Friday, January 11, 2013

Gaming the System: Institutional Cultures and Regulatory Framings

"Resistance to e-Money in Poor Remittances Receivers' Families, Case in Lombok Island, Indonesia" was structured with Catur Sugiyanto delivering the main presentation and Tiar Shantiuli and Zuhrohtun Zuhrohtun Sugiyanto (pictured above) fielding questions. Researchers visited about 200 households with at least one family member working abroad and asked questions about how remittances were handled. 66% of the informants were female, mostly in their twenties and thirties.  Most identified themselves as farmers with elementary education. 83% of the remittances sent by migrants from Lombok came from Malaysia, and 16% came from countries in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Researchers were trying to answer whether there has been any shift from cash to mobile money or e-money among remitters and those who receive remittances. Bank transfers accounted for 46% of remittances, and Western Union accounted for 35%. Other forms of remittance service providers include POS Indonesia and Pegadaian, as well as traditional transfer mechanisms.

The cash transfer process involves showing a PIN in the form of an SMS, showing an ID, and filling out a form. This last part might be "tricky," in Sugiyanto's words, and less literate clients often needed to ask a person to help. There were people around to help, but that also meant that there was less privacy. In fact, because the form is excessively complicated for recipients to complete, they must rely on "tekong" or unlicensed agents. Others carry cash by hand to the airport, and researchers showed crowds milling about near the terminal for this purpose. Over 80% of people in the region have no bank account, but 80% do have a mobile phone, so it seemed logical to ask whether this population would be willing to use mobile money. Researchers relied on Ram and Sheth’s resistance to technology framework.  They discovered that in fact mobile money is not easy to use, not convenient, and seemingly well-suited only for high class and well educated people. Informants also expressed a need for a traditional face-to-face banking services.

"Betting on Chance in Colombia: How Game Operator Networks Succeed in Providing Financial Services to the Poor While Other Networks Stay Behind" by Ana Echeverry and Coppelia Herran presented work that considered the relationship between financial inclusion and get-rich-schemes structured by games of chance.  Although the team identified themselves as part of a research network sponsored by a design consultancy called TOCA in Chicago, they both live and work in Columbia. Their paper explored how game network operators succeed in providing financial services to the poor while other networks fall far behind in reach and effectiveness. The gaming they described was constituted by a kind of lottery, although it was less expensive. Small booths in every corner store in the country, along with some street vendors, facilitate participation by using a dataphone or POS. Of course, unlike currency exchanges, there could be a dramatic value duality here, since chance structures the betting game. Ironically, the poor were the ones that played the most and sometimes became dependent on what could be an activity that worsened their financial situations.

Researchers did not deal with the betting aspect of these financial transactions but rather focused on the rest of the services, which were impressive given a penetration of 46,000 terminals in addition to all the mobile dataphones and a structure that could prepay utilities, communication, and media services.  In a country of 46.9 million people, there were almost as many phones. While banking accounted for 7.7 billion during a four year period, game networks represented 3.8 billion in remittances in a single year, and indicated that this approach was often more important to many than conventional financial inclusion.  The group did video ethnography work with 18-24 informal workers and street sellers. They presented contexts of vulnerability, displacement, parental absence, armed conflict and territorial disputes between state and illegal groups, including guerrillas and narco-traffickers, who might attempt to control public space.  They also explained the concept of "rebusque" or "re-search" to illustrate how informal workers might be searching repeatedly for any increment of money. With no access to credit, restrictive regulations, and high banking costs, microfinance didn't present them a workable business models.

Researchers focused on contrasts in Columbia rather than absolute numbers and engaged with questions about their informants' values instead of merely using a statistical survey.  They argued that looking for the values that drive the behaviors of people could generate a better solution.  Because game networks rely on a common process for a variety of transactions, financial practices seemed simpler, and this common process was seen as more important than a common interface or device.  One password entered connects them to all their needs: paying bills, buying minutes, and managing utilities all on one ticket via the chance seller’s device.  Often informants used alternative paths for finances by borrowing from criminal gangs.  Such payday loans with daily payments might mean that a fifty dollar loan carries a ten dollar surcharge, but informants described liking these arrangements, because they were accessible and immediate and were consistent with the short cycles of investment and working capital to which they were accustomed, which was called "planting" in Columbian slang.  One person actually explained that "we are poor but not stupid."

Bending the rules of public space for the right to work was often acknowledged as being acceptable by the poor of Columbia.  Because permanence on a site is a sign of stability, there were territorial conflicts and difficulties establishing credit for many. For example, transactions done on corners and off grass were understood to have pseudo-legality.  Some claimed that permits were in process, and others claimed chairs and tables as they squatted. Public space became an important intangible asset, and they asserted that it functioned as currency although it could not be cashed.  Game network services were just "one piece of the puzzle" because they did not include credit, and this area remained a void from the researchers' perspective. Illegality supported legality, and informality supported formality as a result of this gap.  To pay for the services of government and corporate infrastructures, sometimes the poor had to rely on criminal enterprises. Researchers argued that in visualizing opportunities models like guilds and associations could be helpful in understanding eligibility and provide recognition for their contributions to the local economy, as in the case of buying fruit from farmers markets.  Sustenance rather than entrepreneurship might be much more important for this audience by amplifying value, simplifying access, supporting continuity, and regulating transparency.

