Exploring the Platform Political Economy of Self-Help in Africa

Informal savings group in Tarime district, Tanzania. Photo: Daivi Rodima-Taylor

Self-help groups can be found in many areas of Africa—including the chama groups of Kenya, isusu of Nigeria, and stokvels of South Africa (Ardener and Burman 1995). Their customary rotating credit arrangement is also popular among African diaspora communities (Hossein 2018; Ardener 2010). A significant rise has occurred in these groups at the wake of the neoliberal restructuring reforms of the 1980s-90s, with a decline in formal sector employment and state-funded producer cooperatives. At present, these mutual support groups are targeted by FinTech platforms as well as conventional banks with various financial products and software apps. My recent research explores of the contentious interplay between the formal and informal finance in these emerging digital interfaces in Africa. It studies the intersection of FinTech with the social economies of African mutual help groups in Kenya and South Africa, situating this dynamic in longer-term colonial legacies and present-day policies of extractive financialization (Rodima-Taylor 2022).

Informal mutual support groups with their saving-credit patterns have long served as an inspiration for the development industry. The initially successful Grameen micro-finance model drew on pre-existing reciprocities and mutually negotiated liability in largely informal contexts. However, as the microfinance formula shifted from socially situated lending towards ‘fast-scaling’ and universalizing group lending in an expanding range of localities, the industry was faced with repayment crisis (see Haldar and Stiglitz 2016). The recent conceptual shift from microfinance to digital financial inclusion foregrounds mobile payments and fee-based service delivery, with payment industry also experimenting with new sources of value such as customer data (Maurer 2015). Microloans have remained an important part of the digital financial inclusion enterprise, with poorly regulated lending apps fueling over-indebtedness. As informal savings groups and mutual support associations have become central in the livelihoods in many low-income communities, I suggest that more attention is needed to the intersection between the self-help groups and FinTech initiatives in the global South.

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Price Wars: How the Commodities Markets Made Our Chaotic World: Q&A with Rupert Russel

In Price Wars: How the Commodities Markets Made Our Chaotic World, sociologist and filmmaker Rupert Russell travelled to some of the world’s most chaotic places: war zones in Ukraine, Iraq, and Somalia, the climate wars in Kenya and Guatemala, and Venezuela’s economic catastrophe. Told as gonzo investigation into what made the 2010s so tumultuous, Russell links each of these eruptions to swings in commodity prices, and the financial speculators whose bets set their prices.

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The colonial geographies of Kenya’s fintech boom

Digital and mobile finance applications have boomed in Kenya over the last decade. Mobile money, Vodafone’s M-Pesa system in particular, is ubiquitous. Kenyan banks and smaller start-ups have led the adoption of a wider range of mobile and digital financial applications.

For promoters of fintech as a tool for development, Kenya is a paradigm case. Estimates from Tavneet Suri and William Jack – suggesting that the advent of M-Pesa had directly moved 194 000 households, equivalent to 2 percent of the country, out of extreme poverty – have been triumphantly cited across a wide range of media reports and policy documents. The rapid adoption of mobile and digital finance, according to advocates, has allowed Kenya to ‘leapfrog’ the developmental constraints of its existing financial system. In the words of one author: ‘new technologies solve problems arising from weak institutional infrastructure and the cost structure of conventional banking’.

There are good reasons to question this rosy narrative, as recent critics have demonstrated compellingly. Among others, Milford Bateman and colleagues raise a number of important methodological and other objections to Suri and Jack’s claims, and Serena Natile shows how narratives of ‘inclusion’ mask the perpetuation of gendered patterns of exclusion and inequality. Wider applications of fintech in Kenya have come in for critique as well. Kevin Donovan and Emma Park highlight emerging patterns of digitally-enabled over-indebtedness. Laura Mann and Gianluca Iazzolino trace the emergence of monopolistic corporate power enacted through the extension of digital platforms (including for finance) in Kenyan agriculture. Ali Bhagat and Leanne Roderick show the emergence of new forms of racialized dispossession and exploitation through efforts to extend fintech applications to refugees in Kenya.

