Mobile Money, Financial Literacy and Learning Through Digital Media

The fact that a cellular telephone can transmit the value of a particular currency from one party to another may be increasingly obvious, given the rise of specialized digital money services in the United States, such as Square or Apple Pay. Around the world, mobile money does much more than signal access to disposable income or brand name consumer electronics; it can quite literally ensure survival for people on the bottom of the economic pyramid.  

For example, adult family members in developing nations often are dependent on the income of migrant workers who send remittances home to their relatives via services such as M-PESA or bKash. This picture of mobile phones, PIN codes, and digits in which each place holder matters may not fit the standard digital education narrative and the paradigm of one-laptop-per-child, but financial literacy involving mobile money should also be a concern for the digital media and learning community, particularly if we want to get beyond focusing exclusively on K-12 learners and U.S. contexts, understand informal engagements, emphasize practical competencies, and promote social justice.

Established in 2008, the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion supports research on money and technology among the world’s poorest people, those living on less than $1 per day. For the “unbanked” in the developing world, often too far from banking services or unable to invest time traveling and waiting in long lines, mobile money may be the only way to manage their incomes and expenditures. The IMTFI emphasizes supporting researchers who are actually citizens of developing nations, speak their informants’ languages, understand their subjects’ worldviews, and contribute to knowledge-making in universities and think tanks in the Global South. 

This year, the IMTFI celebrated its sixth anniversary at its annual research conference. The first presentation at the opening panel set the tone for the event: speakers from Ghana delivered a talk about “When the Dead Decide: An Investigation into the Influence of the Ancestors in the Decision to Use Mobile Technology,” which looked at how traditional divination is adapting to the rise of cellular phone use in Africa. Other presentations emphasized the importance of combining financial literacy education with mobile money initiatives. In India, female entrepreneurs learn about digital currency through comic books. In Cambodia, they learn about it through comedy TV shows, sometimes running on long-distance bus rides. 

Many of the researchers assert that mobile money is not a panacea, whether it reinforces the traditions of village life by funding rituals or undermines them by displacing existing means of credit, lending, and cooperative financing. Furthermore, jealousy, fraud, corruption and conflict aligned with gender or age difference can be exacerbated by private and seemingly dematerialized stores of value and media of exchange. The IMFTI group aims to support research about “the everyday uses and meanings of money, as well as examining the technological infrastructures being developed as carriers of mainstream and alternative currencies worldwide.” 

Money sometimes gets a bad rap for appealing to the basest of human values, but it also represents aspects of cultural heritage and rites of passage that are clearly significant. What might it mean to imagine how “digital literacy” could include understanding electronic financial transactions on mobile devices? 

Banner image credit: IMTFI