Live From SXSW: Digital Currency, Banking the Unbanked

March 16, 2015       Amy Sample Ward      

For many people around the world, digital literacy is more than gaining access to online content but truly having access to independence through education and banking. At SXSW, Sophie Kelly, CEO of The Barbarian Group, facilitated a discussion about the benefits and challenges of digital currency with Roya Mahboob, co-founder of Digital Citizen Fund, and Joyce Kim, executive director of Stellar.

Kim shared that when we talk about digital literacy, we aren’t just talking about Facebook. It used to be that to know anything medical you had to be a doctor. To know anything about a bridge you had to be an engineer. Now, digital access allows people who don’t have the ability to go to college or access closed bodies of knowledge to self-educate and use these tools to improve their own lives. “That idea is the core of economy and mankind,” Kim said.

Mahboob added that education, in general, is an issue for women in Afghanistan. People believe that computers and the Internet are not good things for women. They have had to dispel that belief first and show that knowledge of these tools could benefit the whole family. There isn’t investment in women as much as a contributor to the family in that way.

“We created our centers in the public schools because they are places where everyone in the family can go to learn,” Mahboob said. “We are showing them that they can be earning revenue to support their families.”

Mahboob shared the example that when they started one of the school programs, a father complained to the principal that his girls were learning about the computer. His girls were really talented and wanted to learn. One of his girls earned $100 for her writing, and gave the money to her father. He then complained that she received money for her writing and wanted to know why. He then learned that she had a real skill, and that they could support her skill and she could earn much more money for the family.

Focusing in on digital currency, Kim explained that when we think about our financial system people don’t realize much of it is privately owned. Our world has grown to such a level that the cost to maintain these private systems does not allow banks and other institutions to serve low-income communities, she said. If you are banking a poor community, you are never going to make the money back that you spend in getting them an account. Digital currency takes banking into a public infrastructure. Kim said that allows for more people to have access who are not the target demographic that is profitable. It also allows for interoperability. For example, Paypal doesn’t talk to M-Pesa, a mobile currency.

Digital currency, especially systems that support interpretability between specific currencies, is a big change from where we are today and regulation is trying to catch up. Kim noted open questions including how states collect taxes, and application of regulations across alternative types of exchanged value. What if a dollar could move like a bitcoin, Kim asked; and what does that mean for people in developing economies?

Kim and Mahboob highlighted challenges they see in this work, including:

  • Perceptions, understanding, and documentation of digital currency that is overly focused on the technical pieces, this makes it difficult for people who do not have the technical proficiency to understand how they might use or benefit from the systems;
  • Perceptions, understanding, and documentation of digital currency that is overly political, creating discomfort or even fear for people outside of that ideology from participating or learning more about the opportunities; and,
  • Reality that currently the majority of people or organizations designing for these systems are not using the same tools as those who want to participate, for example designing something that works great on an iPhone while many people in developing countries need access through something as basic as SMS/text messaging.

The panel was clear in their belief that in fostering digital literacy and economic access, there needs to be localized context and education – if people aren’t safe, they aren’t going to participate. To learn more about how both Stellar and Digital Citizen Fund are working to create valuable education and opportunities for all people to participate in digital economies, visit their websites at www.stellar.org and www.digitalcitizenfund.org

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Amy Sample Ward is CEO of NTEN: The Nonprofit Technology Network