On a more basic level, ‘leapfrogging’ narratives have to contend with the fact that the geography of Kenyan fintech looks a lot like that of the financial system more generally. The fintech boom is predominantly an urban phenomenon, and especially concentrated in Mombasa and in and around Nairobi. Data from the 2019 national ‘FinAccess’ survey shows that 6.6 percent of respondents currently or had previously used of mobile lending services, and 6.4 percent reported the same of digital lending apps. The corresponding figures among urban residents were 17.2 and 11.4 percent. The proportion of residents in Nairobi Metropolitan Area and Mombasa using mobile money services (25 percent) and digital lending apps (18.2 percent) is more than double the respective use rates of mobile (12.3 percent) and digital borrowing (7.1 percent) among urban residents elsewhere.

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International support for the least developed countries: moving out of the mainstream

Next January the next United Nations Programme of Action for least developed countries (LDCs) will launch in Doha. It will set the framework for the next 10 years of international support for the world’s 46 officially poorest and most structurally disadvantaged countries, home to around a billion people.  

LDCs are low-income countries confronting severe structural impediments to sustainable development. Membership of the category is based on three criteria: income per capita, human assets and economic and environmental vulnerability.  

Assistance for LDCs currently falls under three categories: trade, aid and a range of ad hoc measures broadly aimed at help with taking part in the international system, such as lower contributions to the UN budget and support for travel to international meetings like the annual UN General Assembly.  

Support is largely based on the premise that LDCs are artificially or temporarily excluded from global commerce. Preferential market access, temporary development assistance and help with participating in multilateral processes are intended to tackle this defect, in turn helping the LDCs ‘catch up’.  

Dating to 1971, the category is the only one recognised in UN and multilateral legal texts. There is no official ‘developing country’ or ‘middle income’ category with associated support measures. Low income countries are not specifically targeted, and the small and vulnerable states are only recognised as a working group at the World Trade Organisation. They are not acknowledged in the legal texts. 

Although donors don’t meet aid pledges and support doesn’t go far enough, official targets are possible because the LDC group is officially recognised in the UN system and has legal bearing. An example of such a target is the commitment by developed countries to deliver 0.15-0.20% of gross national income (GNI) in development assistance to LDCs. The European Union offers duty-free, quota-free market access to LDC exports under its Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme for LDCs. 

The theory behind support for LDCs is implicitly based on the mainstream economics view that LDCs lag behind because they aren’t exposed enough to correct market prices and conditions. The removal of so-called distortions like overseas tariff and non-tariff barriers, alongside temporary development assistance and help taking part in the global system, is supposed to free up these economies to play a fuller role in the international economy. Economic growth will drive development and reduce poverty. 

The evidence shows that for most LDCs this theory never worked. Until the pandemic the economies of some LDCs were performing well. Up to 12 could leave the category in coming years. A few, like Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar, were able to take advantage of lower tariffs for their garment exports. These three countries account for 87% of imports to the EU under EBA.  

But half were supposed to meet the criteria by 2020, according to international targets. 12 graduations falls well short. The six that have left since the formation of the category in 1971 have not all done so because of better international market access or special support measures. Commodity exports, tourism or improved health and education are mostly responsible.  

The remaining LDCs aren’t catching up. The gap is widening. The pandemic devastated the group. Gross domestic product (GDP) shrank 1.3% on average in 2020, with the economies of 37 contracting during the year and extreme poverty in the group rising by a staggering 84 million. But even before Covid, average real GDP per capita for the group had long diverged from other developing countries and the rest of the world.  

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The frailties of diaspora bonds 

The interest in diaspora bonds is sustained by the theoretical potential to finance development in poor economies by raising funds from expatriate communities, often labor migrants, living abroad. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, as developing nations faced sudden reversals in capital flows, diaspora bonds were hypothesized to counter the international capital markets’ volatility. A year later, the most recent bout of portfolio ‘de-risking’ and less optimistic outlook for emerging markets by the international institutional investors may prompt renewed calls for tapping into diaspora. But is the alternative scheme so easily deployable? 

