The Curious Case of M-Pesa’s Miraculous Poverty Reduction Powers

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M-PESA kiosk outside Kibera centre in Nairobi. Picture credit: Fiona Graham / WorldRemit

By Milford Bateman, Maren Duvendack and Nicholas Loubere

Over the past decade the expansion of digital-financial inclusion through innovations in financial technology (fin-tech) has been identified by the World Bank, the G20, USAID, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and other major international institutions, as a key way to promote development and alleviate poverty in the Global South (GPFI, 2016; Häring 2017; World Bank, 2014). Perhaps the most influential and widely reported publication pushing forward this narrative is an article examining M-Pesa written by US-based economists Tavneet Suri and William Jackand published in the prestigious journal Scienceentitled ‘The Long-run Poverty and Gender Impacts of Mobile Money’. M-Pesa is a mobile phone, agent-assisted platform for transferring money from one person to another. It was originally developed with funding from DFID and has quickly become a darling of the digital-financial inclusion movement. In this particular article, the authors make the far-reaching claim that ‘access to the Kenyan mobile money system M-PESA increased per capita consumption levels and lifted 194,000 households, or 2% of Kenyan households, out of poverty’ (Suri and Jack, 2016: 1288).

Suri and Jack’s article in Science has sent ripples through the global development community and has servedas perhaps was intendedto solidify support for upping the promotion of digital-financial inclusion initiatives across the Global South. Importantly, the article’s claims of unprecedented poverty reduction have been uncritically picked up by all of the international development agencies and microcredit advocacy organisations, as well as by many mainstream economists, so-called ‘social entrepreneurs’, tech investors, and media outlets. Much like microcredit in the 1980s, fin-tech and digital-financial inclusion is now very widely seen as a key—if not the keyto reducing global poverty and promoting local development.

In this post we summarise our recent article entitled ‘Is Fin-tech the New Panacea for Poverty Alleviation and Local Development?’ (Bateman, Duvendack, and Loubere, 2019), which challenges Suri and Jack’s findings, and urges the global development community to take a second, more critical look at their study. We argue that the article contains a worrying number of omissions, errors, inconsistencies, and that it also employs flawed methodologies. Unfortunately, their inevitably flawed conclusions have served to legitimise and strengthen a false narrative of the role that fin-tech can play in poverty alleviation and development, with potentially devastating consequences for the global poor.Read More »

The Green New Deal: Whither Capitalism?

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By Güney Işıkara and Ying Chen

The Green New Deal resolution by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey sparked an immense amount of discussion on all layers of political discourse, national and international. The way Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders and many others phrase the problem in the broader context of social, economic, and environmental grievances caused by capitalism is crucial for setting the terms of debate and struggle. This opens up space the left can use to address such issues in a systematic way rather than being content with symptomal healing. In fact, countless contributions have already been made on theoretical and tactical grounds. In this piece, we build on those contributions, and unpack the dynamics inherent to the capitalist system that would need to be addressed in the ongoing discussions. We also shed light on the limitations of a market-based and growth-centered approach to tackling climate destabilization, while offering other domains of political intervention such as property relations and demarketization of subsistence.Read More »

Rethinking the Failures of Mining Industrialisation in the African Periphery

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The remains of one of SOMINKI’s industrial gold mines (author photo).

The World Bank interpreted the failure of mineral extraction to drive structural transformation in the early decades of African Independence as due to badly managed state-owned enterprises (SOEs), excessive state intervention in the economy, and government corruption. To right these wrongs, since the 1980s, the Bank has loaned hundreds of millions of dollars to the governments of mineral-rich (and mostly low-income) African countries to privatise and liberalise their mining sectors. Spurred on by the most recent commodity super-cycle beginning in the late 1990s, foreign direct investment poured in, and for many low-income African countries today, “the mining sector represents one of the most crucial sources of investment and income in their economies” (Farole and Winkler 2014: 177). A major theoretical assumption underpinning this process has been a belief in the superior expertise and efficiency of experienced transnational corporations (TNCs) compared to corrupt and mismanaged SOEs. In this post, I unpack and question the validity of this assumption, by drawing on some of the findings from my doctoral thesis on mining reindustrialisation in South Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).     Read More »

Why so Hostile? Busting Myths about Heterodox Economics

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By Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven and Carolina Alves

“Economics is unique among the social sciences in having a single monolithic mainstream, which is either unaware of or actively hostile to alternative approaches.” (John King 2013: 17)

What does heterodox economics mean? Is the label helpful or harmful? Being outside of the mainstream of the Economics discipline, the way we position ourselves may be particularly important. For this reason, many around us shun the use of the term “heterodox” and advise against using it. However, we believe the reluctance to use the term stems in part from misunderstandings of (and sometimes disagreement over) what the term means and perhaps disagreements over strategies for how to change the discipline.

