We do most of our work in a historical vacuum. We tend to think of today’s problems and opportunities as unique. That’s a natural bias in an age imbued with a sense of inexorable progress reliant on technological solutions. But if we lift our gaze over historical time, we find numerous references to issues and debates that are not unlike those prevailing today. There’s nothing like historical perspective to temper one’s excitement about the latest idea or trend. Maybe that’s why we shy away from probing too deeply in our history books.

Let me share three things about the past that I’ve recently become aware of that relate to contemporary discussions of financial inclusion.

Big history: G2P payments and the origin of coinage

In his sweeping historical account of the development of credit and money systems, David Graeber, author of Debt: The First 5000 Years, makes the claim that it was governments, not markets and the spirit of the enterprise they embodied, who had the burning need that led to the invention of coinage. Markets could function just fine with credit arrangements when people bought stuff from one other, with trusted parties clearing (or discounting) debts between people from different localities who didn’t know each other and were not likely to meet again. Hence the observation, which I wrote about in this blog a year ago, that money has always been largely virtual.

But governments of the time had a specific need for a readily exchangeable, portable, tokenized form of value that could be used for mass micropayments: for the victualling and quartering of troops as they marched and spread across the territory. Governments then stepped up taxation as a means of getting those coins back from the people, so that they could be recycled. So markets worked on ledgers, but armies needed cash. Of course, once coins became widespread, markets readily adopted them, but the vector for mass adoption lay elsewhere.

I am struck by the similarity with the situation today. The new burning micropayment need of most developing countries is the distribution of cash-based social welfare payments to a rising share of the population. And indeed we see that in many countries –and for many donors— it is the need to make G2P payments that is driving the agenda around digitizing money, for finding something that is Better Than Cash. These schemes may help many needy people, but at its core it is about meeting a pressing government need.

Family financial histories

We often go out searching for financial tidbits in poor people’s lives, but have you wondered about the financial history of your own family? Try asking your parents and grandparents the kinds of questions we so mechanically ask total strangers in foreign lands.

I asked my parents, who grew up in an impoverished, conservative, isolated, economically mismanaged, post-civil war Spain. They were the first in their families to go to college. I learned that their parents didn’t have bank accounts, but neither did most everyone else they dealt with. When my parents were growing up, cash was hidden around the house, and some of it was spread over several envelopes. What if they needed money? My father made the gesture of a finger slipping in and out of a ring: my grandmother’s wedding ring doing regular financial duty at the pawnshop. Both my parents agreed that in case of need within their respective families, the main option was to scramble for more work. It’s almost like their parents were purposely holding back from doing more work regularly in order to leave some room for extra income in case of need.

All this may sound familiar. But what really struck me was how uncomprehendingly my parents looked at me when I insisted on knowing how their own parents managed without a bank account. It just didn’t seem that important to them, at the time. My parents both became doctors and learned to avail themselves of the convenience of modern banking. But they are clear in their minds that the account came with their economic and professional success, not the other way around.

Do you know your family’s financial history? When and how did a bank account first enter your family’s life, and how momentous did that seem to them?

150 years of financial diaries

It is said that writing evolved from the need to record debts. We tend to look at money matters like they hold an important key to understanding broader personal and societal matters, which may be why we have such fascination for understanding how others manage their money.

It should be no surprise, then, that there is a long tradition of conducting financial diaries. In her study spanning the period 1870-1930 in the United States, Viviana Zelizer discovered numerous instances of “household-budget studies” that “richly documented how the working class and lower-middle class spent their money,” at a time when the consumer society was being established. Even our research methods are not so new.

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