Part 2: The Observations made during original research on rural economic behaviour

One can roughly consider the relative income (or wealth) across three regions where observations were conducted on a continuum where the Indian village was the ‘wealthiest’ while the Malawians were living closest to the edge. However, on synthesizing the combined data collected across geographies, patterns of financial behaviour emerged that showed similarities of intention and goals.

For example, non-perishable food grains such as wheat in India or rice in the Philippines were considered a form of wealth that could be stored, acting as savings or insurance. A portion of the harvest would be held back, to be either sold on demand for cash, over the course of the year or as a source of food. Wealth was also stored, as security, for the longer term, in the form of silver ornaments (in India) or as an investment, in the short term, as livestock – pigs, chickens or a milch cow.

Also, people rarely held on to money in the form of cash for any length of time, for the most part due to lack of access to banks and/or the high cost of maintaining an account proportionate to their incomes.  Available cash was usually converted to “kind” – either goods or livestock- the choice of which reflected careful prioritization. These tangible purchases then acted as financial tools depending on their “convertibility”-

  • long-term security (silver);
  • planned savings (buying building materials on a piecemeal basis over time until a house could be built);
  • insurance or a “cushion” against shocks (a pig that could be sold to raise cash or eaten as food) and finally,
  • investments (milk bearing cow, young piglets to rear to maturity, culling high margin ‘fighting cocks’ from chicks).

Cashless transactions, thus, were frequently observed. These behaviours were most complex in India; where a sophisticated mechanism allowed a group of farmers to negotiate the annual retainer for the services of a carpenter in the form of a number of sacks of wheat to be paid during the harvest and the local shops would set a ‘currency’ conversion rate of a kilo of wheat to the rupee to be used for buying sundry provisions. The shop that insisted on cash only transactions priced its goods about 10% cheaper than the rest. Barter was far simpler in Malawi, where a mobile phone could fetch its equivalent price in goats.

Here, it must be noted that very often each household’s resources such as a store of fuel (cow dung in India; firewood elsewhere), chickens or a kitchen garden and assets like milch goats or cows, would be pointed out with pride.  For their possession implied an independence from cash money – in almost every interview, people would emphasize how little they needed to purchase in the store or nearest town for their daily needs as they were self sufficient in these demonstrated requirements. Often it would be added that in a city, you had no choice but to purchase everything you needed.

Thus the use of purchased resources were optimized for maximum cost/benefit and  their use extended as much as possible before replenishment. For example, if a household had access to cooking gas, they would still use firewood or charcoal for foods that took longer to cook while the more expensive fuel was used for foods that cooked quickly.

In the Philippines, cashless transactions were rarely in the form of goods but tended to involve time or physical labour, primarily as a form of social capital in the community. These complex webs of the rural community’s social networks of trust were obvious in the patterns of sharing and cooperation seen in every country. Groups would invest and save together, for example, the extremely sophisticated cooperative ladies lending circle which had expanded over time to include the services of a local bank in India; or the beekeepers cooperative in Malawi where half the annual profits were saved in a common account while the other half was equally shared.

In addition to the behaviour patterns mentioned above, an external factor was observed to be of great significance in the management of rural household expenses.  While it naturally differed in timing and reason from region to region, every household and profession could predict, within reason, the ebb and flow of income based on the seasons of a natural year. In fact, many other observed behaviours were often directly linked to these expected peaks, such as the harvest season, and lows, for example the dry season when fields lay fallow.  This pattern of expected ups and downs or seasonality in income flow was seen to affect even those who were not directly involved in agriculture, as the local economies were closely knit and interdependent.

Note: This blog was begun as a way to publicly share my thoughts during fieldwork, so much of the raw data and immediate observations are available under the category “user research” as well as blog posts written during January 2009 to April 2009 as seen in the archives available on the right hand sidebar.

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