Tuesday, October 12, 2021

10/13 "What’s a Central Bank Digital Currency and Why Do They Matter (Even If They Never Exist)?" a CIESAS-IMTFI talk with Bill Maurer

Join us! Tomorrow 10/13, 9amPT/11CT/12pmET
"What’s a Central Bank Digital Currency and Why Do They Matter (Even If They Never Exist)?"

A virtual talk with Bill Maurer, UCI moderated by Magdalena Villareal, CIESAS
Wednesday, October 13, 9-10amPT/11am-12pmCT/12-1pmET
Register for Zoom webinar here: bit.ly/CIESAS_CBDC_maurer

Co-sponsored by
The Center for Advanced Research and Postgraduate Studies in Social Anthropology 
(CIESAS Occidente) & IMTFI

CBDCs became a topic of debate after the rise of bitcoin, yet proceed from very different assumptions about the nature of money and the role of the state. They also spotlight the public interest in the ability to pay for things—something so basic we rarely even consider it. This talk considers CBDCs—which, as of now, don’t even really exist, outside of a few pilots—in light of that public interest, and asks whether a truly democratic digital money can take shape in the context of pervasive digital surveillance and broader challenges to democracy.

For Q&A and Discussion Professor Maurer and Professor Villareal will be joined by:
Nima Yolmo, Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology, UC Irvine
Andrew Crawford, Doctoral Researcher at Universität Hamburg

Live Spanish translation will be available.

Bill Maurer is Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of Anthropology and Law, UCI and the director of the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion. He is the author of How Would You Like to Pay? How Technology is Changing the Future of Money, among many other publications

Magdalena Villarreal is senior researcher and professor at the Mexican Center for Advanced Research and Postgraduate Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS Occidente) and member of the National Research System and the National Academy of Sciences.

Monday, October 4, 2021

It’s all about cash in the end...for now.

by Andrew Crawford, Doctoral Researcher (GIGA, Universität Hamburg) and IMTFI Fellow

News about a political upheaval often includes a story about frantic citizens desperately trying to get cash. Recent cases in point are events in Afghanistan and Myanmar. In Afghanistan, the departure of US forces and subsequent Taliban takeover led to a banking crisis with long lines for the limited number of functioning ATMs. Traditional informal money transfer agents, known as hawaladars, faced similar shortages with excess demand for cash that they could not satisfy.  Behind the scenes, the Taliban pushed central bank and finance ministry officials to get to work on solutions, a difficult task considering the brain drain caused by the hundreds of thousands that have already fled the country.   

People line up outside a bank to withdraw cash in Yangon, 5/15/2021 (Photo: Reuters)

Meanwhile, Myanmar faces similar skills shortages as state employees refuse to assist the military junta that deposed their democratically elected government in February and has since killed more than 1000 civilians. Government limits on branch and ATM withdrawals were implemented and in late August the government closed numerous bank branches, under the pretence of COVID-19 safety.  To enter open branches customers had to line up for tokens that later emerged for sale on Facebook. Informal bank account markets also evolved online where people could sell their bank account access data in exchange for physical cash at commission rates of 7-15%.  Even retailers sitting on cash revenue began offering money exchange services rather than try to bank their company takings.

The Taliban inherits a central bank with depleted USD and local currency reserves
(Photo: Elmer Laahne/johan10/Adobe Stock)

Considering the scramble for cash you may be surprised to learn that both Myanmar and Afghanistan had, until recently, digital payment systems. Their provision of mobile money led financial inclusion proponents to suggest that both countries could ‘leap-frog’ traditional banking infrastructure. But the unrest immediately ended this dream and demonstrated the fragility of fintech when government institutions fail. Mobile money agents continued to operate but needed to increase fees to 10 - 12% to compensate for the difficulty of obtaining cash for withdrawals. Myanmar mobile money companies, such as Wave Money, were left desperately trying to provide cash to their agents to stop them charging egregious fees to their 1.3 million clients.

Why not print more cash? The Myanmar junta tried to until the German company supplying their ink and materials for printing, Giesecke & Devrient, suspended their deliveries citing it as “a reaction to the ongoing violent clashes between the military and the civilian population”. This further compounded the sense of panic and desperation for cash and left the junta pleading with other foreign banknote companies, so far to no end.

Myanmar has smartphone penetration of over 80%, a rate comparable to many European countries (Photo: Sasin/Adobe Stock)

So, what happens when people give up on cash? Well cryptocurrency has always been viewed by its proponents as the game changer for such crisis situations. Cuba, for instance, has recently seen the growth and legalisation of crypto currency to facilitate remittances, overcome US sanctions, and prevent inflation.  But the recent legalisation of cryptocurrency in Cuba may not mainstream its use due to unreliable internet access and geo-blocking by crypto exchanges.  

