Financial Inclusion and the Future of Social Protection Policy

The economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in major setbacks in addressing global poverty levels. The UN predicts significant delays in reaching a number of the Sustainable Development Goals and the World Bank reports a two-decade reduction in eliminating extreme poverty. In this context, almost every country in the world has expanded, adapted, or developed new social protection measures. Some 1.3 billion people were assisted through this expansion of social protection over the course of the pandemic, from stimulus cheques to caregiver benefits to supports for informal workers (Gentilini et al., 2020). By far the most popular form of support were direct cash transfers (CT), with many governments expanding coverage or eliminating conditionalities entirely.

Like many observers, I was initially hopeful that these expansions would provide opportunities to address the significant gaps in our social protection systems, particularly as the most vulnerable (women, informal workers and migrants) are often excluded. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. Pandemic specific transfer programs lasted, on average, only 3.3 months, with only 7% extended beyond this (Gentilini 2021). Prior to the pandemic, some 4 billion people lacked social protection coverage. The limited duration of these measures, coupled with the long-run effects of disrupted employment, means we are effectively back to where we started—even as the pandemic shows no signs of abating in much of the world.

What has emerged instead are significantly different approaches to adapting the welfare state in a context of continuous and ongoing livelihood crises.     

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Who will Benefit from the Bitcoinization of El Salvador?

On 8 June, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly voted to pass the Ley Bitcoin(Bitcoin Law), with a majority vote of 62 out of 84. The legislation was presented to the Assembly days after President Nayib Bukele announced his intention to make bitcoin legal tender, speaking via video broadcast to the Bitcoin 2021 Conference in Miami. Effective from 7 September, all businesses in the country will be required to accept bitcoin alongside the United States dollar, El Salvador’s current currency. Since the bill’s passing, legislators in Panama and financiers in Mexico have expressed interest in recognizing bitcoin as legal tender.

Rather than China’s digital renminbi or Venezuela’s petro, El Salvador will not be pursing the creation of its own cryptocurrency. Bukele is adamant that at this stage Bitcoin will not make up any of the nation’s reserves, held in the Central Reserve Bank of El Salvador. Rather, a trust in the country’s development bank (BANDESAL) worth US $150 million will guarantee convertibility to dollars as a safeguard against bitcoin’s volatility. In doing so, the BANDESAL trust would make sure that the price of a commodity does not widely fluctuate between point of purchase and completion of transaction.

In Bukele’s address he made mention of the lack of financial inclusion for Salvadorans being a motivation for the law. In a country where informal employment makes up around 70% of the labor force, anonymous peer-to-peer cash transfers without the formal requirements of a bank account or the high charges of Western Union make sense as an alternative. Bukele has also expressed his hope that the move will make El Salvador “less dependent” on the United States, given that dollarization ceded monetary independence to the Federal Reserve. But given the increasing centralization of Bitcoin and its reliance on big tech money, it is far more likely that bitcoinization will merely make El Salvador dependent on a different section of US capital.

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The Techfare State: The ‘New’ Face of Neoliberal State Regulation

By Ali Bhagat and Rachel Phillips

A recent article in the New York Times takes aim at ‘How Big Tech Won the Pandemic’, highlighting how in the last year alone, Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook posted a combined revenue of more than $1.2 trillion. While the pandemic has resulted in the loss of both work and life the world over, companies like Amazon have managed to expand their warehouses and their cloud computing infrastructure—and reaped unprecedented profits in the process. As the Times put it, ‘the pandemic created a peculiar economy that benefited some people and industries, including in technology, even as it battered others.’ 

But as many commentators have pointed out, the explosive growth of the tech giants must also be understood in relation to more overtly political conditions. It may be true that the technology industry has maintained a liberal, progressive, and socially equitable visage throughout the pandemic, even as it has subtly extended its multi-tentacled reach into new physical and digital spaces. Indeed, we know by now, that Big Tech has long thrived on regulatory evasion and the exploitation of legal grey areas and this is a dominant reading within critical political economy which has been at pains to point out how laissez-faire regulatory environments—particularly in the United States—have allowed the tech industry to sniff out and exploit new sources of profit, including those that have arisen as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.  

In this literature, then, the tendency is to assume that it is an absence of state intervention that has underpinned the technology industry’s growing economic (and political) power. With our conception of techfare, however, we aim to push beyond these explorations of how Big Tech evades state control. Instead of focusing on state absences, we set out to highlight an equally significant dynamic: how the technology industry has become deeply entwined with the activities of the neoliberal state. 

