Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Double Gold Standard: Session One of the 2016 Conference

In director Bill Maurer's opening remarks for the annual IMTFI conference, he reviewed the history of the organization and how the interests of this unique interdisciplinary scholarly community had evolved over time in attempting to comprehend how digital or mobile payment might have "something to do with poverty alleviation."  His account began with a focus on the repayment of microfinance loans, with the assumption that ubiquitous digital tools might serve as a means to "keep track and repay" in a relatively narrow sector of the economy.  Maurer explained how the ideas about the interfaces of technology, money, and financial inclusion had "morphed" during the course of development of a scholarly community.  He also admitted that "payment is weird" and "arcane," because it requires explorations of obscure networks and "portals and rails of infrastructure," as in the case of mapping a Visa transaction.

For Maurer, "payment in relation to poverty" invites even more inquiry into complexity.  Thinking about payment platforms also may involve partnering with people from "government and industry" and addressing issues of risk and liability around access, fees, safety and security.  By supporting the "ground-level perspective" and giving attention to "voices from the field and the village," research about religion, ritual, belief, and social hierarchies has also become critical to IMTFI scholarship, since there may be occasions around payment mapping where "it matters what your elders are saying," or the existence of "people of high rank endorsing a service" may be critical.  Thus ritual specialists and oracles might be important in understanding uptake of new financial services.  He emphasized the need for scholars to "push the debate in industry and policy," which shaped the "insight and impact" theme of the conference.

As an illustration of how adopting new technologies is never easy, even in developed economies, he chuckled about the attempted rollout of EMV cards in the United States, which is now hitting its six-month anniversary.  He pointed out that at this point only about 20% of the readers needed were available, and he observed that the slow adoption at merchants' terminals could be attributed to many factors in behavior change from patterns developed over  30+ years of swiping cards.  Now that one must "put the chip in . . . and wait and wait . . . about that long," users may indulge in many forms of magical thinking, particularly since "the terminal has never spoken to you before," and conspiracy theorists might worry about invisible entities "stealing all your information" during the time lag.  Rather than seeing adoption as a friction-free switch ("just flip the lights on"), Maurer described it as "a lumpy process" and invited his fellow participants to critical thinking by urging that they "investigate those lumps."

The first panel on "The Sharing Economy? Women and Girls and their Ties and Tensions" chaired by Erin McDonald of Women's World Banking addressed what she called the "tensions that women experience" to "access resources," as they might be very broadly defined.  In many ways this panel proved to be as much about the very definitions of "success" and "value" in social as well as economic terms as much about the dynamics of gender.

Carol Chan of the University of Pittsburgh led off the discussion with her presentation on "To Send or to Carry? Gendered Evaluations of Formal and Informal Remittance Practices in Migrant-Origin Villages in Central Java, Indonesia."  By talking about "migrants and their money," Chan investigated how "meanings of migrant money" might not only be gendered but also indicative of the presence or absence of practices that mark how they use and earn their money in culturally important ways.  When grappling with such a high volume of transactions constituted by 8.55 billion dollars from 6 million temporary laborers, Chan had to develop a research methodology that addressed many types of volatility in returns, including "underpayment and nonpayment by employers" and susceptibility to "many risks and perpetrators" including customs officials.

Chan noted the moralistic tone of documents such as "99 tips" for how to be a successful migrant.  Such official messages might ignore the challenges of "the material contexts in which people live" in "culturally specific ways," because money can serve "as a religious and moral issue" and an expression of a good "Javanese-Musim" identity.  In an environment of constant social surveillance in which women might be evaluated more harshly, Chan was interested in addressing tensions.  For example, for migrants building houses, members of the community might question "who do they build it for?" and "where do they build it?" Furthermore, gendered moral ideas may be supported by many kinds of institutional discourses, including projections of piety in how they dress.  In pointing out that ideas about financial inclusion "are very gendered," even in supposedly neutral financial programs, Chan probed unexamined biases.  She emphasized that gendered and moral aspects were expressed in how women were "mainly addressed as wives and mothers who have to put their families before themselves" and challenged assumptions about families that took as a premise that women's incomes were to be seen as supplementary.