The recent adoption by El Salvador of bitcoin as legal tender may provide one way by which cash shortages may later be avoided. If many Salvadorans keep their funds in bitcoin, they could continue to trade and will not lose their life savings in the case of political upheaval. Whether this happens may depend on how much Salvadorans are willing to put into the volatile cryptocurrency. Additionally, if the Salvadoran government felt threatened, they could still hit the internet kill switch preventing users from trading bitcoin. The security of the government backed Chivo cryptowallet also remains untested

Overcoming the internet kill switch is tough and would require satellite internet technology like that offered by Elon Musk’s Starlink (although Starlink is currently not available in countries such as Cuba, Myanmar or Afghanistan). Does this mean the combination of satellite internet, solar generated electricity, and cryptocurrency (along with the knowledge of citizens on how to use all of them) will free people from relying on cash? Well, the missing ingredient that no technology can provide is trust. With such complex technology it may be difficult to have citizens willing to depend on cryptocurrency to protect their life savings. Another barrier may be an innate behavioural instinct to grab something physical and dependable during a crisis (like the hoarding of toilet paper in many countries during COVID-19 lockdowns). Until citizens in an institutional vacuum are willing to trust complex, intangible, hi-tech solutions to both transact and protect their wealth, it will remain all about cash in the end.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

World’s Oldest Known Coin Mint Found in China

The 2,600-year-old site produced highly standardized “spade money,” possibly on government orders

Radiocarbon dating suggests the workshop began minting operations
between 640 and 550 BCE (H. Zhao et al. / Antiquity, 2021)

Bill Maurer in Smithsonian Magazine, Aug. 9, 2021

Archaeologists in China have found what they say is the world’s oldest known coin manufacturing site. … Bill Maurer, an anthropologist [professor of anthropology & director of the Institute for Money, Technology & Financial Inclusion] at the University of California Irvine who was not involved in the new research, tells National Geographic’s Jillian Kramer that the discovery of the coins together with the molds used to make them is highly unusual. Ancient coins are often discovered in hoards far removed from the sites where they were minted, making it difficult to date them.

For the full story by Livia Gershon, please visit https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/worlds-oldest-known-coin-mint-found-china-180978394/

Thursday, July 29, 2021

‘No cash, no ritual’: the intersections between cash shortages and ritual enactment in north-western Zimbabwe

By guest blogger Joshua Matanzima, La Trobe University


This article examines the impact of the ‘cash crisis’ bedevilling Zimbabwe since mid-2016 on the enactment of the Masabe ceremony within the BaTonga community, (Sinakatenge Chiefdom, Eastern Binga, North-west Zimbabwe). The article argues that the cash crisis has negatively affected Masabe ritual processes. The paper argues that traditional ceremonies have in contemporary times adopted use of ‘cash’ to facilitate their conduct. Hence, the liquidity crisis resulted in decreased cash in circulation has thus witnessed ceremonies being postponed, delayed or even avoided. In the quest to further understand the negative consequences of cash crisis on ritual engagement, the study analyses BaTonga traditional culture and religious practices. It highlights the importance of religion and ritual in fulfilling individual and societal needs and discusses how disruptions in ritual engagement can affect the psychological needs of individuals or the integration and cohesion of the society/group. The study utilizes cases from BaTonga villages in Sinakatenge Chiefdom. Oral testimonies were ethnographically collected from BaTonga villagers pertaining to the challenges being faced in conducting the Masabe ceremonial practices.

Figure 1. Researcher and local informants: women holding their smoking pipes. 

Field Notes

In 2017, I conducted ethnographic research among the BaTonga speaking people of Sinakatenge Chiefdom, north-western Zimbabwe. Sinakatenge is part of Binga Rural District. It lies along the margins of the nation-state at the Zimbabwe-Zambia border. The research examined the Masabe (alien) spirits ritual process. The Masabe ritual process is the means by which an alien spirit possessing a victim and causing illness is made to manifest itself and then depart the body of the victim, restoring the possessed person to health. Masabe possession as an ‘organized cult of affliction which addresses itself to the individual instead of the community’. Masabe can take over and speak through human vehicles and causes sickness to its victim. Masabe have desires which are made manifest through their victims and are pacified through a dance performance in which the victim enacts these desires. The research involved participant observations and semi-structured interviewing.  I attended a total of 5 Masabe ritual ceremonies and interviewed 24 elders, both men and women, regarding the Masabe ritual process. The centrality of ‘money’ in the entire process was emphasized by the elders interviewed and formed part of my personal observations. 

At a time when this research was conducted Zimbabwe faced serious economic crises characterized by high unemployment, high inflation, food shortages and cash crises. Many Masabe ritual ceremonies were delayed, procrastinated, and even avoided due to the costs involved and challenges encountered in purchasing the material required for the ritual to be successfully enacted. The material required for the Masabe ritual ceremony includes a black cloth, beads and black goat, as well as sugar, mealie meal, sorghum, and yeast for beer brewing. In the absence of these items the Masabe ritual ceremony cannot be enacted. Consequently, the affected families often delay, procrastinate, and, at worst, avoid conducting these ceremonies. 