Diaspora bonds are sovereign debt securities issued by countries appealing to the altruistic motives of their cultural and national diasporas across the world. Historically, there have been several attempts to leverage the diaspora premium, with Israel and India running the most effective diaspora bonds initiatives

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The Geopolitics of Financialisation and Development: Interview with Ilias Alami

This interview was originally published in German in the special issue on financialisation and development policies of the journal Peripherie, September 2021, No. 162/163. Frauke Banse and Anil Shah (both based at Kassel University) spoke with political economist Ilias Alami (Maastricht University) about some of his recent work on the relationship between geopolitics, financial flows for development and emerging forms of ‘state capitalism,’ as well as related new imperialist formations. The interview was conducted via email in May 2021.  

The interview covers a series of International Political Economy topics. Ilias first locates the emergence of the Wall Street Consensus in the long and turbulent histories of the relation between finance and development as well as in secular capitalist transformations. He then outlines some of the conceptual tools he’s developed in his work in order to make sense of the contemporary interconnections of money and finance and the reproduction of imperialism and race/coloniality. Next, he situates these interconnections within broader scholarly debates about financialisation and highlights the similarities and differences between ongoing sovereign debt crises in the global South and the so-called 1980s ‘Third World debt crisis.’ Finally, Ilias discusses the recent emergence of new forms of ‘state capitalism’ and their complex relation to the extension and deepening of market-based finance. 

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Internal and external constraints: economic development without currency crisis

Simply speaking, development macroeconomics can be summarized as the challenge of improving productivity and production capacity in poor countries. This involves the conditions that need to be fulfilled for a development process to start as well as the policy framework and instruments that support it. Heterodox approaches consider the state’s role in steering productivity growth as essential (Cardim de Carvalho, 1997). Markets may be able to exploit price signals and adjust resource allocation correspondingly. However, they guarantee neither sufficient profitability of key sectors nor the demand for the goods produced. Both the profit rate and effective demand are conditions for investment to take place (Oberholzer, 2020). It is thus up to the government to make public investment in priority sectors and to apply instruments such as taxes and subsidies in ways that simultaneously allow for economies of scale, higher productivity large-scale employment and demand. This is what is generally referred to as industrial policy (see for example Chang, 2006; Oqubay, 2018).

But this is not everything. Policymakers have to pursue such a development strategy in face of an (often permanent) shortage of foreign currency. While domestic currency can be generated via the domestic banking system including public development banks, the availability of foreign currency is limited unless a country is able to increase exports or restrict imports. Since larger export capacity and a higher degree of import substitution are long-term goals, the current account is determined by domestic and foreign economic growth. This insight has come to be known as the balance-of-payments-constrained model or Thirlwall’s law, respectively (Thirlwall, 1979, 2013): it is reasonable to assume that demand for a country’s exports grows in income in the rest of the world while imports increase with domestic economic growth because a part of increasing incomes is reliably spent on imported goods. Therefore, stability in the balance of payments requires that imports do not grow faster than foreign exchange earnings via exports allow. A limit to the growth of imports implies a limit to the country’s economic growth, hence the balance-of-payments-constrained growth rate.

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If the Washington Consensus was really over, what would that look like for development strategy?

If it still looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck – then it probably still is a duck.

Recent years have witnessed a notable re-embrace of the state’s role in the economy, leading some to declare that the set of free market economic policy reforms widely known as the Washington Consensus has come to an end.

First popularized by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, the Washington Consensus policies offered a set of policy guidelines for developing countries, many of which were struggling with high debt and high inflation at the time. These free market reforms included trade and financial liberalization, privatization, deregulation, the removal of capital controls, fiscal austerity (cutting public spending) in order to achieve strict targets for maintaining low inflation and low fiscal deficits, the adoption of independent central banks, and deregulating restrictions on foreign investment, among others. Broadly speaking, the policies sought to roll back the role of the state in the economy and unshackle the animal spirits of the free market. In the 1980s, adopting the policies became binding conditions for developing countries to receive debt relief and new lending by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, in the 1990s, the policies served as the basis for World Trade Organization (WTO) membership rules – and ever since then, the policies have become a cornerstone of the curricula in economics departments at universities across the world.

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