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.

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