Archive for January 2013


Quantification, Biometrics and Social Protection in South Africa

During 2012, I researched the history and use of quantification and biometric identification in South African social policy. The study has been supported by the Institute for Money, Technology & Financial Inclusion at UC Irvine and was recently presented at their annual conference.

Liz Losh blogged some of the discussion and a video of the panel is embedded below (beginning at the 45 minute mark):

Kevin Donovan of the Centre for Social Science Research at the University of Cape Town presented last in the panel session with “Composing Development? Biometrics, Smart Cards and Financial Inclusion in South Africa’s Social Protection Initiative” with research from South Africa that reflected an historical “mania for measurement” in a country that was today “awash with statistics.” Although biometrics was a legacy of the apartheid regime, as a modality of power that controlled human mobility that dated back to the introduction of fingerprinting in 1891, it continues today as a way to manage the disbursement of small cash grants for old age or disability and could be a part of democratic contestation as a rule-based activity.  He argued that statistics serve as a “technology of trust,” and that the image of perverse incentives to have children out of wedlock in order to qualify for funds was actually more complex in offering a range of types of benefits through grant programs.  He noted the importance of civil society’s “guerilla auditors” and cited the work of Kregg Heatherington on Paraguay to understand the political dynamic at work.

Given the scale of the country, however, there have been major implementation problems, such as how to connect more than 10 million pockets to the National Treasury.  The government’s contractor, NET1, has enrolled 21 million citizens in its biometric initiatives and may be as inclusive as mobile phones and propagates an ideology of objectivity and rationality.  Supposedly “ghosts” or duplicates were being removed from the system, but Donovan argued that this was actually a “myth,” and he quoted Speaking into the Air? A History of the Idea of Communication by JD Peters on doubts that “communications will solve the problem of communication” and “better wiring will eliminate the ghosts.”  Donovan also challenged the conceit that “bodies were stable unchanging repositories that could be turned into information in a database.”

Biometric failures seemed to be inevitable.  Furthermore, race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability were expressed in ways that fostered misidentification.  For example, a cut on a finger or a history of manual labor might inhibit accurate machine reading.  Nonetheless, this system was likely to continue in its present form, according to Donovan.  Many South Africans might be suspicious of fingerprinting, but they might also be in great need of cash.  They may even see the payments as “gifts” not entitlements and so put up with biometrics for the near future.  Without a strong privacy lobby or strong data integrity laws little was likely to change.

Donovan closed with more speculative remarks about the potential to depoliticize grantmaking and the intersection of biometrics with more contested financial practices.  He asserted that simplified technical systems only allowed for yes/no answers rather than processing more complicated questions about causes of poverty and might negate legitimate livelihood strategies as an impersonal machine replaces an understanding bureaucrat.  He called upon the theories of James C. Scott about “infrapolitics” to explain everyday acts of dissimulation such as grant fraud.  He also discussed how politics involve getting inside the “silver box” of the technological system and how the removal of subjective discretion is biased toward those that control the technology, for example, by quashing people’s own ways to gain access to these payments by sharing knowledge about eligibility.  South Africa has both a developed financial system and a large informal economy, which can exacerbate existing exploitation of the poor through automatic deductions.  Digital banking means digital data trails in “the dark side of financial inclusion.”  The “standardizing and formatting of the poor” have both positive and negative effects.

This panel about scams, betting, and fraud might not necessarily match the conventional financial services model and narrative of development, but these seemingly subversive practices do reveal how digital mobile money might have unintended consequences.  In characterizing financial inclusion, the words of an NGO official might say it all: “Financial inclusion means your money isn’t with you.”