Following the early to mid-2000s liquidity crunch, in 2009, the Zimbabwean economy was dollarized. Dollarization meant resorting to the use of the US dollar as a result of local currency devaluation. Dollarization helped reduce inflation rates and also stabilise the economy. However, from 2013 cash shortages re-emerged and by April 2016, much of the US dollars were reported to be externalized at an alarming rate, thereby causing the cash crisis. In a bid to address this cash crisis, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe introduced ‘Bond Notes’ of 2 USD and 5 USD denominations, and the 1 USD ‘Bond coin’ which were said to be equivalent in value to the real US$2, US$5 and US$1 respectively. These new notes and coins were introduced alongside the increased emphasis on the use of plastic money and Ecocash/OneWallet (mobile phone-based money services, or mobile money) for transactions. Indeed, plastic money and Ecocash/OneWallet proved somewhat effective for those living in urban areas. But it did not have the same impact for those living in marginalised or remote communities. 

Local transactions in Sinakatenge were mainly based on barter trade at the time. Sadly, such materials as cloth, beads and yeast were unavailable in local stores where barter was tolerated. People had to purchase these from urban areas, where either cash or mobile money was required. Sugar was available in local stores, but its price of 3 USD per 2kgs, was steep for the local people, who could not afford the sugar needed for the ceremony. Many, if not all, people in Sinakatenge had no bank cards, were cashless, and had no Ecocash/OneWallet. The unavailability of mobile network coverage in the area discouraged people from owning mobile phones. Thus, the villagers found it difficult for them to purchase these materials needed for the Masabe ceremony. Before the liquidity challenge, purchasing of these items locally and in Gokwe was not a major challenge. The US dollar introduced during the Government of National Unity era had in a way solved inflation and currency devaluation problems.

The Masabe ritual process and costs

At first, the person possessed by Masabe normally is afflicted with ‘illness’ or ‘sickness’. The ‘sick’ person sought clinical medical attention in local clinics where consultation and medication were free of charge. It is the norm that every sick person must seek clinical medical attention before visiting bun’anga (traditional healer). However, some people were referred to hospitals in Gokwe or Binga, (which are the nearest town centres), especially when the ‘sickness’ becomes more serious. This, indeed, is done at some significant costs. If the kinsmen of the ‘sick’ person have bank cards or mobile money access, they might purchase and pay for medication using such platforms. But, this is usually expensive to them due to transaction charges. 

Furthermore, if the illness persists, despite modern medication uptake, then the ‘sick’ person is taken to traditional healers. Traditional healers also require payment, which also now is in the form of cash whether the Masabe is diagnosed or not. The ‘sickness’ is thus considered to be the ‘arrival’ of the Masabe which in this case is only diagnosed by traditional means than modern systems. Once the Masabe spirit discloses its identity through the traditional healer it awaits a performance to be held for it so that it manifests itself.

The second step is, after the ‘sickness’ has been found to be Masabe related, when beer is brewed. Beer brewing for Masabe ceremony is done by women from the possessed person’s matrilineage. This is so because the society is a matrilineal. The day at which sorghum is soaked in water, the possessed person is supposed to commence sleeping in a chidumba (a house made of poles and grass) until the process of beer brewing is over. The construction of the chidumba requires labour and meeting the costs of gathering the needed construction material, such as poles, grass and stones. To hire the labour for construction and gathering building material needs money. In many cases, these labourers demand cash rather than goods such as grain, soap, salt and so on. So, the kinsmen of the possessed usually wait until they obtain cash to pay for the material and constructors, thereby prolonging the duration of the illness of the victim. Beer for mizimu (ancestors) and the possessed person is brewed in a small pot separate from bigger containers (in which that of attendees is brewed). This is so because the beer for mizimu does not have yeast added into it, whereas that of the invited guests needs yeast. The explanations for putting and not putting yeast on the two different containers were not quite apparent. Sugar is also added in the beer.


Figure 2. An old woman beer brewing.

Purchasing these items from local stores its expensive, thus, villagers opt to purchase the aforementioned items in Gokwe where the prices are generally low. The cost of 2kgs sugar, for example, in Gokwe at the time of the study was US$1.90 and in their local shops was US$3.00. With the prevailing cash shortages purchasing sugar in Gokwe was a major challenge as it also involved transport costs to and from Gokwe. Villagers opted to exchange grain for sugar in local stores where they incurred heavy losses. In this case, barter trade is disadvantageous to the consumer as it is obvious that the measure of goods he/she obtains in return is usually inequivalent to that which he/she would have exchanged. 

Figure 3. Men constructing chidhumba.

When the possessed person sleeps in the chidumba, he/she is expected to ‘sleep’ together with a ‘black’ goat. Every morning the person and the goat are let out, the goat must not forage far from the chidumba. If the goat goes missing that implies that the person is not possessed. When the beer is ready for drinking, local people are invited to attend the Masabe ceremony. The goat is significant during the Masabe ceremony as it is part of the ritual. The purchasing of a goat is thus not necessarily regarded as a major challenge since most families own goats. The possessed person may own goats from which one may be used in the ritual. Those with no goats are bound to purchase one, and acquiring a goat due to cash shortages can be a challenge. The fact that the goat must be black forced those without black goats to either buy or exchange with others for a black one. 

