Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Politics of Fiscal Sentiments in Pakistan

From the series: Majoritarian Politics in South Asia, Society for Cultural Anthropology

By Noman Baig, Habib University

Photo by Mythri Jegathesan.

In March 2015, Ayyan Ali, a Pakistani supermodel, was arrested at the Islamabad International Airport for attempting to carry half a million dollars in cash onto a flight to Dubai. Ayyan’s arrest quickly became a national sensation once rumors and reports that she was laundering money for prominent politicians and businessmen began to circulate. Public interest and outrage only intensified when the customs officer who had confiscated the money was murdered soon after Ayyan’s arrest. The involvement of a glamorous model, foreign currency, political corruption, Dubai (a dreamland of sorts for the majority of Pakistanis), and now murder ensured that the case dominated the news cycle in Pakistan for months on end.

Ayyan’s glamorous lifestyle—the parties she attended, the men she dated, the clothes she wore, the brands she endorsed—had been the subject of much discussion in Pakistan even before her arrest. The fact that she was caught carrying so much money thus seemed entirely reasonable (if still scandalous) given the elite social circles of which she was part. This was, many ordinary commentators at the time mused, exactly the kind of salacious affair in which the rich would be involved. The misogynistic media coverage of the case, which focused on Ayyan’s body, clothing, tattoos, and makeup, only strengthened ordinary people’s conviction that Pakistani elites were dissolute. Ayyan’s case became emblematic of what many in Pakistan believed was an ayyash—debauched—society. The Urdu term ayyashi describes a transgressive excess, a hedonism that is thought to defile the very soul. For many ordinary people in Pakistan, Ayyan’s ayyash lifestyle and her eventual arrest mirrored the malaise in which the country itself was mired. Ayyan’s arrest had only revealed the already fraying moral-ethical boundaries of the nation.

The scandal raked up by Ayyan’s arrest played an important role in setting the stage for Imran Khan’s victory in the 2018 national election. In speeches leading up to the election, Khan cited Ayyan’s case as an example of the deep political and moral corruption that needed to be rooted out in order to build a “naya” or new Pakistan. He laid particular emphasis on Ayyan’s alleged links with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whom he variously called “a mafia don” and “the grandfather of corruption.” Indeed, when Ayyan was eventually granted bail, Khan claimed that the judicial decision was the outcome of a “deal” between political rivals Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari. Corruption, he seemed to suggest, was the one thing that could smooth over even the most long-standing antagonisms.

It was precisely this shared bond of corruption that Khan vowed to break if elected prime minister. As a start, Khan promised, the PTI (his political party) would bring back the two hundred billion dollars of national wealth that corrupt politicians had supposedly siphoned off and stashed in illegal bank accounts in Switzerland and Panama (see note 1). This promise resonated deeply with many ordinary Pakistanis who viewed corruption as a theft of their dreams and aspirations. What was being stolen by politicians was not just money, but Pakistan’s future, its very possibility of becoming a prosperous nation. By the same token, what Khan promised to restore was not just Pakistan’s fiscal balance, but also its diminished purity and strength.

Read the full blogpost here:


1. This massive figure is based on debunked news reports.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Top Five Digital Financial Service Features That Impact Women’s Access and Use

Research in Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire provides guidance for DFS providers and regulators

By Helene Smertnik, Senior Researcher at Caribou Digital and Savita Bailur, Research Director at Caribou Digital 

A focus group discussion discussing women’s experiences with DFS, Yopougon, Côte d’Ivoire. Photo credit: Caribou Digital
A focus group discussion discussing women’s experiences with DFS
Yopougon, Côte d’Ivoire. Photo credit: Caribou Digital

This blog links to a longer paper we published on SSRN on the impact of DFS features on women in Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire based on primary research with “end users”. For more information, please see the paper and please feel free to contact us at or at any point.

In 2019 (pre-COVID-19), with the support of the Gates Foundation, Caribou Digital and the DFS Lab embarked on a research project to identify which digital financial service (DFS) features impacted women’s access and use the most, compared to men in Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire. Mid-way through our research, we shared our initial findings, and with our research now complete, we’re able to take a closer look at these features. There were five that stood out the most:

  1. Ubiquitous agent networks.
  2. Real-time SMS notifications and seamless interoperability.
  3. Transparent fees.
  4. Help users avoid the need to revoke payments.
  5. Less stringent ID requirements as part of a tiered KYC approach.

Ubiquitous DFS networks 

Uniting tech and touch is critical for women. Women were quite vocal about the importance of a ubiquitous agent network (with no gender preference for agents) in order for them to have trust and confidence in DFS. In fact, a few women mentioned that they were dissuaded completely from using a financial service if it did not have any shops or agents, as was the case with the loan app Tala, which only provided a customer service number to call.