Chan described a range of forces at work, from religious ideas about Halal-permitted uses and the worldview that "money is a gift from god" to family expectations.  Often she recounted stereotypes in which male migrants were viewed as "more responsible" and "less flirtatious/rebellious." For example, despite the rigors of life for women who work in Tawain in factories, they might be viewed much more critically than male plantation workers in Malaysia.  Many transactions were formal Western Union-style transactions, but migrants might also carry large amounts of cash across great distances, from one thousand to five thousand US dollars at a time.  She found women were more harshly judged for not bringing money home, while men were pitied and excused for spending funds on seeming luxuries like cigarettes or energy drinks.  Often bias was justified by assumptions that women would be domestic laborers with free lodging and food, but men also benefited from the fact that men's wealth was taken for granted.  If women brought money home it might also be viewed suspiciously as a potential benefit from extramarital relationships or even sex work.

Investing in material goods was seen as less risky by the population she studied than saving, because land costs were rising and the currency was unstable.  With amusement she provided a survey of local attitudes about "which houses were funded by which currencies," including how houses built with money from Hong Kong, Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore might be differentiated.  Even though "the houses look alike," gossips also kept track of how much individual siblings might have contributed to particular structures, as though it was a feature of the architectural design. In an environment of gossip, discussion, and judgment, "the materiality of what money can buy," as well as ideas about bad luck and divine retribution, seemed to shape the dynamics of a no-win situation for women who must fend off gossip and project hard work.  In contrast men "might be shamed but also excused."  Even good female providers faced "accusations of being bad mothers and wives," as they struggled with "fulfilling those expectations" and negotiating financial and moral risks.

"Group versus Individual Strategies: Dynamic Social Networks of Mobile Money among Unbanked Women in Western Kenya" by IMTFI veteran researcher Sibel Kusimba of American University used techniques of social network analysis and information visualization as a way to formulate research questions, present evidence, and point to new directions for inquiry.  (Readers should check out my previous blog stories about Kusimba's work here and here.)  She began with a sociogram of Edward, a man receiving remittances from children and recirculating them to other family members in his social graph such as siblings and mothers.  She showed how drawing network graphs might allow us to see central nodes.  However, she was dissatisfied with the fact that graphs did not indicate time and didn't deal adequately in economic complexity.  By using interactions with informants at regular intervals over time, which encompassed both persistent and variant transactions in dynamic social networks, she hoped to learn more about how transactions shape social ties and vice versa.

Kusimba had many reasons to invest research efforts in data from financial diaries, which would be complemented by questionnaires and observations. Such diaries allow researchers to understand cash flows and financial instruments and perceive a more diverse range of financial tools.  Thus it is more likely to see where new products could support existing needs. She cited the work of Daryl Collins of Portfolios of the Poor on how poor people manage money and manage positive value over time and compensate seasonal events and shocks.  For example, she noted how from participating in a maturity ceremony for adolescent boys (in research presented at a previous IMTFI conference), her informants managed changes in their non-cash assets, such as livestock.

Her methodology focused on 20 women in Western Kenya and represented their social roles in their  networks by mapping cash money, in-kind gifts, mobile money, and other assets.  She initiated visiting in December and visited women every two weeks.  Her subjects ranged in age from 23 to 74 and were mostly combining farming with many entrepreneurial activities including proprietorship of a "beauty saloon."  She laughed about the accident of having "captured the one percent," given the rarity of owning a car. Researchers had to have considerable discipline, because "the women are very busy; most of the time they are not home."

She showed the intricacies of the networks of Robai, a potter who was 500 meters from nearest M-PESA agent and provided a view of her home and the floorplan of household relations that demonstrated her proximity to the homes of two co-wives' houses.  Rather than use older models of kinship maps, she deployed visualizations of the independent strategies to understand "how people make decisions" and situate themselves in relationship to flows of "incoming and outgoing money." Such visualization techniques with the tools of network theory also made it possible to observe centripetal and centrifugal patterns of the flow of money, resources, and relationships.  This economy might include the secret places of a beer brewer or the uses of food plants by a woman. Wealth might be produced with her mobile phone, as well as with face-to-face interaction.