The third and the last stage is the enactment of the ritual ceremony. The Masabe ritual ceremony is enacted during the night. It usually involves drum beating, dancing and traditional beer (Bugande) drinking especially by invited guests. The performance of the ceremony brings together all possessed by that particular form of Masabe to support the new victim as she/he expresses the nature of the possessing force. During the ceremony, the goat is cut on its neck and its blood (musiye) is drained and put into a bowl made of wood. The full goat meat is given to a close friend of the family (sahwira). The possessed is then given the musiye to drink it. It is alleged he/she must not vomit. If he/she vomits it simply means the person is not possessed by Masabe. A senior member of the family appeases to the alien spirits on behalf of the possessed person, at the same time drum (butimbe) beating and singing commences until the Masabe possessing the sick manifests itself. The manifestation of the spirits shows the kind of Masabe the person is possessed with. The possessed must act as the spirit behaves. For example, if one is possessed by a baboon spirit, he or she must behave or act like a baboon during that night. He/she must climb trees and roof tops etc. as baboons do. Thus, although Masabe spirits, like all other Tonga spirits, are considered as formless and bodiless before they afflict a person, they change their identity in the course of the ritual process from an immaterial being into a spirit of “something” which can take a great variety of embodiments. After the Masabe ceremony, the ‘sick’ person will then automatically get healed from her/his illness.

Figure 4. The chidhumba (a temporary shelter for a possessed person).
Case example: In Siachimupa Village, Mukuli’s (who had her Masabe ceremony enacted on the 5th of September 2017) illness, for instance, took about eight months. This period involved people having to consult medical practitioners and local prophets pertaining the cause of disease and its suitable medication. At which, no cause of the disease was detected. The final solution was to visit traditional healers who discovered that she was possessed by a dancing Masabe spirit and for her to be healed a Masabe ceremony was supposed to be held. Traditional healers had discovered this four months before 5 September 2017 when the ceremony was eventually conducted. The 4 months delay was because there were no funds to conduct the ceremony. Here we see the ways by which macro-economic hardships can negatively influence ritual processes. At this time, the Zimbabwean economic downturn coupled with cash crisis made it difficult for her kinsmen to acquire funds to purchase a black cloth, beads, black goat, and ingredients for beer brewing on time. Hence her ‘sickness’ was prolonged. Observing her skin, it had developed blistered. She had significantly lost weight, her legs were swollen and she could not even walk on her own.


Cash crisis in Zimbabwe has not only impacted on the economy and politics of the country, but it has also impacted on ritual enactment. In modern day rituals enactment require materials and money is needed to purchase these material items. In the case of the Masabe ritual- ceremonies discussed above, the purchase of black goats, black cloths, beer ingredients became difficult due to the cash crisis. Purchasing these using mobile and plastic money in the nearest towns of Gokwe and Binga was even more expensive due transaction charges. Due to these challenges Masabe ceremonies were often delayed, procrastinated and avoided. The delay or temporal avoidance of these ceremonies impacted on the possessed individual as well as the entire community. Delays prolonged the sickness of an individual which further impacted on the psychologically. If a person by a ‘water’ spirit, they have the power to predict and intercede for rains; so if their ceremonies are delayed or avoided it means that the community as a whole is affected as it benefits from the person’s rain spiritual forecasts and rainmaking intercessions. 

Link to research article in African Identities, "Religious rituals and socio-economic change: the impact of the Zimbabwe ‘cash crisis’ on the BaTonga Masabe (alien spirits) ceremony."

Photo credit: All photos by author.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Opportunities and Risks of Conversational AI for Credit Unions: Empathy and Intimacy in Automated Financial Customer Service

by Scott Mainwaring, UCI and Melissa Wrapp, UCI, Filene's Center for Emerging Technology

As the use of digital channels continues to grow for credit unions, conversational artificial intelligence (AI) technologies provide an opportunity for improved service delivery and the potential for new service offerings such as financial advice.


Conversational AI technologies create new ways for credit unions to serve their members, from providing alternatives to interacting with human agents to creating new channels for more tailored financial services. They provide opportunities to build upon the trust and appreciation members place in credit unions as more human-centered, nonpredatory, and community based. But conversational AI technologies risk invading members’ privacy and being frustrating and opaque.


This exploratory study looks at existing consumer relationships with conversational AI and digital assistants, on one hand; and with credit unions, banks, and other businesses, on the other, to begin to sketch the dimensions of, and provide examples of, points within a “design space” of possible financial digital assistants. While operational hurdles remain high for credit unions to deploy these new technologies, the opportunity will continue to grow in coming years. 

