Monday, August 1, 2022

The Social Meaning of Mobile Money: Navigating Digital Payments, Savings and Credit in the Global South

by Janaki Srinivasan, PhD, IIIT-Bangalore and IMTFI Fellow

"The Social Meaning of Mobile Money," Chapter 7 of Data-centric Living: Algorithms, Digitization and Regulation, edited by V. Sridhar; November 30, 2021; Routledge India, 344pp.

ABSTRACT 

Financial transactions have been an integral part of people’s everyday transactions the world over. Whether in the form of cash, credit, plastic cards or today, using digital platforms, these transactions continue to both structure and be shaped by the existing social order . Using a “social meaning of money” framing , this chapter draws on examples from around the world to better understand how people give, receive and save money in the Digital Age. In the process, it attempts three shifts in focus: (1) from the inherent value of monetary technologies to how this value is constituted in practice within specific constellations of norms, values, power relations and resource distribution, (2) from the use of digital platforms to the integration of their use with non-digital artefacts in practice, and (3) from the innovativeness of technology design to the innovativeness of its users. The chapter finds that while mobile financial tools and associated data may well be making the world of financial transactions more inclusive in some ways, they simultaneously risk excluding certain categories of people, practices and geographies from the economy. By alerting us to the promise and perils of newly introduced modes of transacting our finances, this chapter will urge its audience to think more realistically about how to better design such tools and the policies regulating them.

Download full chapter online here: https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/edit/10.4324/9781003093442-7/social-meaning-mobile-money-janaki-srinivasan

This chapter is part of the collection: Data-centric Living: Algorithms, Digitization and Regulation, edited by V. Sridhar and is available online. The book explores how data about our everyday online behaviour are collected and how they are processed in various ways by algorithms powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML). The book  investigates the socioeconomic effects of these technologies, and the evolving regulatory landscape that is aiming to nurture the positive effects of these technology evolutions while at the same time curbing possible negative practices. The volume scrutinizes growing concerns on how algorithmic decisions can sometimes be biased and discriminative; how autonomous systems can possibly disrupt and impact the labour markets, resulting in job losses in several traditional sectors while creating unprecedented opportunities in others; the rapid evolution of social media that can be addictive at times resulting in associated mental health issues; and the way digital Identities are evolving around the world and their impact on provisioning of government services. The book also provides an in-depth understanding of regulations around the world to protect privacy of data subjects in the online world; a glimpse of how data is used as a digital public good in combating Covid pandemic; and how ethical standards in autonomous systems are evolving in the digital world.


A timely intervention in this fast-evolving field, this book is useful for scholars and researchers of digital humanities, business and management, internet studies, data sciences, political studies, urban sociology, law, media and cultural studies, sociology, cultural anthropology, and science and technology studies. It is also of immense interest to the general readers seeking insights on daily digital lives.


Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Telling Financial Stories through Photovoice

“Trust is a difficult thing to earn and build, but our pilot program taught us that the social process of sharing photos and stories is a powerful place to start.”

—The UCI photovoice research team 

Community Credit is a collaborative research project at UC Irvine that seeks to connect minoritized and financially underserved communities with credit unions for the purpose of building trust and developing more equitable financial products that address the specific needs of the community. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation Convergence Accelerator program. The UCI photovoice research team included Melissa Wrapp, UCI anthropology Ph.D. ’21 and postdoctoral project manager; Ellen Garnett Kladky, anthropology graduate student; Bryan Truitt, visual studies graduate student; and Jenny Fan, Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion manager. Photovoice is one method being used within this larger project, which also includes: listening sessions, ethnographic interviews, surveying, financial landscaping, decision modeling, deep data marketing analysis, and more. PhotovoiceWorldwide has been a vital partner to Community Credit, offering consulting, training, and facilitation throughout 2021-22. The following report, by Ellen Garnett Kladky, Ph.D. candidate, University of California, Irvine, details the team’s efforts. Original source: PhotovoiceWorldwide.

“Financial problems are often thought to be secret and shameful. Whether someone is facing big challenges such as bankruptcy or foreclosure, or is simply worrying about day-to-day concerns like paying bills, rising gas prices, or affording gifts for a child’s upcoming birthday, people often keep financial issues to themselves. As a result, many suffer alone. 

This year, UCI Community Credit researchers piloted a photovoice project that aimed to incorporate community perspectives in an effort to build financial alternatives that create inclusion, increase trust, and fight financial disinformation. UCI embarked on this project seeking to better understand what people in minoritized communities needed from the financial institutions that serve them and how they assess the trustworthiness of institutions. But, in a larger sense, our team hoped that the photovoice project would serve as a building block for community involvement, a way to empower participants to craft narratives about their financial strengths and weaknesses, articulate their financial needs, and re-imagine the financial future for themselves and their community.