She also introduced the theme of the problems of mistranslation, carried over from nuclear family norms in the US.  In particular she argued that "seeing the household as a separate unit" was deeply problematic, at the most basic level because men might rear children at multiple domiciles. Moreover possible words for the "household" didn't always reflect the same social and economic grouping. She observed that there was actually no adequate word, because larger groupings like "Ekholo" (clan) were less slippery than "Mungo," which depended on a gendered. Because different words for family don't gloss for household, it was possible to commit communicative blunders when trying to translate words.

Furthermore, she asserted that a purely economic view of success was too limited, which charting the relationship between money and time could broaden.  Thus a woman's transactions might seem to show a pattern of negative cash flow but not be associated with impoverishment, because she had acquired considerable wealth in social capital during the process. By looking at how her economic capital might get traded into social capital, Kusimba argues we get a more capacious view.  In closing she cited the work of Ananya Roy on "bottom billion capitalism."

"Generational Tensions in the Uptake of Digital Financial Services: Adolescent Girls and Adults in Nigeria" by Jude Kenechi Onyima of Nnamdi Azikiwe University explored how financial adoption might be influenced not only be the issue of trust, which is common in elders, but also by generational conflicts.  Anemia lamented the fact that too frequently the 32 million adolescent girls in Nigeria were "lumped together with adult population.  The methods of his study focused on four communities -- half Christian and half Muslim -- with a focus on 120 randomly selected girls.  In gathering data he wanted to include informants from both northern and southern regions and from both urban slums and rural areas.  96% own feature phone, and 70% own both feature and smart phones. 78% of smart phones were bought by friends as birthday or lovers’ day gifts. "Adolescent girls use their phones basically for fun, peer-based learning, networking and occasionally for financial transactions." He reported that the average adolescent girl spends 4.5 hours daily on mobile phone.

He found adults were "not comfortable with adolescent girls using financial services short video phone and peer-based learning," because adults were annoyed with adolescent girls’ use of phones for a variety of causes, such as the  time spent with the phone, financial reasons, and the development of unauthorized relationships with unapproved males. Adults insisted on "no smart phone for early adolescent girls" and "monitoring: for late adolescents.  Adults also expressed concerns about "poor interpersonal relationship" skills, compromised status, talking more with strangers than with family relations, distraction, road accidents, secretive lifestyles, increased flirting, and the abandonment of  household chores

They identified three key areas of concern

- Social reasons: More pressure from opposite sex, can be cajoled into unwholesome behavior, poor interpersonal relationship especially with relatives, cyber bullying, cultural extinction, distractions from academic activities, spreading of gossips, road accident.

- Family reasons: abandon house chores, conflicting moral values(increases tendency to tell lies), conflict with family members, need to get money to buy data.

- Health reasons: snacking while pinging(obesity), less time for exercise, poor sleeping pattern owing to night chatting, postural disorder, vulnerable to internet use gaming disorder(aggressiveness & attention deficit).

Because teens saw their digital identities as part of their global citizenship and contemporary literacy, they resisted the strategies of control from their elders, and even learned to make their phones difficult to use.  Adults also needed to be ingenious and restricted adolescent girls to specific services and sites.  His research team also saw the nature of gifts received from opposite sex being transformed.  New gifts included airtime/data bundles, digital money, online purchases, customized gifts, videos, and electronic gadgets. Adults bemoaned increased flirting, a tendency to tell lies, and perceived materiality among girls.

He argued that it was important to resist broad generalizations, however. Christian girls might have more chances for uptake more than their Muslim counterpart, but the resulting tensions in Christian homes might also be an inhibiting factor. Tensions are also higher among urban poor than among the rural poor, where access might also be enhanced. Unfortunately the arguments/counter arguments about whether adolescent girls shall use digital innovations and norms about when to use them and how to use them were not considered in designing marketing campaigns by DFS (digital financial services) operators. Only 3% of adults were likely to encourage uptake of DFS among adolescent girls. "This represents a huge roadblock to adoption," he argues.

In discussion participants noted the importance of rapid change and how interactions are "very much in flux."  Their research on gender also encompassed different ages and education levels.  The theme of the importance of translation and the problem of lack of discussion of men and boys in panels on gender was also raised.  In closing, the value of comparison facilitated by IMTFI was lauded, as was their emphasis on a "monetary ecology" approach.

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