Through ethnographic research with consumers, this report anticipates how credit union members might come to value, or reject, digital assistants. For this exploratory study, we focused on one main question: What are the implications of digital assistant technologies for how members and credit unions could relate to one another in the next five years?

Interviews covered three broad topics: experiences using banks and credit unions; experiences using digital assistant technologies; and reflections on the idea of a financial digital assistant and issues of privacy, trust, and potential bias. This report summarizes findings on these themes and provides insight into how credit unions could take advantage of digital assistants to improve service delivery and differentiate offerings by incorporating elements from their mission and value proposition into their digital assistants. The way forward is to develop particular product proposals and related data transparency policies that can provide members with a new understanding of what they could achieve by relating with their credit unions through “talking computers.”


Credit unions have an opportunity to deploy digital assistants in ways that improve service delivery and member experience and provide new types of service offerings. In thinking about what types of digital assistants would provide the best fit for your credit union and member needs, keep the following research findings in mind: 

  • People like the promise of bots as part of a modern, organized, and simplified life.
  • The realities of existing bots fall short of expectations and can limit imagination.
  • People are resigned to the constant advance of technology without transparency or the ability to meaningfully opt out.
  • Relations with credit unions are valued for their human element and trustworthiness, even if this means older, clunkier tech.
  • The design space is complex, including diverse combinations of technologies, member needs, and business opportunities worth considering.
  • The idea of talking with/through bots is becoming mundane, but credit unions could pleasantly surprise members with unique service features.
  • Credit unions could tailor these technologies to show their strengths and to educate members not just about finances but also about data. 

In order to create a competitive advantage, credit union digital assistants would have to not only be useful and usable but also embody and express the core values of the credit union system. By building upon these core values of empathy and respect, credit unions could focus their development of digital assistant technologies in a way that creates differentiation, even with fewer resources than are available to larger financial services providers. 

We use findings from our research to generate design ideas that are meant to illustrate pathways worth exploring, developing, and evaluating: 

  • Build a helpful, always-accessible agent. This kind of digital assistant could serve as the voice of the specific credit union and provide basic support but also demonstrate the “members not customers” ethos of the credit union value proposition.
  • Provide an assistant to help members maintain, augment, and monitor their personal financial support systems.
  • Provide robot counsel. This financial digital assistant could serve as a “second pair of eyes” as members conduct transactions with any financial services provider, intervening if necessary but always being available for reassurance or advice.
  • Connect members to each other. This assistant would embody the credit union as a member cooperative, helping connect members to each other.
Access complete report, summary slides, and design principles here.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Trust and Social Capital in the Old City of Hyderabad: A Study of Self-Help Groups of Women, India

by Rosina Nasir, Jawaharlal Nehru University

"Trust and Social Capital in the Old City of Hyderabad: A Study of Self-Help Groups of Women, India,"  The Oriental Anthropologist: A Bi-annual International Journal of the Science of Man, Vol 21, Issue 1, 2021.


Why do people trust each other? Do people form groups through mutual trust or self-interest? How does the theory of rational choice and accompanying individualism affect the concept of social capital? Are social cohesiveness in groups and financial success related? Such questions generate interest in conditions promoting association and group emergence, such as trust, reliability, reciprocity, and shared values, which are inherent factors for cohesion. Self-help groups (SHGs) in an urban context are used to comprehend the aforementioned questions. The proposed study is based on the following hypothesis: the formation of groups is not based on trust but on material- and non-material- need-based individual rational choices that force them to cooperate with each other. It is found that a sense of insecurity among migrant women, an emotional need, led the formation of the imagined communities and has paved the way to construct trust. Thus, trust is found to be secondary in construction and sustainability of social capital. Castes, regions, and religions are strong factors; however, they are found to be less effective for the migrants than native SHG members. Therefore, among migrants, trust channelized itself vertically around a sense of fear.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Beginning July 1, 2021 IMTFI Blog email will be delivered from MailChimp

Administrative note: Google has announced it will be shutting off its Feedburner application for email subscriptions beginning July 2021.  

The IMTFI Blog will be sending new posts through MailChimp beginning July 1st, 2021. Current subscribers will be receiving an email from “IMTFI Blog” from a MailChimp email address – please be sure to add this address to your contacts to avoid messages being diverted to junk mail.

Don't worry! The IMTFI Blog you know and love will still be here, we are just changing how you will receive email notifications.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Apo-cash-alypse Now!

by Andrew Crawford, Doctoral Researcher (GIGA, Universität Hamburg) and IMTFI Fellow

It’s embarrassing to admit as a finance academic but I’m bad with money. Not bad like I’d lose it all on a blackjack table, or have no money to buy lunch, but bad with payments. I have bank accounts in different countries, multiple Paypal accounts, a cryptocurrency hardware wallet and various ATM cards that lurk around my bedroom. I have only a vague awareness of how much money is in each and mostly go with the flow when I pay for things. Needless to say, I am being shafted by a bunch of payment providers in terms of fees, but I neglect to resolve the issue. Usually, apart from wasting money, this constant state of organised chaos never causes problems. But sometimes things go wrong, and my fragile payment ecosystem spirals out of control. This happened during my recent trip to Cambodia. 