Kevin Donovan of the Centre for Social Science Research at the University of Cape Town presented last in the panel session with "Composing Development? Biometrics, Smart Cards and Financial Inclusion in South Africa's Social Protection Initiative" with research from South Africa that reflected an historical "mania for measurement" in a country that was today "awash with statistics." Although biometrics was a legacy of the apartheid regime, as a modality of power that controlled human mobility that dated back to the introduction of fingerprinting in 1891, it continues today as a way to manage the disbursement of small cash grants for old age or disability and could be a part of democratic contestation as a rule-based activity.  He argued that statistics serve as a "technology of trust," and that the image of perverse incentives to have children out of wedlock in order to qualify for funds was actually more complex in offering a range of types of benefits through grant programs.  He noted the importance of civil society’s “guerilla auditors” and cited the work of Kregg Heatherington on Paraguay to understand the political dynamic at work.

Given the scale of the country, however, there have been major implementation problems, such as how to connect more than 10 million pockets to the National Treasury.  The government's contractor, NET1, has enrolled 21 million citizens in its biometric initiatives and may be as inclusive as mobile phones and propagates an ideology of objectivity and rationality.  Supposedly "ghosts" or duplicates were being removed from the system, but Donovan argued that this was actually a "myth," and he quoted Speaking into the Air? A History of the Idea of Communication by JD Peters on doubts that "communications will solve the problem of communication" and "better wiring will eliminate the ghosts."  Donovan also challenged the conceit that "bodies were stable unchanging repositories that could be turned into information in a database."

Biometric failures seemed to be inevitable.  Furthermore, race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability were expressed in ways that fostered misidentification.  For example, a cut on a finger or a history of manual labor might inhibit accurate machine reading.  Nonetheless, this system was likely to continue in its present form, according to Donovan.  Many South Africans might be suspicious of fingerprinting, but they might also be in great need of cash.  They may even see the payments as "gifts" not entitlements and so put up with biometrics for the near future.  Without a strong privacy lobby or strong data integrity laws little was likely to change.

Donovan closed with more speculative remarks about the potential to depoliticize grantmaking and the intersection of biometrics with more contested financial practices.  He asserted that simplified technical systems only allowed for yes/no answers rather than processing more complicated questions about causes of poverty and might negate legitimate livelihood strategies as an impersonal machine replaces an understanding bureaucrat.  He called upon the theories of James C. Scott about "infrapolitics" to explain everyday acts of dissimulation such as grant fraud.  He also discussed how politics involve getting inside the "silver box" of the technological system and how the removal of subjective discretion is biased toward those that control the technology, for example, by quashing people’s own ways to gain access to these payments by sharing knowledge about eligibility.  South Africa has both a developed financial system and a large informal economy, which can exacerbate existing exploitation of the poor through automatic deductions.  Digital banking means digital data trails in "the dark side of financial inclusion."  The "standardizing and formatting of the poor" have both positive and negative effects.

This panel about scams, betting, and fraud might not necessarily match the conventional financial services model and narrative of development, but these seemingly subversive practices do reveal how digital mobile money might have unintended consequences.  In characterizing financial inclusion, the words of an NGO official might say it all: "Financial inclusion means your money isn’t with you."

Final remarks from  IMTFI's Bill Maurer summed up the two days of discussion by offering some tentative glimpses at the provisional data from the group that are understood to be works-in-progress. He noted that Jonathan Donner showed that we were getting a real sense of people’s practices around objects, not just the objects themselves, such as forms of money or the technologies for storage or transfer.  The conference often emphasized the connections between practices and the materiality of objects, particularly the materiality in relation to embodied practice and the materiality of experience, as documented in the video that came from the market in Ethiopia, which showed a "world of bags and baskets," of containers for money from salt and coffee kept separate, which was also a world of gesture and physicality and the ways that "you call the guy back."

Maurer asked how we understand the materiality of practice in a changing world, a world in which dematerialization of money is a real trend in which the dynamics of concealment and display function in constructs of invisibility of money and wealth. Maurer argued that we assume that we have inherited a world of progressively greater dematerialization, although the documents and data storehouses of ancient Mesopotamia were succeeded by the minting of the first coins. We experience abstract circulation as "new" but it might be old, not just very old but ancient, a world of data, like the one captured in cuneiform tablets.  He also asked if money really is ever de-materialized in the current age, particularly when the tangibility of mobile money was so present for the visually impaired in which digital money was still a world of sound and a world of touch.

As Maurer pointed out it mobile money also exists in a world of "helpers" with economic practices of assistance that also open up a world of danger.  He argued that researchers still have problems trying to understand trust, which is not merely about peer-to-peer transactions but also about group identity.  In these mobile economies of affection.  Particularly in the presentations from Latin America, the audience was invited to consider not just individual drives or affect, but something more collective.  He also asked how the state aligns with collectivity and the public and how alignment fails to happen or how there may be more than one state or one part of the state or state interactions.  Finally, he observed that there continued to be suspicion around the dominant financial inclusion agenda and suspicion about visions of mobile money that transcend existing cultural practices and imagine that the client is only the individual.

As discussions continued after the formal conference, apparently participants would consider particular keywords: 1) institutions, 2) architectures, 3) inclusion & exclusion, 4) mobility, and 5) propositions and prospects.  Maurer argued that we have become more sober and more clear-eyed.  Are certain questions getting un-asked in the name of a technical fix to the problem?  Maurer wondered aloud about the potential de-politicization represented by a technical approach to the world although the world we work to “reveal” is a world already filled with people who are fixing the technics, creating new systems of material and practice, repurposing, refunctioning, and hacking by making do and getting by.

No comments:

Post a Comment