Sunday, May 1, 2016

Cashing In: Keynote and Final Comments of the 2016 Conference

Video of Keynote Address: "Buckle up! An Eclectic Journey of Mobile Money in Kenya (and Beyond) - Insights & Impacts of Research" - now available on IMTFI's YouTube channel.

Ndunge Kiiti, Visiting Professor, CIIFAD, Cornell University, delivered a moving final keynote to the conference in describing her "research journey" with IMTFI. As someone who has followed Kiiti's progress over the years, starting with this blog post from 2011, I agree that it's been an inspiring voyage to observe. In covering IMTFI since its inception, albeit as a relative outsider who specializes in e-government and e-learning rather than e-finance, I've been particularly impressed by the innovation and creativity of researchers who have received multiple-rounds of funding and the ways that their curiosity has let them to new research questions. Visiting field sites and doing in-depth interviews with researchers last year made me aware of the limitations of conference blogging, but even in the conference setting it is clear the Kiiti is thinking about vulnerable populations capaciously, collaborating with researchers in many disciplines, challenging the biases of the industry, and transforming the possibilities for high-impact practices in higher education here in the United States.

She began by explaining why her expertise in Kenya might be particularly useful for thinking about large scale adoptions of mobile money more generally. In addition to having moved through a series of paradigms ("transfer," "platform," and "digital ecosystem"), planners for the Kenyan e-money economy benefitted from networked device ubiquity in the context of a robust legal and regulatory framework and a wealth of market research. The Kenyan case is also compelling by virtue of its sheer volume: up to 50% of mobile money transactions ($10 billion) on a global scale with approximately 26+ million subscribers using networks with 127,000 agents. With the value of transactions approaching 55% of the GDP, Kenya surpasses other developing countries. (Tanzania is in second place, Botswana in third, and Zimbabwe in fourth.) Researchers have also benefitted from synergies with humanitarian affairs and relief aid, because cash transfers have been used for philanthropic purposes, including for domestic fund raising.

She cautioned against embracing "big data" too quickly, however, because of tensions around the ethics of access. "Are we creating more vulnerability?" she asked in balancing usage against privacy. She emphasized how many of her populations lived in conditions of precarity, as she described how working with women’s groups (including with 14 women who were blind) led to an interest in studying people with visual impairment. She also described her work with the “Jua Kali” (informal business sector), which is highlighted in the below video.

In the process she has traversed many disciplines, including social sciences (encompassing anthropology, gender studies, psychology, sociology, and political science), humanities (encompassing linguistics), natural sciences (encompassing biology), formal sciences (encompassing computer science and statistics), and professional applied sciences (encompassing agriculture, business, communication, education, law, and social work). She encouraged participants to draw their own interdisciplinary maps as well.

She identified many building blocks to her scholarship: research process, conferences/workshops, academic forums (as someone who teaches), information dissemination, consultative roles, and even informal dialogue. The outcomes from such a polymorphous approach could be particularly fruitful: investing in people and building capacity, recognizing that grassroots has the ability to inform policy, curricular development, and facilitating a global network that recognizes development as a process of reducing vulnerabilities and developing capacities (in which she cited Ravi Jayakaran).

She lauded openness to pilot testing as a way to go beyond learning theory to thinking more broadly about methodology. As an example of the challenges of capturing data, she described how one focus group of artisans might still be making necklaces or working on soapstones, because "they can't stop for a minute." Thus data gathering also involves diverse skills in listening and building rapport. She also discussed the importance of taking her students from Houghton College to Kenya to perform fieldwork in the three studies. Students wrote senior honors theses, used their experiences to get jobs in Washington D.C., and developed as future professionals by being forced "to think out of the box." She noted that she "always used workshops" as well, particularly as venues for engaging policy makers. At Kenyatta University, a powerful skit by visually disabled had an impact on representatives. One of her workshop participants, Dennis, was visually impaired and yet worked as an M-PESA agent. She is also collaborating with a University of Nairobi professor in trying to develop products. As a visual aid, she described always carrying the Kenyan Constitution with her, as proof of "things our government has committed to."

As an example of her public advocacy, she asserted that participating in roundtables sponsored by The Guardian, such as this one on "Giving women control over their finances" could reap multiple benefits, as might attending expert meetings for UNCTAD (the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development), which she does as well. In speaking in Geneva about how remittance dynamics might have a gender component, she sees herself as making sure "our research is not getting lost." Although IMTFI researchers often build close relationships with their informants on the bottom of the pyramid, she wanted to "challenge all of us" to "keep a foot in the macro" in our information dissemination activities. She insisted that it was necessary to become fluent in many genres and media to get the word out, including news articles, videos, newsletters, blogs, and even museum displays, such as the display at the British museum, which was curated by Ellen Feingold, about Money in Africa. In grappling with issues about injustices and human rights, she argued for frameworks that require many disciplines and many communities. As she insisted, we are all "part of a bigger family." In closing, she thanked IMTFI for forging more "family" ties, including with Mesfin Fikre Woldmariam of Ethiopia, for sharing strategies for "investing back in our countries" for "marginalized people in our communities."

After the keynote, IMTFI director Bill Maurer was given the podium for closing comments, which -- despite the "difficulty of summing up" -- he condensed into "four short points and challenge." For Maurer the takeaways from the conference were fourfold:

1) He praised the value of comparison when participants can hear "from so many cases" and "many countries," where financial participation takes many forms, including "different traditional practices" and "different new practices," thus allowing them to "take concepts that emerge in one field site and use them analytically in another field site." Such concepts could be generated from informants or even be borrowed from business, as in the case of the term "ecology of services." This comparative perspective might be dense and layered and never pristine like the yak trails in the presentation on Nepal. Rather than one-to-one comparisons, the frameworks might include access points, network coverage, device proprietors, and "interrelationships and feedback loops."

2) He expressed appreciation for the group's "healthy skepticism about financial inclusion and inequality," which "erupted into the discussion today" about "what we think we are doing when we try to include people," because "one size really does not fit all. For Maurer, "a responsible financial inclusion" involves thinking with that skepticism through "strange pathways and intersections."

3) He thanked participants for their candor and willingness to share their "own stories," including a presenter sharing her experience of losing her debit card. He noted that "we are ourselves" are "a rich font of data about money and technology." Willingness to "reality check" financial inclusion myths with the facts of researchers' personal lives keeps professional lives honest and may check the urge to express only "the right thing to say." After all, IMTFI research is about "what you were actually doing at home" or "the things your husband doesn't know about."

4) He lauded the crosstalk, particularly in citing other projects, and asserted the value of a "community of inquiry that is shaping the debate" by "building on conversations. "

The challenge, as Maurer saw it, was that "we get really good at trucking in complexity, but the challenge is getting it heard." He pointed to "these instances where we have been able to break through" and thus "move the needle by bringing our complex stories" from an "incredibly diverse group" participating in a longstanding mixed method interdisciplinary forum. In closing, he restated that his challenge was "not only to finish your projects," but also to "think about how you can translate that insight into impact."

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