I’m in Cambodia for 4 months working on a research project to measure the effect of COVID-19 on the microfinance sector. Two months in, I realised that it was time to pay my semester fees at the German university where I am doing my PhD. Thanks to the inexpensive nature of German universities this only amounts to 360 euro. I logged into my German online banking to do the bank transfer (the only means of payment accepted). The bank requires two-step authorisation so I brought with me an old Samsung phone with my German simcard set to roaming. I submitted the bank transfer and stared at my old phone, but then nothing. There was cell signal and the phone seemed to work fine. I asked online banking to resend the code then to my delight an SMS came through. I entered the code and it was rejected. Oh, maybe I made a typo. I entered it again. Still wrong. How could I type this wrong twice? I very thoroughly entered it one more time. Wrong. Then my phone beeped again. A second message had come through with a new code. The first message was the first code so it was no longer valid after I asked for a second code! I quickly went to enter the second code but my German account was now blocked due to three wrong codes. Crap. To reactivate the account I would need to take ID to my local branch in Hamburg. Sigh. As an alternative I transferred money from my Australian account (that I’ve had since I was 12 years old). This turned out to be 10% more expensive but at least the semester fees would be paid! 

The next day the Cambodian government suddenly announced that due to the spike in COVID cases a hard lockdown and curfew would operate from 8pm that day. It was sudden so I rushed to supermarket. Chaos. Like most countries panic buying was in full force so I decided I would go to my local convenience store instead.[1] Before I left, I took a video of all the panic buying because ‘hey it feels dramatic and I need to video it’. At this point you need to know that I keep all my ATM cards in a ‘card sock’ in the back of my phone. This is because I’ve been pickpocketed before and thought why do I need a wallet? I’m always conscious of my phone and never lose phones. If I never lose phones and my cards are attached, I will never lose my cards. Smart. While I was recording the panic buying I dropped my phone. Not so smart. It crashed onto the pavement and the screen cracked. I was so annoyed with myself I picked up the phone and quickly left while looking at the damage. I arrived home at 7.50pm and went to watch a movie, specifically Hunger Games, since the three-finger salute used in the Myanmar protests had reminded me of the film. I went to rent it from Amazon using my Australian ATM card and realised it was gone from my phone’s ‘card sock’. Damn. It must have fallen out when I dropped the phone. There was only 10 minutes left until curfew so I couldn’t leave, lest I be beaten with sticks by the Cambodian police which is their punishment for breaking curfew. Since my German account was also blocked all I had left was PayPal. Of course, Jeff Bezos doesn’t like PayPal so to rent the movie I bought an Amazon gift card from an online gift card website with PayPal. They charged $23 for a $20 gift card which was another hit to my hip pocket.

I cancelled my Australian ATM card and had a new one ordered which would go to my mother’s house in Australia and she would express post it to me in Cambodia. But for now, I had no ATM card. What would I do? You need cash in Cambodia![2] Apple Pay is here but it’s not so common yet. Thankfully, I still had a Cambodian bank account that I’ve had for years due to being paid consultant fees in Cambodia. I knew there were a few hundred dollars left. But I didn’t have the ATM card for this account (I assume it’s lurking in my room in Germany) but I did have the good ole passbook. All the local branches were closed during lockdown so I ventured to the head office to withdraw the money. This meant crossing 4 roadblocks and trying to explain to police my predicament. After finally making it to the head office I had my hands disinfected, temperature checked and wore my face mask to head inside the deserted bank and withdraw my money at the friendly teller. Relief. I had cash again. I was safe.

My brief experience not having cash made me concerned about some others in Phnom Penh that could no longer work. Specifically, I was worried about my friend and regular Tuk Tuk driver Ara who was completely dependent on his Tuk Tuk income. I called him and offered him some money but he lived in a part of the city that was too difficult to visit. Thankfully, Cambodia has an extensive mobile money network, named Wing, so I went to the Wing office on my street, opened an account, deposited some cash then transferred him some money that he very much appreciated. I didn’t realise at the time but using Wing would be my saviour in the end. 

A few days later I had a Zoom presentation of Loy Loy: The Financial Literacy Board Game that I co- created at IMTFI. The presentation was to the Beall Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and I was nervous. We expected at least 60 people to attend, possibly, some very important folks. Plus, it was midnight in Cambodia time and so I was worried about staying alert. I sat at the laptop and joined the zoom call. Internet can be patchy in Cambodia and as more and more people joined the meeting I could see my home connection become more and more unstable. I had planned for this and my phone was ready to hotspot with its faster cell network connection. I switched to the hotspot and felt safe just asthe meeting was to start. Then I received a message, “your data for the  month is about to be consumed”. CRAP. In Cambodia you usually buy cellphone credit from shops through the little scratch cards where you scratch off the number and enter the code. But it was midnight, shops were closed, and police with sticks were patrolling the streets. What could I do? I opened the Cellcard app and saw a small Wing logo. Ah perhaps I could connect the accounts. I hurriedly went through all the pins, SMS confirmations and fingerprint scans to connect the two, topped up and renewed the data plan, just as they were calling my name to present. Phew!