In other words, this is an important debate about both identification and strategy. In this blog, we wish to raise the issue in heterodox and mainstream circles, by busting a few common myths about Heterodox Economics – mostly stemming from the orthodoxy. This is a small part of a larger project on defining heterodox economics.

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Sudan’s national salvation

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Omar al Bashir has fallen in Khartoum. Beyond regime change–managed by the military– there’s a deeper economic crisis.

In April 11th after five days of sustained protests outside of the compound of the Military High Command in Central Khartoum, the Minister of Defense and First Vice President of Sudan,  Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf made a televised broadcast to the nation, announcing the arrest of President Omar El-Bashir and an unspecified number of other high ranking officials primarily associated with Islamist Movement. Ibn Auf declared the military’s intention to form a transitional government, the makeup of which would be announced later, and a three month state of emergency including a curfew. His demands have been rejected by the Sudanese Professional Association and other groups like Girfna, which have declared that only a civilian transitional government would be acceptable. The Sudanese Professional Association have published a Declaration of Freedom and Change which outlines a plan for a four year transitional government made up of civilian technocrats. Chants of tsgut bas (Just fall) changed overnight to sgut (fallen).

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Economic development in Palestine and beyond

Palestine-blog-image-TSuccessful economic development in Palestine will require an adequate theory of development, industrial policy, and institutional reforms.

Recently, the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute (MAS) published a comprehensive study on Palestinian economic development. In this report, co-authored by my colleagues Heiner Flassbeck, Michael Paetz, and I, we explore possible solutions as to how Palestine could sustainably finance its deficits. Now, after the Israeli elections, Jared Kushner, the US President’s son-in-law and senior advisor, is set to announce the details of the US Peace Plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Given that the Peace Plan is expected to include a large economic component to solve the conflict, it will be interesting to see to what extent it addresses the fundamental problems we identified in our research.

Our results suggest, succinctly, that under current conditions of excessive imbalances in the external sector (trade and current account), any issuance of debt securities requires fixing these imbalances first, for which, in turn, strategic public intervention is critical. This finding may come as a surprise to most policymakers, as orthodox economic theory suggests that the most efficient ways for countries to develop is through market led (as opposed to state led) policies. Historical evidence demonstrates that none of the advanced countries followed this path in their own development, yet the idea of ‘the market’ as the most efficient development tool is still widespread. Based on this belief, Western institutions wreaked havoc in developing countries during the 1980s and 1990s, and continue to do so (although some institutions, notably the IMF, show significant progress in learning from past experiences).Read More »

Islamic Finance and Financial Inclusion: Who Includes Whom, in What, and on Whose Terms?

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By Lena Rethel, University of Warwick.

With the rise of financial inclusion as the new buzzword in global development circles, it has replaced earlier items on the reform agenda such as financial modernisation or financial deepening. By their very nature financial inclusion projects are inherently political – their underlying rationale is to change who has access to what forms of credit and at what conditions. Financial inclusion is both a multi-scalar and multi-faceted phenomenon. Needless to say that its dynamics play out differently in different countries and regions. However, before uncritically embracing the financial inclusion agenda as a means to achieving a more equitable economic order, more attention should be paid to what constitutes a fundamental set of questions: who includes whom, in what and on whose terms? In this blog entry, I want to highlight some of the key issues that have emerged in relation to Islamic finance. Read More »

Samir Amin and Beyond

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By Ushehwedu Kufakurinani, Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven and Maria Dyveke Styve

When the sad news came of Samir Amin’s passing on August 12th, 2018, a plethora of beautiful obituaries were published in his memory (see for example hereherehere or here). These have made it more than evident not only how important his scholarship and work through the World Social Forum is, but also what an extraordinary person he was. We never had the privilege of meeting Samir Amin in person, but he was very kind to grant us an interview over Skype for an e-book we put together in 2017 on the contemporary relevance of dependency theory (since published by the University of Zimbabwe Publishers). Now we wish to unpack his contributions to our understanding of political economy and uneven development, and explore how his ideas have been interpreted and adopted in different contexts, and their relevance today.

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