Our research agenda is centred on one key question: how has the dramatic post-2008 growth of the American technology industry interacted with—and been shaped by—the neoliberal regulatory projects that have prevailed during this time? In pursuing this question, we focus on one pivotal arena of neoliberal statecraft in which Big Tech companies increasingly participate, but where their presence has gone largely unnoticed: the disciplining of the relative surplus population, particularly through consumer debt, policing, and imprisonment. 

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COVID in Pakistan, the Role of Middle-Classes and the Unprecedented Demand for a New Social Contract

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A conversation with and Dr. Juvaria Jafri and Dr. Aasim Sajjad.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar is Professor of Political Economy at the National Institute of Pakistan Studies, Quaid-e-Azam University and a founder of the Awami Workers Party (AWP).  His research has focused on state theory, informality, colonial history, rise of the middle classes and social movements in Pakistan. His latest book is ‘The Politics of Common Sense: State, Society and Culture in Pakistan’.

 Juvaria Jafri is a Lecturer in International Political Economy at City University. Her research is on financial development in Pakistan, including inclusive finance, fintech, and impact investing strategies. Her latest co-edited book is ‘Geofinance between Political and Financial Geographies: A Focus on the Semi-Periphery of the Global Financial System.’

Introduction

The full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on developing countries is still unfolding. While many countries have managed to achieve some stability in eliminating the spread of the crisis, others are struggling on various fronts. In South Asia, India has received much global attention owing to the violence of a hasty lockdown which was imposed without warning and an accompanying social safety net. Other countries in the region including Bangladesh, Srilanka and Nepal also continue to grapple with the existential question of how to ensure that contagion control does not come at the expense of destroying livelihoods. 

In this interview we focus on the situation in Pakistan. We invited Aasim Sajjad and Juvaria Jafri to address some questions related to the current situation in Pakistan. The following four questions were designed to provide a glimpse of how the pandemic is impacting the existing socio-economic structure of the Pakistani economy particularly focusing on class inequality, fin-tech as a potential solution and the activist and citizen-led first historic demand for a long-term welfare package. 

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Mexico: Between Financial Exclusion and the Predominance of Banks too Big to Fail 

 

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Photo: Max Pixel.

In his acclaimed poem “America” from 1956, Allen Ginsberg warned about the new vices of American society. Beyond the clear demonization of communist ideals, the star of the beat generation warned about the growing influence of the media on the thinking of individuals.

With globalization, the commodity fetishism disguised as the American dream entered not only the minds of the citizens of the United States but the rest of the globe. In addition, with the financialization of the economy, the debt culture also surpassed the American borders, reaching the countries of the Global South.

There is no day when the media does not bombard us with advertisements that promote a consumer culture, inciting us to acquire goods that we cannot afford with our income. This is where credit plays the role of a “savior entity” through which we can satisfy our deepest desires. However, unlike the developed countries, which have high levels of access to financial services, the underdeveloped countries are subject to a subordinated financialization that limits the possibilities of households and non-financial companies of acquiring a loan and, consequently, complicates the satisfaction of our consumerist spirit and the development of the productive sphere. The notion of subordinated financialization was first proposed by Jeff Powell (2013) to designate the specific way in which financialization manifests itself in underdeveloped economies. The level of access to financial services that a country has is known as financial inclusion, however, in the case of Mexico, this level is so low that we are facing financial exclusion.Read More »

Misunderstanding the average impact of microcredit?

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Photo: Peter Haden. Microfinance center leaders tally the week’s loan payments in India.

By Milford Bateman and Maren Duvendack

A recent article on the “average impact of microcredit” by Dr. Rachel Meager (LSE) has received much praise over the past few weeks. Meager deploys Bayesian hierarchical modelling to provide a new take on the argument in favour of a reformed system of microcredit. Her work builds on the data provided by six randomized control trials (RCTs) conducted by Abhijit Banerjee and colleagues (see Banerjee, Karlan and Zinman, 2015). Meager makes an attempt to exculpate the microcredit model from the awkward fact that its impact on the poor has been very much less than originally envisaged. She also claims to show that the critics have overstated the negative impact of microcredit. Microcredit should therefore continue to be a policy intervention, she goes on to say, but there need to be changes in the operating methodology for a more meaningful development impact to be possible in the future.

While seemingly a well-meaning attempt to explore the impact of microcredit, we were struck by the way that her overall argument appears to seriously misunderstand, and it definitely misrepresents, the existing research on microcredit as a development instrument. Read More »

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 »

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 »