Pictured: Photos on the theme of uncertainty and resilience

The photovoice pilot consisted of eight participant-researchers recruited by local community-based organizations (CBOs) that work with financially underserved communities in Southern California. Participants took photos in response to a variety of questions (some of which were generated by the group) covering topics such as financial strengths, trust, coping with financial adversity, and creating financial stability. In our meetings, we discussed each other’s photos, wrote captions, and identified themes, which included balance, sacrifice and creativity, and support networks. Meetings culminated in a public share-out session for participants’ friends and family, members of the research team, and CBOs.  

Half of the participants were primarily Khmer-speaking, while the other half communicated in English. To make conversation possible, we relied on two Khmer-English interpreters. We also shifted from plenary group discussions to language-specific breakout conversations throughout our sessions. The process of interpretation can be time-consuming and imperfect, and at times we worried that not being able to speak directly might make it difficult for participants to fully engage with each other. However, to our delight, participants found that this diversity made the experience all the more meaningful. As one put it, ‘I’m Latina—I’m not Cambodian. But during this experience we shared our personal lives and learned how we are all similar in a way, no matter what color we are, no matter what race, no matter where you live.’ 

Pictured: "No safety, no freedom, not happy.
Being in a home has limitations, the homeless look free."

The process of discussing finances was often difficult. More than once, participants became emotional when talking about their photos. Some felt trapped, others faced eviction, others worried for their children. But sharing struggles and strengths was also empowering. Participants frequently noted that they were used to keeping these topics to themselves, and they found it reassuring to learn that others faced many of the same challenges. As one explained, ‘Being in this space, I am happy to know that I am not alone financially struggling; we are in this together.’ Additionally, the process of taking photos in response to prompts, writing captions, and determining themes gave participants confidence in speaking up about financial topics, asking questions, and turning to others for help. 

Pictured: "My children are my sources of hope and resiliency. Saving is not for me, but for my children. In my home country, raising a pig was a way to ensure a future source of income. But here, the pig is savings. I teach my children to save every penny, so it will add up and help us in the future."

This pilot program was insightful for our research team and our credit union partners as we work to develop methodologies for building trust within financial services. First and foremost, it brought into focus the fact that financial decision making and trust building don’t happen in a vacuum—they are completely entangled with other aspects of life. During our photovoice share-out meeting, one of the researchers on our team reflected, ‘This was a welcome reminder that while we sometimes like to separate out finance as its own domain, really it’s not separable from our relationships with our family, our religious lives, our cultural identities, and any number of other things.’

Many interventions aim to promote financial inclusion by focusing only on the domain of the financial, for example by offering new products or teaching financial literacy. But our photovoice pilot program revealed that to understand someone’s financial needs, and certainly to build trust in an institution, it is crucial to consider seemingly ‘non-financial’ aspects of their lives.   

"To understand someone’s financial needs, and certainly to build trust in an institution, it is crucial to consider seemingly 'non-financial' aspects of their lives."

Ultimately, we plan to use photovoice as a part of the Community Credit toolkit, a set of resources to help credit unions and financially underserved communities form long-term, collaborative relationships. As a part of the toolkit, photovoice will be the first step in member-driven product design. As one of our credit union partners observed, ‘Credit unions often want to be more inclusive, but they don’t know where to start, and the perspective of their members, or the people they are trying to include, is often missing.’

Photovoice has begun the process of bringing those perspectives to the table. Enabling community members to tell open-ended stories and build confidence in discussions of financial topics will bring to light financial needs (and strengths) that might not have been visible otherwise. But the role of photovoice in the Community Credit process is not simply one of information gathering or community empowerment: it will also begin to build trust between members of financially underserved communities and credit unions through listening and connecting. Trust is a difficult thing to earn and build, but our pilot program taught us that the social process of sharing photos and stories is a powerful place to start.”  

To see more photos from this project, check out #ProjectMonday features on Instagram:

To learn more about the Community Credit project, visit https://sites.uci.edu/communitycredit/.
 

