the world.” In other words, one of the most valuable things about comparing scales is putting voices alongside each other—like those of indigenous groups and of central bankers—that otherwise might never be considered together.
|Anatoly "Jing" Gusto (Photo by Steve McCord)|
Erin Taylor agreed, explaining how IMTFI researchers' participation in policy discussions can provide a much needed “on the ground” perspective: “We were talking with a senior economist in a government institution the other day and he said to me that he's always sending consultants out to the field, and while they come back with these amazing stories about what people are up to—pretty pictures and everything—they don't tell him why people behave the way they do.” IMTFI researchers can bring their practical and theoretical expertise to partnerships with policymakers, the financial services industry, telecommunications companies, NGOs, and more to help fill these gaps in knowledge about people and their financial practices. But it's not just a one-way street; as Erin pointed out, “I think it's really important that we use things like the IMTFI's research network and branch out more broadly beyond our own disciplinary perspectives or our own sectors that we work in, in order to share information and knowledge. Otherwise how are you going to improve the research that you do?”
|Deepti KC (Photo by Steve McCord)|
Ana Echeverry said that qualitative research is “what really points to new findings, to new ways of analyzing problems.” She continued, “When you see people in action, in their environment, facing challenges in everyday life, and start asking 'Why do you do that? Why not instead of doing X or Y, you chose to do this?' then people start thinking, and start bringing new perspectives into contrast. So qualitative research provides insights into how people see their lives, their way of thinking.” Vivian added that listening to people who actually use a given financial service or product is important for industry and design: “One of the themes that has come up in a lot of IMTFI work is the fact that it's very important to understand the consumer,” she said. “And in order to understand the consumer, you have to understand how the consumer thinks, what the consumer wants. Paying attention to that kind of information—in addition to what people are already doing in the world—is important in terms of designing new financial products.” Jing reiterated how qualitative work complements quantitative approaches in this respect, saying that “qualitative research methodologies allow you to hear and understand the aspirational part” or what people are trying to tell you. Without qualitative research, “the picture won't be complete, you won't really understand the problem, and accordingly you won't be able to design the right solution without seeing the complete picture.”
At the mid-point of their fieldwork, IMTFI's fellows convene at UC-Irvine to share the progress that they have made in their research. This annual conference is a chance for them to get feedback on their projects, and also to forge new connections with other researchers and interested parties. For Jing, research and networking complement each other. He told me that projects “won't be complete if you just do research and stop.” The conference provides researchers with a platform to communicate their work, and helps them build networks that they can draw upon long after the conference has ended. But without good research first—the “real meat,” as Jing put it—then it's difficult to maintain those networks. He added, “I think that having research on one side and then having the desire to connect with somebody, not only just to tell something, but in order to find something together, will make it, I think, a better story for everyone.”
|Erin Taylor (Photo By Steve McCord)|
“Financial inclusion” was still rather novel when IMTFI funded its first research cohort, but now it is in danger of being taken for granted. As the past six years have taught us, financial inclusion can have several meanings and look rather different depending on who you talk to. IMTFI's researchers have helped promote financial inclusion as a political, social, philanthropic, business, and research agenda, and now they are drawing on their practical experiences in order to evaluate its successes and failures. More importantly, their critical reflections on what financial inclusion is and why it's important continue to drive the conversation forward.
|Ana Echeverry (Photo by Steve McCord)|
“I've really started thinking about financial inclusion more broadly as financial well-being,” Erin said. For example, a person can be excluded from formal financial services but still be relatively satisfied with the range of available informal services, and by the same token people who are already included don't always have the most stable financial lives. In other words, understanding financial inclusion is not just about expanding access, but also about improving well-being will be critical going forward. “I think if we can focus on that, we have a better chance of addressing that issue of what is good for people as financial beings, and taking it to a global perspective.”
Learn more about these researchers' work: Consumer Finance Methods: Global Approaches and Methods; Betting on Chance in Colombia; Snapshots of Gender and Financial Inclusion; Female Financial Literacy; Jing Gusto's IMTFI blog post on AFI Global Policy Forum 2013, Barriers to Mobile Money Transfer Uptake in Ghana.