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 »

Make Microfinance Great Again: A Shift Towards Flexibility

6925521070_420f1882d6_o.jpgMicrofinance has been widely hailed as one of the most innovative tools for fighting against poverty. It has generated global attention over the last two decades, especially since the UN declared 2005 the ‘Year of Microcredit’ and the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank. This led to a significant expansion of the sector in the last decade. According to the World Bank (2015), the microfinance industry is estimated to have $60-100 billion in loans outstanding, and several thousand microfinance organizations reach an estimated 200 million clients. 32.5 million of these clients are in India and 90 percent of them are women.Read More »

BLOG SERIES: Inclusive or Exclusive Global Development? Scrutinizing Financial Inclusion

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“Financial inclusion is a key enabler to reducing poverty and boosting prosperity.”

The World Bank (2018)

“[Policies of financial inclusion] serve to legitimize, normalize, and consolidate the claims of powerful, transnational capital interests that benefit from finance-led capitalism.”

–  Susanne Soederberg (2013).

Financial inclusion has been high on the agenda for policy-makers over the past decade, including the G20, international financial institutions, national governments and philanthropic foundations. According to Bateman and Chang (2013), it’s the international development community’s most generously funded poverty reduction policy. But what lies behind the buzzword? How can the two quotes above portray such starkly opposing views?Read More »

Caveat emptor: the Graduation Approach, electronic payments and the potential pitfalls of financial inclusion

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By Paulo L dos Santos and Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven

The Graduation Approach to poverty reduction is inextricably bound up with programmes promoting financial inclusion. Proponents for the approach see it guiding a series of interventions that encourage poor households to ‘graduate’ into ‘mainstream development programmes’ which are centred on the provision of credit and other financial services (BRAC 2014). Indeed, the approach has been presented as a way to address the needs of those “too poor for microfinance services” (UNHCR 2014). The presumption is that the development and poverty reduction needs of ‘graduates’ will be well served by financial inclusion initiatives.Read More »