IGP Stories

Financial technologies for life on the move

Financing Prosperity Mass Displacement Middle East

James Shraiky & Dr Christopher Harker

How do people impacted by migration and displacement finance their lives and how do technologies shape such practices? We know that there are many ways in which those living in contexts of displacement obtain food, shelter, medicine and education. In so doing, they appropriate and make use of the technologies that structure flows of investment, savings, credit/debt and gifts. However, often these financial technologies make them more vulnerable.

Huda, a Palestinian refugee living in Sabra and Shatila Refugee Camp in Lebanon, uses a basta – a lightweight, mobile cart - to sell confectionery every day. Other camp residents buy Huda’s candy because they are aware of the hardship she faces. Huda’s husband, a construction worker, has been left incapacitated by a metabolic disease. They have three daughters, the eldest of which takes over the basta from her mum in the afternoon after her schooling is finished. Another camp resident told us, “she is in a very bad situation: we know how hard she is working, how poor the family is, and how tough life is for them. Sometimes, I barely have money, but I save up just to buy from her basta and support the family”. Selling confectionery provides a very small income, but it is enough for Huda’s family to survive.

It may seem unusual to think about bastas as a financial technology (FinTech), but that is exactly what they are. The term “basta” in Arabic denotes concepts of entrepreneurship and financial gains, and the word itself means a “deck, a platform, or an elevated horizontal surface.” Such carts are used to sell fruit and vegetables, street food, nonperishable items, or any other portable products. In the Middle East, basta is generally linked to poverty and desperation. But in Sabra and Shatila camp, basta is linked to time. It is a technology for quickly generating an income, such as when children’s school fees are due. It also bridges periods between other kinds of employment, often for those working in the unstable construction sector in the region.

Image credit: James Shraiky

A financial technology like the basta is very different from, but nonetheless connected to other forms of financing life on the move. The World Food Programme currently provide 74 million dollars in cash transfers to Syrian refugees in Lebanon. This assistance has now become their main reported source of income, closely followed by debt – money borrowed from friends and shopkeepers. In Greece, the EU and UNHCR are giving asylum seekers living in hot spots and refugee camps prepaid debit cards. Ostensibly offering the freedom to act like citizens, these cards act as another form of control since asylum seekers remain stripped of the legal protections and entitlements that citizens enjoy. Flows of remittances that support entire national economies are now seen as valuable sources of data. Consequently global organisations monitor this type of finance carefully, and predict that Covid 19 border closures and economic downturns will have a severe impact.

To support people on the move as they forge context specific pathways to prosperity, we need to have a better understanding about the ways in which finance, technology and migration currently intersect. In their new working paper, Finance, Technology & Displacement: Towards a Research Agenda, Lauren Martin and Christopher Harker review recent literature to identify gaps in our knowledge that urgently need to be filled.

Top image credit: Catalytic action

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