So, what have I learned from this whole experience? Well, firstly, be patient with two-step authorisations when you’re overseas, don’t film panic buyers because that’s mean, ‘card socks’ are not foolproof, mobile money accounts are useful during a pandemic, and it’s even handier to have lots of cash when all else fails. I mean with cash I bet I could have paid the policeman to not beat me with a stick and instead lend me his phone for a hotspot.

[1] Panic buying in Cambodia mainly involves eggs, rice and canned fish. Toilet paper is not essential thanks to ubiquitous bidet bum guns.

[2] Cambodia runs on both US dollars and the local currency – the Riel. This is due to the central bank being destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, with all currency then eliminated and a lack of faith in the reintroduced local currency ever since.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

5/18 (Tues) 9-10amPT: Book Talk – Reimagining Money: Kenya in the Digital Finance Revolution

IMTFI, the Global Africa/Global Blackness Research Cluster in UCI's Department of Anthropology & Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA) present the following book talk:

Reimagining Money: Kenya in the Digital Finance Revolution by Sibel Kusimba

May 18th, 2021
Tuesday, 9-10amPT/12-1pmET/6-7pmSAST

Introduced by
Bill Maurer, UC Irvine, IMTFI Director

Sibel Kusimba, University of South Florida
Olufunmilayo (Funmi) B. Arewa, Temple University Beasley School of Law
Nina Bandelj, UC Irvine

Webinar registration

JOIN US for a discussion with Sibel Kusimba to talk about her new book, Reimagining Money: Kenya in the Digital Finance Revolution, Stanford University Press.

 Available online: Chapter 1 and Table of Contents

About Reimagining Money: Kenya in the Digital Finance Revolution
Technology is rapidly changing the way we think about money. Digital payment has been slow to take off in the United States but is displacing cash in countries as diverse as China, Kenya, and Sweden. In Reimagining Money, Sibel Kusimba describes the rise of M-Pesa, and offers a rich portrait of how this technology changes the economic and social landscape, allowing users to create webs of relationships as they exchange, pool, borrow, lend, and share digital money in user-built networks. These networks, Kusimba argues, will shape the future of financial technologies and their impact on poverty, inclusion, and empowerment. She describes how urban and transnational migrants maintain a presence in rural areas through money gifts; how families use crowdfunding software to assemble donations for emergency medical care; and how new financial groups invest in real estate and fund weddings. The author presents fascinating accounts that challenge accepted wisdom by examining the notion of money as wealth-in-people—an idea long-cultivated in sub-Saharan Africa and now brought to bear on the digital age with homegrown financial technologies such as digital money transfer, digital microloans, and crowdfunding. The book concludes by proposing a new theory of money that can be applied to designing better financial technologies in the future.

About the author
Sibel Kusimba has conducted over twenty years of ethnographic research and archaeological fieldwork in Kenya. She is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of South Florida and is the author of African Foragers (2003). You can read her bio here.

For questions email imtfi@uci.edu.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Reimagining the ATM: From Cash-out to Curbside Banking

by Bill Maurer, UC Irvine and Kate Larson, Kate Larson Writes, LLC with Filene's Center of Emerging Technology

With so many options for ATM service delivery, how can credit union leaders make wise decisions to meet their members’ needs? Set against the backdrop of rapidly changing consumer behavior and expectations during COVID-19, this report explores the past, present, and future of the unpretentious automatic teller machine—and how its evolution impacts credit union strategy today.

Image Credit: Filene


As our financial lives increasingly take up residence online, the ATM may be one of the last physical touchpoints between credit unions and their members. This creates a key opportunity for credit unions to delight members, provide convenience, and create a consistent brand experience across channels. But ATMs can also be an institutional pain point. As physical machines in dispersed locations, they require ongoing maintenance, upgrades, and replacement. Because ATMs touch nearly every part of a credit union’s operations, it can be difficult to view the full impact of an aging fleet, a new strategy, or a potential partnership. Faced with this mix of obstacle and opportunity, how can credit union leaders make the best decisions for their organizations?


In the wake of the social and economic changes wrought by COVID-19, ATMs have become an essential way for credit unions to provide members access to cash, deposits, and assistance. Tracing the history of the ATM from early twentieth-century agricultural shows to our pandemic-constrained present reveals a technology that is both deep-rooted and innovative. 

While ATMs may not seem particularly groundbreaking, they have extended the reach of most financial institutions far beyond their branches—and they may provide a blueprint for how credit unions can rethink those branches entirely. We spoke to leaders from credit unions and supporting organizations about their ATM experiences, challenges, successes, and strategies and drew from those insights to offer recommendations and a roadmap for success.


