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

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 »

If India gave minimum support incomes to the rich before, it can do the same for the poor. Rahul Gandhi can do it.

rahulghandi.jpgIndia’s opposition leader has recently floated minimum income support. The 1.5% GDP equivalent it requires can be financed through a 3% tax on the richest 3000. It is not just an idealized safety net for the poor – it has been done before, for the super elites. If it works, it can be a model for adoption in other emerging democracies. Read More »

Why positive thinking won’t get you out of poverty

attitude-be-positive-draw-262532.jpgBy Farwa Sial and Carolina Alves

In a recent article in the New York Times, the development economist Seema Jayachandran discusses three studies that used Randomised Controlled Trials (or RCTs) to understand the benefits of enhancing the self-worth of poor people. Despite wide differences in context, all the cases explore the viability of ‘modest interventions’ to ‘instill hope’ in marginalised communities, concluding that ‘remarkable improvements’ in the quest for poverty reduction are possible.

One of the studies from Uganda, for example, argues that “a role model can have significant effects on students’ educational attainment,” so the suggestion for policy-makers might be “to place more emphasis on motivation and inspiration through example.” Another case study of sex workers in Kolkata Brothels argues that “psychological barriers impede such disadvantaged groups from breaking the vicious circle and achieving better outcomes in life,” so small but effective changes that address these psychological constraints can alleviate the effects of poverty and social exclusion.

The underlying theme of these studies is that individuals can surmount the structural challenges of poverty through their own efforts using tools like ‘effective role models,’ the generation of ‘more hope,’ and the ‘improvement of their mental health.’ Positive psychology of this kind and an emphasis on behavior change to meet the goals of individuals have been around at least since the 1950s, first in the popular literature of self-help books and now in academia, where they form part of an increasingly fashionable trend to ‘do poverty reduction differently.’Read More »

Think Positive, Climb out of Poverty? It’s Just Not So Easy!

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Social mobility in Brazil: Positive thinking and ambitious aspirations can create lots of frictions“

A few weeks ago, Professor Seema Jayachandran from Northwestern University published an article in the New York Times in which she discussed the role of positive thinking and of believing in oneself for overcoming poverty. Jayachandran argues that there is “growing evidence that it can used as an anti-poverty strategy”, while also warning about placing too much emphasis on positive thinking alone. This post will dwell on the latter point, arguing that we should pay much more attention to limitations and broader contexts of positive thinking in development. I do not want to deny the role of self-worth and forward-looking aspirations for poverty reduction and quality of life more generally, but I will emphasize the importance of considering their role only as part of a broader policy mix.

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Revisiting Hirschman’s Tunnel Effect and Its Relevance for China


As within-country inequality is on the rise worldwide, considering how people actually perceive inequality in their societies and how they respond to it is a question worth asking. In 1973 Albert Otto Hirschman proposed an explanation of changing tolerance for inequality associated with different ‘stages’ of the development process. In this post I’ll revisit Hirschman’s theory and link it to emerging studies of how inequality is perceived in China. The Chinese people generally seem to be satisfied with rising inequality, yet it is unclear how long this tolerance will last.Read More »

A Critical Review on the documentary “Poverty, Inc.”


The documentary “Poverty, Inc.” has become so influential that it is now part of many courses at the university level. The good news is that at universities we apply critical thinking to the information we receive (or we are supposed to). As a development economist, I share here my views on this famous documentary.

On the positive side, the documentary does a good job in making some points for an audience unfamiliar with economic theory, such as the idea that dependency does not end poverty, or that current foreign aid (money flows between governments) has “unintended consequences that do more harm than good.” However, both ideas are not new in development studies. The much quoted “teach a human to fish” is an idea associated with many philosophers, including Maimonides (about 850 years ago). This criticism of the structure of current foreign aid is a relatively old idea in the development literature. Perhaps the best point made by the documentary is the argument that Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) can do a better job if they base their strategies on effective communications with local entities, although this idea is not new either.

What are, then, the problems with this documentary? Many. Firstly, the development literature has two main perspectives; namely, the conservative and the progressive. A documentary that omits a whole branch of argumentation is not responsible and carries “unintended consequences,” such as misinforming that unfamiliar audience. Besides mentioning supranational entities, the documentary did not expose crucial structural problems: there is no serious analysis on geopolitics, global power relations, or class issues, among others. A class analysis would not, for instance, focus on stressing that “NGOs need the poor to exist” but that “the rich need the poor to exist”.Read More »

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


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 »

Human rights are not losing traction in the global South

An indigenous Filipino woman sells bracelets. Source: Flickr/Andy Enero

Stephen Hopgood’s The Endtimes of Human Rights and Eric Posner’s The Twilight of Human Rights Law have set off an important debate about whether human rights have run out of steam as a force for human progress. Other commentators such as Sam Moyn have argued that human rights no longer have the power to mobilize international condemnation and moral pressure against totalitarian regimes. Posner argues, for example, that the rapid expansion in the ratification of human rights treaties since the 1990s has had no impact on the respect for human rights. Further, since the end of colonization, human rights movements such as the right to self-determination, the civil rights act in the US, and overall equality in the US have run out of steam.

On closer reading and reflection, these arguments tell a very partial story about human rights.  They are limited to human rights as civil and political rights to end brutal authoritarian rule, as law in international treaties to be enforced by the UN human rights system, and as a mission of international institutions embodied in international treaties and bodies, both inter-governmental and non-governmental.  Indeed, these opinions reflect a view of human rights as a civilizing mission of the Western world by the use of law and political power—a vision of the dominant human rights scholars and organizations.

Yet there are other ways of understanding the process of human rights progress. As Michael Ignatieff forcefully argued at a recent conference at Kings College, human rights is not about international law but about politics: “moral politics expressed as or clothed in law”. And the politics is not just about foreign policy goals of powerful states.Read More »