Marc Bellemare’s blog pointed me to an interesting paper by Pascaline Dupas and Jonathan Robinson titled “Why Don’t the Poor Save More? Evidence from Health Savings Experiments.”  It is an interesting paper, taking a page from the RCT4D literature to test some different tools for savings in four Kenyan villages.  I’m not going to wade into the details of the paper or its findings here (they find some tools to be more effective than others at promoting savings for health expenditures), because they are not what really caught me about this paper.  Instead, what struck me was the absence of a serious consideration of “the social” in the framing of the questions asked and the results.  Dupas and Robinson expected three features to impact health savings: adequate storage facilities/technology, the ability to earmark funds, and the level of social commitment of the participant.  The social context of savings (or, more accurately, barriers to savings) are treated in what I must say is a terribly dismissive way [emphases are mine]:

a secure storage technology can enable individuals to avoid carrying loose cash on their person and thus allow people to keep some physical distance between themselves and their money. This may make it easier to resist temptations, to borrow the terminology in Banerjee and Mullainathan (2010), or unplanned expenditures, as many of our respondents call them. While these unplanned expenditures include luxury items such as treats, another important category among such unplanned expenditures are transfers to others.

A storage technology can increase the mental costs associated with unplanned expenditures, thereby reducing such expenditures. Indeed, if people use the storage technology to save towards a specic goal, such as a health goal in our study, people may consider the money saved as unavailable for purposes other than the specic goal – this is what Thaler (1990) coined mental accounting. By enabling such mental accounting, a designated storage place may give people the strength to resist frivolous expenditures as well as pressure to share with others, including their spouse.

I have seen many cases of unplanned expenditures to others in my fieldwork.  Indeed, my village-based field crews in Ghana used to ask for payment on as infrequent a basis as possible to avoid exactly these sorts of expenditures.  They would plan for large needed purchases, work until they had earned enough for that purchase, then take payment and immediately make the purchase, making their income illiquid before family members could call upon them and ask for loans or handouts.

However, the phrasing of Dupas and Robinson strikes the anthropologist/ geographer in me as dismissive.  These expenses are seen as “frivolous”, things that should be “resisted”.  The authors never consider the social context of these expenditures – why people agree to make them in the first place.  There seems to be an implicit assumption here that people don’t know how to manage their money without the introduction of new tools, and that is not at all what I have seen (albeit in contexts other than Kenya).  Instead, I saw these expenditures as part of a much larger web of social relations that implicates everything from social status to gender roles – in this context, the choice to give out money instead of saving it made much more sense.

In short, it seems to me that Dupas and Robinson are treating these savings technologies as apolitical, purely technical interventions.  However, introducing new forms of savings also intervenes in social relations at scales ranging from the household to the extended family to the community.  Thus, the uptake of these forms of savings will be greatly effected by contextual factors that seem to have been ignored here.  Further, the durability of the behavioral changes documented in this study might be much better predicted and understood – from my perspective, the declining use of these technologies over the 33 month scope of the project was completely predictable (the decline, that is, not the size of the decline).  Just because a new technology enables savings that might result in a greater standard of living for the individual or household does not mean that the technology will be seen as desirable – instead, that standard of living must also work within existing social roles and relations if these new behaviors are to endure.  Therefore, we cannot really explain the declining use of these technologies over time . . . yet development is, to me, about catalyzing enduring change.  While this study shows that the introduction of these technologies has at least a short term transformative effect on savings behavior, I’m not convinced this study does much to advance our understanding of how to catalyze changes that will endure.