Older and less digitally savvy women relied the most on agents, indicating a generational divide which is sometimes even greater than the gender divide. Though older women said they sometimes ask their children for help, they were also cautious about disclosing how much money they had to their family. As a result, they would often go to agents for help.

Recommendation: DFS providers’ investment in physical agent networks is therefore critical to ensure the uptake of their services by women.

Real-time SMS notifications and seamless interoperability 

As part of our research, we observed men and women conducting mobile money transactions at shops. A key difference in their behaviors was that women tended to wait in the shop until they received the SMS notifications confirming their transactions, while men would simply drop off the money and continue on their way, expecting the SMS to come later. Because women require the official confirmation before moving on, real-time SMS notifications are key for their continued use of mobile money. If they have to wait too long, they will eventually go back to using cash to avoid wasting time. 

The issue of timely SMS notifications comes up especially when using interoperable services, highlighting the need for more seamless interoperability. For example, Equity Bank and M-Pesa are interoperable, meaning they connect to each other and transfers can be made between their accounts. However, the transfers sometimes take time to process, and the confirmation messages do not arrive or are late, leading women to go back to manual cash transfers. 

Recommendation: Ensuring SMS notifications are received in near real time is critical for DFS providers to best serve women.

Transparency in fees and cost structures 

“The units disappear without anyone knowing why. This colleague is telling us it is because of subscriptions done without our agreement but until now I had no clue,” said one of our interviewees, Elodie. Such hidden and nontransparent fees discourage women from using DFS, as we found that women were more sensitive to fees than men and also less likely to find workarounds to avoid them. For example, in both Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire, younger men knew that they could reduce transaction fees by conducting smaller transactions multiple times rather than one higher cost transaction, while most women were not aware of this strategy. 

Because of these fees, there was a strong sense among low-income women that money didn’t “grow” when left on their phone. Consequently, they did not associate mobile money with the possibility of savings, preferring savings groups or keeping money in cash at home, despite potential security issues. 

Recommendation: To ensure women use DFS, it is key for providers to have ethical cost structure designs as well as transparent communications about possible fees.

Help users avoid the need to revoke transactions 

Most digital financial service providers offer an option for revoking a payment after it has gone through. However, this process is complex, and the use of this option has the potential to hinder women’s usage of DFS more than men’s. In neither Côte d’Ivoire nor Kenya were there clear instructions from the DFS providers for how to go about revoking a payment, and if the money had already been withdrawn it became impossible. 

In a focus group discussion with women merchants in the outskirts of Nairobi, we also heard about how revoking features could lead to fraud, as some of the women had been cheated by customers who paid but then reversed their payments. The women were considering reverting back to cash due to these experiences. 

Recommendation: Given the complexity and cost of revoking payments and the lack of standards in place, it is important for providers to help users avoid the need to revoke payments by guaranteeing clear and sufficient cancelling features in place before the user hits send. For example, confirmation messages should appear which explicitly state the phone number and amount being sent, and should give enough time to review all the information without the phone shutting down. 

ID requirements and the need for a tiered KYC approach

In theory, women said they appreciated the importance of requiring an ID for security measures, both for agents and customers. However, in practice they privileged going to agents who didn’t ask for their ID. Since many women do not have an ID, they often rely on their husbands’ ID, or simply do not use digital financial services if an ID is required. 

In response to this reality, in Côte d’Ivoire, some agents intentionally do not ask for ID in order to gain a competitive advantage over agents that required it. In Kenya, agents would not always ask for ID when they already knew the customer. We also saw scenarios where agents would only require ID for transactions over a certain amount. 

Recommendation: While these agents are improvising to respond to the needs of their customers, ID requirements should be adjusted and standardized to meet women’s needs. A tiered KYC (know your customer) approach would encourage women’s usage by allowing them to make small mobile money transactions without providing identification. 


The women’s experiences shared above highlight how important it is for DFS providers and policy makers to consider women’s needs and wants in order to make sure they are financially included. The risk of women’s financial exclusion is even greater in the context of COVID-19, as payments are increasingly digital and access to DFS is crucial. These five features can help ensure that digital tools make women more - not less - financially included. 


Watch our webinar, What Digital Financial Services features might matter more to women than men and why?

This research was conducted with AFROES in Kenya, led by Gathoni Mwai and Sylvia Oloo and Empow’Her, led by Chloe Roncajolo and Serge Kouadio in Côte d’Ivoire. A special thanks to them.