Sunday, February 22, 2009

Why Does Mobile Banking Matter?

For the past two weeks, I have been traveling around Papua New Guinea trying to understand how money works in this economy where 87% of the people live in relatively isolated villages surviving through subsistence farming and a variety of odd jobs. Almost none of these people have bank accounts. Money that is saved is hidden carefully inside homes or wrapped in some kind of container and buried. In the past when money was made from paper, the hard earned -and carefully saved - cash often disintegrated before it was dug-up to be used. Imagine the horror that an impoverished person would feel when they realized the little money they had saved for emergencies had disintegrated. To minimize this type of tragedy, the Government of Papua New Guinea converted all its currency from paper to plastic. That helps. But if a parent dies before they can reveal their secret hiding places, their family is left bereft.

It may seem that money would not be important to a remote population who live in simple houses made of bush materials, go barefoot most of the time, and grow their own food. But that is not the case. The villagers we interviewed said that their largest expenditure was the fees they pay for their children to go to school. Community cohesion is extremely strong in PNG. When one family is in trouble, the rest of the village pitches in to help. So the second most important use of money is “social obligations.” Often considered both a blessing (because it ensures the survival of all) and a curse (because it makes it almost impossible for any one person to acquire wealth), these social obligations are the warp and woof of village life. People also need money for second-hand clothing, shoes, and incidentals like soap.

Villagers rarely go to a bank. Townspeople and those living in proximity to a town are more likely to do so. In all cases, when people in PNG got to a bank, they are forced to wait in queues under the hot sun for up to 2 or 3 hours. Coupled with the travel time required, going to the bank will take the average Papua New Guinean more than half a day. People who live farther away often have to walk some distance or take a bus that will charge them about $1.25 each way to get to the bank. That's a lot of money if you are making only a couple hundred dollars a year.

When we interviewed some of townspeople waiting in the bank pictured above, we learned that they bank a few times a week because holding onto cash – even small amounts – presents huge security risks. Theft is rampant in PNG. In the West, we are so used to our ATM, debit, and credit cards, we find the PNG realities unthinkable. Just try to imagine what your life would be like if you had to conduct all your transactions in cash, could carry only small amounts at any time to minimize loss through theft, and then had to stand in line for hours every time you needed more money. Your productivity would tank.

The potential of saving money safely, securely, and affordably whenever you want, wherever you want - even at a basic tucker shop near your village - all through a mobile phone can be life changing for people in a country like PNG. The use of phones as a mechanism to stay connected to family and obtain critical information already has changed their lives. In Cambodia where I was traveling before coming to Papua New Guinea, I learned about a new mobile phone solution that could have great potential in PNG as well. I feel very fortunate to be able to do the work I do, at the same time that I have the opportunity to explore our fascinating planet.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hindu Ritual Defies Medical Science?

More than ten years ago, I learned about an annual festival that occurs every January or February in India, Malaysia, and Singapore. Participants pierce their bodies with skewers, walk for miles so impaled, and emerge – as I was told - unscathed. This captured my imagination because there was supposedly no blood throughout the process, and any holes that were created, closed up and disappeared almost instantaneously. If that

was true, then this ritual defied medical science. I had to see it for myself, and last week I finally did.

Thaipusam is a Hindu ritual that celebrates victory by an Indian Lord over a demon. Devotees use the occasion as atonement, a prayer, or in memorandum. Their level of engagement ranges from women who carry heavy pots of milk on their heads to men who pull shrines through the streets with ropes that are attached to hooks embedded in their backs. Many men choose to carry kavadi, huge decorative structures – often taller than then the man transporting it. In what my friends and I called the “skewer-light” version, the kavadi are supported by shoulder pads and thick belts, much like a backpack. In the “hardcore version”, participants actually have metal stakes driven through their waists to support the structure. There are two stakes in front of the body and another two behind that bear the bulk of the kavadi’s weight. In most cases, there is also a network of skewers that crisscross – and impale - the chest and back. This secondary system is also important in supporting the structures. Most of the devotees, men and women, sport decorated skewers that pierce through their mouths and tongues.

While this may sound gruesome, it really isn’t. In fact, the entire event had the atmosphere of an arduous sporting event, like a marathon or an Ironman triathlon. Like those events, Thaipusam requires months of rigorous disciplined preparation, a team of friends and family to provide support and encouragement, celebrations before the actual event, and the ability to transcend pain. In the West, an entire industry has formed to train people for endurance sports as a way of raising money, and awareness, around AIDs, leukemia, and a range of other causes. As I watched Thaipusam, I wondered if those men who were carrying their kavata in memory of a deceased parent were really that much different than the soccer mom who runs a marathon for the first time to support a friend who has breast cancer.

On the night before Thaipusam, we met three men who were going to be participants. They explained parts of the ritual to us, and invited us to come back the next morning to watch them prepare – which we did. Two of them are pictured here, but you can also see them parading through Singapore on YouTube.

Thaipusam was amazing, and I am glad that I went. But did it defy medical science? That was the question that drew me to Singapore in the first place. Was it true that there was a lack of blood and a miraculous closure of wounds? Some of what I had been told is true. There is very little blood involved. We watched some of the participants being released from their implements of torture, and there was limited physical damage. Limited, but not non-existent. Based on what I saw, I think the absence of blood and the quick recovery have more to do with the meticulous way in which the skewers are inserted, the fact that it is primarily skin and fat that is pierced rather than muscle, and the use of ash to quickly protect wounds and staunch any blood flow.

If some February in the future, you happen to be in a part of the world where Thaipusam takes place, I strongly recommend that you watch it. But be prepared to get up early. Thaipusam starts at 12 am and runs through a 24-hour clock, but the most impressive activities take place in the middle of the night and the early hours of the morning.