ATMs are one piece of a member’s full experience with the credit union and should be viewed in that context. Serving as a billboard, a marketing opportunity, and (hopefully) a positive interaction between member and institution, an ATM transaction can leave the member feeling satisfied, or frustrated by a machine that is laggy, limited, or out of service. Credit unions have a variety of options for offering ATM services to members, from owning and servicing their own machines, to partnering with a third- party provider, to joining a shared network, and some organizations may choose several of these. Because any approach will have benefits and drawbacks, each organization must define what success will look like before pursuing a new ATM strategy.

Finally, credit unions should beware of chasing after shiny technology and instead seek to understand their members’ unique needs and preferences in order to design a compatible and accessible ATM experience. But there is plenty of emerging technology to get excited about: contactless payments may render the plastic ATM card extraneous, and open-source software could simplify future upgrades. 

Making decisions about ATMs may never be easy, but given the variety of available choices, credit union leaders can and should find opportunities to generate value for their members.

Link to download report and summary slides.

Link to Infographic: Strategic Contexts for ATMS by Melissa K. Wrapp, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, UC Irvine

Thursday, April 15, 2021

HUMA & IMTFI Book Launch (4/19) Disrupting Africa: Technology, Law, and Development

Join us! This Monday (4/19) 9amPT/12pmET/6pmSAST
HUMA-IMTFI book talk of the forthcoming Disrupting Africa: Technology, Law, and Development by Funmi Arewa, published with Cambridge University Press

"Elites, Ornamentation, and Future Visions" with Olufunmilayo B. Arewa 
Monday 19 April 9amPT/12pmET/6pmSAST

Introductory Remarks
Divine Fuh, HUMA Director

Olufunmilayo B. Arewa, Temple University Beasley School of Law
Bill Maurer, UC Irvine, IMTFI Director
Rogers Orock, University of Witwatersrand

About the book
In the digital era, many African countries sit at the crossroads of a potential future that will be shaped by digital-era technologies with existing laws and institutions constructed under conditions of colonial and post-colonial authoritarian rule. In Disrupting Africa, Olufunmilayo B. Arewa examines this intersection and shows how it encompasses existing and new zones of contestation based on ethnicity, religion, region, age, and other sources of division. Arewa highlights specific collisions between the old and the new, including in the 2020 #EndSARS protests in Nigeria, which involved young people engaging with varied digital era technologies who provoked a violent response from rulers threatened by the prospect of political change. Using materials from extensive archival research, Arewa demonstrates how lawmaking and legal processes during and after colonialism continue to frame contexts in which digital technologies are created, implemented, regulated, and used in Africa today.

About the author
Olufunmilayo (“Funmi”) Arewa is the Shusterman Professor of Business and Transactional Law at Temple University Beasley School of Law. She received an M.A. and Ph.D. (Anthropology) from the University of California, Berkeley, an A.M. (Applied Economics) from the University of Michigan, a J.D. from Harvard Law School, and an A.B. from Harvard College. Her research focuses on technology, music, film, business, and Africana studies. 

For enquiries and optional readings contact: huma@uct.ac.za or imtfi@uci.edu.

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: https://culanth.org/fieldsights/the-politics-of-fiscal-sentiments-in-pakistan


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 helene@cariboudigital.net or savita@cariboudigital.net 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.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

New Book: Reimagining Money: Kenya in the Digital Finance Revolution by Sibel Kusimba

Reminagining Money Book
Reimagining Money: Kenya in the Digital Finance Revolution, Stanford University Press by Sibel Kusimba

FROM $28.00

Hardcover ISBN: 9781503613515
Paperback ISBN: 9781503614413
Ebook ISBN: 9781503614420

Technology is rapidly changing the way we think about money. Digital payment has been slow to take off in the United States but is displacing cash in countries as diverse as China, Kenya, and Sweden. In Reimagining Money, Sibel Kusimba describes the rise of M-Pesa, and offers a rich portrait of how this technology changes the economic and social landscape, allowing users to create webs of relationships as they exchange, pool, borrow, lend, and share digital money in user-built networks. These networks, Kusimba argues, will shape the future of financial technologies and their impact on poverty, inclusion, and empowerment. She describes how urban and transnational migrants maintain a presence in rural areas through money gifts; how families use crowdfunding software to assemble donations for emergency medical care; and how new financial groups invest in real estate and fund weddings. The author presents fascinating accounts that challenge accepted wisdom by examining the notion of money as wealth-in-people—an idea long-cultivated in sub-Saharan Africa and now brought to bear on the digital age with homegrown financial technologies such as digital money transfer, digital microloans, and crowdfunding. The book concludes by proposing a new theory of money that can be applied to designing better financial technologies in the future.

About the author
Sibel Kusimba has conducted over twenty years of ethnographic research and archaeological fieldwork in Kenya. She is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of South Florida and is the author of African Foragers (2003).

Excerpts and more