Rehabilitating the hoard: the social dynamics of unbanking in Africa and beyond

Presented by Gustav Peebles

Monday, 26 August, 2013 - 15:00

All are in agreement: The world as a whole—and Africa in particular —has a  grand problem with the “unbanked.” These are the hopeless billions who stand  outside the formal financial sector and thereby cannot contribute to the capitalist  growth that could considerably alleviate their own poverty. According to one recent  report, 2.5 billion adults find themselves outside the formal banking sector and the  powerful techniques that it can provide to alleviate poverty at both the individual  and the national level (Chaia et al 2009; see Schwittay 2011 for an even higher  number). These billions hail from first world and third world countries alike, and as  such, the problem is not purely one of the global distribution of wealth, but also one  of alienation. For, like countless other problems from within the bounds of  anthropological concerns, the problem of the unbanked is one of social exclusion.   But in a highly atypical twist on the standard anthropological narrative,  which often aims to elucidate the intentional or unintentional exclusionary tactics of  powerful social forces, the problem of unbanking might be quite the opposite.  Powerful capitalist forces across the globe—whether non -­‐profit development  agencies or for-­‐profit banking corporations —spend time and resourc es trying to  figure out how to convince these billions to join their ranks by tethering their rivulet  of local capital holdings to the vast deluge of the banking industry’s global capital  holdings. Yet somehow, these target audiences keep voting to keep th eir money in  the mattress, thereby failing to link up their money with the vast, globally-­‐ interlinked capitalist machine. As a result, people who refuse to bank their money  are often accused of being simple hoarders, failing to share their capital with a w ider  world that would greatly benefit from it.    Inspired by wide -­‐ranging and impressive ethnographic data from Africa, I  would like to challenge this standard narrative. Instead, as Africanist  anthropologists clearly reveal, it is not so much that African s are refusing to store  economic value for the future (a classic function of a bank). It is that they are not  always choosing formal banking mechanism s in which to do so, even when it  becomes easier to do so via new techniques (Schwittay 2011). Instead,  the African  ethnographic record documents that economic value is being saved for tomorrow in  myriad other forms across the continent. i   As I hope to show below, we must challenge this narrative by first  reassessing global stereotypes about the supposed “hoa rd.” Hoarders have been  demeaned as ignorant or irrational (or even evil) since at least Dante (Alighieri  1982), and in all quadrants of the globe. These days, hoarders are even the subject of  Reality-­‐TV programs, which depict them as extreme oddballs, inc apable of partaking  in general society; in the psychological literature, hoarding is treated exclusively as a pathology and never as something rational (e.g. Frost & Steketee 2010). The taint  of these extreme examples has crowded out a discussion that woul d treat hoarding as a perfectly sane and rational activity.

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