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Why the crypto crash is fueling calls for regulation

IMTFI Director Bill Maurer in GRID, June 27, 2022

“It’s going to lead to more regulation, especially because you have this awful mix of whatever is going to happen with this very uncertain economy, coupled with all of the marketing of crypto that’s happening right now to vulnerable and minority communities, all the celebrity endorsements,” said Bill Maurer, director of the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion at the University of California, Irvine. “The thing is, if regulation is going to happen, it better happen fast.” … “One of the foundational mythologies of crypto is that you’re going to have this private money and finance that is unregulated and yet still secure, because of the technological workaround,” Mehrsa Baradaran, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, School of Law and author of “The Color of Money” and “How the Other Half Banks.”

For the full story, "Why the crypto crash is fueling calls for regulation: Existing bills and the human toll is creating a perfect storm" by Benjamin Powers, please visit https://www.grid.news/story/technology/2022/06/27/why-the-crypto-crash-is-fueling-calls-for-regulation/.

Monday, June 27, 2022

A Tale of Three Cedis, Mobile Money, and Fintech? User Experiences in Ghana’s Evolving Moneyscape

By Vivian Dzokoto, PhD, Virginia Commonwealth University and  IMTFI Fellow in the Merian Institute for Advanced Studies in Africa (MIASA) - Blog

A decade ago, I published “A Tale of Two Cedis”, a psychological perspective of user experiences of adjustment to a central bank-led disruption to payments in Ghana. In that and other papers, I explored how Ghanaians made sense of the old currency1 (what became known as the Old Ghana Cedi), and its replacement, the New Ghana Cedi. The latter was a banknote and coin series more portable than its predecessor due to the elimination of 4 zeroes.

Thereafter, I published other papers, based largely on interviews with everyday consumers, examining how people made sense (or didn’t) of Mobile Money. I researched the public awareness of and reasons for the then slow uptake of Mobile Money in Ghana. (Uptake has increased dramatically since then).

My research in Ghana’s moneyscape had numerous takeaways. Here are two examples. First, the old currency remains an important part of sense-making for a seemingly large subset of Ghanaians. Currently, 10+ years post-redenomination, some Ghanaians routinely convert the cost of goods and services to the old currency to get a sense of just how pricey something is – to determine the “real value”. In technical terms, such users default to the phased-out scale rather than the rescaled calibration of the fiat currency to subjectively determine worth. Second, from the user perspective, the onboarding of mobile money was partly hampered by a focus on the tangibility of money. Simply put, at the time, people preferred money that they could touch and feel – and handle, hide, wave, toss, present, and on occasion, flaunt. Apart from initial distrust of Mobile Money in its early days, lack of a perceived distinction between Mobile Money and Ezwich (a biometric card-based payment option and financial inclusion strategy introduced by the Ghana Interbank Payment and Settlement Systems Limited (GHIPSS)), low levels of awareness and understanding of this phone-based payment tool, many of my respondents at the time were of the view that money wasn’t quite a money devoid of a physical form.

The face of payments in Ghana has changed dramatically since my “Tale of Two Cedis” was published. Yet distinct patterns prevail in Ghana’s payment ecosystem. I discuss a few of these below.

What has changed?

Today, the payment ecosystem in Ghana, while not flawless, is decidedly much more complex. While not cashless, it is certainly cash-lite. A digitally literate, bank account holder has the option of paying for goods and services via mobile phone using Mobile Money through a Mobile Network Operator. This is done via e-value in the local currency previously loaded onto their Mobile Money Wallet by a push transaction from their online banking account2, processed by a third party financial technology company aka fintech (invisible to the consumer) linking the banking system to the mobile money platform on the rails of GHIPPS products. Alternatively, the shopper could pay by cash, card (assuming the vendor has a point of sale machine), a third-party payment app, or via QR code. Ghana is the first African country to launch a universal QR code enabling instant merchant payments from mobile money wallets (GSMA, 2021). A frequently heard question today is “ Don’t you have momo? “. This is the case particularly when a vendor is unable to make the change, a perennial local cash-related problem in some sectors of the market economy. Churches, a HUGE presence in this very religious country, particularly embraced mobile money payments during the COVID 19 lockdown period. By doing so, churches have expanded beyond their significant engagement with the formal banking sector to mirror the nation’s cash lite, mobile money dominated payment preference shift.


To read the full post please visit: https://miasa.hypotheses.org/429

Featured Image: By PDPics, Pixabay-Licence, https://pixabay.com/photos/currency-note-paper-money-ghana-166846/.

Footnotes

  1. The term old “currency” sounds like an oxymoron. 
  2. Note: There are other ways of loading money onto a mobile money wallet, such as a push payment from someone else’s bank account or mobile money account, or by depositing cash with a Mobile Money agent.

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 Universit├Ąt 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, Universit├Ąt 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/