Monday, January 19, 2015

The Thirteenth Cow: Closing Conversations at the IMTFI Sixth Annual Conference

In closing out the public portion of the annual IMTFI conference, Scott Mainwaring reminded participants about all of the work of unpacking the global and the local and interpreting intertwined tangled histories and the challenges to adoption when there are mixtures of devices, which might even include a lockbox with satellite device attached among the ensembles of different technologies.  He also drew attention to the fact that even without smart phones, people in developing countries were doing "amazing work" managing their finances with "just a few alphabetic lines of text."  Now that smart phones with "high resolution beautiful color displays" were on the horizon, the devices were opening up possibilities for more literacy training with "engaging media forms."

Ph.D. candidate Taylor Nelms noted the range of missions and agendas addressed at the conference, including how institutional instability, turnover of officials, and how state offices play into "lines of contestations" that involve everyday practices of the government and different histories of the state in different places to different degrees of heterogeneity.  As the author of Virtualpolitik, a book about the state as both regulator and digital content-creator, I appreciated his emphasizing that the state never functions as a "singular monolithic or homogenous actor," because it has a "range of missions and agendas," as well as his praise for the "fine-grained detail about the state" in many presentations.   He also noted how risk and liquidity may be a function of "the tools we use" and that savings is not one thing, particularly as it involves material infrastructures. As an example, he pointed to the metal box in the collection shown by Ellen Feingold, Curator of the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian, which could not be opened without being torn apart by metal shears.

Caroline Schuster, a previous IMTFI grant recipient, who is now a lecturer at Australian National University) marveled at how rapidly work on mobile money had developed in a comparatively short time and how being "durable and instituted" practices as a "matured" practice.  In particular she claimed that the research questions around access had fundamentally changed, as well as issues about privacy and secrecy.  Like many closing commentators, she cited the work on "the thirteenth cow" presented on the first day on the opening panel about tradition.  To movie goers, she also recommended the Paraguayan film 7 Cajas (7 boxes) to show the complexity of financial interrelationships.  To find out more, you can watch a trailer for 7 Cajas here,

Mrinalini Tankha, an IMTFI postdoc, also reminisced about being part of the first generation of researchers.  But she asserted that -- despite the changing language of research -- the constant of considering trust continues to be "fundamental and contentious in any social organization."  According to Tankha, inequalities of power obviously exacerbate distrust.  She also warned that excessive trust among researchers in seemingly authoritative products, services, institutions, and scholarship could undermine research, and she gave a plug for the closed-door workshops on methodology to follow.

In taking the microphone, organizer Bill Maurer lauded the "six year long conversation" that had begun with a handful of people and had now grown to including 140 researchers in 43 different countries.  In praising this "long conversation," he described the ongoing and continuing revision of hypotheses and how no one was compelled to "tow one line."  As researchers try to understand the "contingent composition" at the heart of various resources, they mirror similarly a "constantly emerging network" that is a "community of inquiry" coming together "with a generosity of inquiry and spirt."

A discussion about collaboration with the financial sector was initiated by Amol Jadhav (GSMA) about working with industry and managing the "balancing act" between on the one hand merely providing opportunistic "market research" and on the other hand generating work that only "exists in paper" and is thus less valuable to the public.  When Maurer turned the question to IMTFI researchers, it was a lively set of responses.  Ana Echeverry of Inspira Lab bemoaned the fact that it was "extremely difficult when you are no one" to have "anything actionable reach those influencers."  She critiqued financial central planners who were "always in Europe" and the impossibility of reaching power brokers like Carlos Slim.  Vivian Dzokoto indicated her enthusiasm for collaboration but acknowledged barriers to uptake and hesitance toward independent perspectives.   Sosthenes Kewe, Technical Director of Financial Sector Deepening Trust, who sat with Johnson Nyella, economist from the Central Bank of Tanzania considered this conversation valuable to "build capacity."  Kewe wanted to hear more about collaborating researchers focusing the design of financial services.  He also encouraged researchers to hold more IMTFI conferences in Africa.  Such venues could have a leveling effect, as in the case of a recent conference in Ghana, which allowed participating market women to challenge the assertions of regulators.   Maurer said that UC Irvine, potential African university hosts, and other forums "defined by academic settings" demonstrate how "the university and academia can provide a neutral space" in which "identities of participants" can be "kept confidential" and "issues of competition" could be ameliorated.

I'll sign off myself as well with this entry for a while.  I've posted a very abbreviated explanation of what has drawn me to this place as a blogger for a number of years, and I hope to be posting some more new stories before this group assembles again.

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