On the similarities between the financial rhetorics of colonialism and development

By | November 21, 2010

Since I have a background in Development Studies, and I am currently trying to develop a research plan for an ethnographic study of the Nigerian financial sector, the following, from Bill Maurer, Professor of Anthropology and Director, Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion, University of California, Irvine, resonates quite powerfully with me:

Because European systems of finance, debt and credit went along with colonial governance and missionisation, they were often interpreted in terms of political authority (via, for example, the tax and tariff regimes of the bureaucratic state) and morality, ethics and religion (via, for example, the Abrahamic religions’ emphasis on divine judgement as an accounts-settling, or the prohibition of interest in Islam and debates over usury or ‘excessive’ interest in both Christianity and Judaism). In both the political and religious domains, colonial and post-colonial efforts to ‘teach’ finance as a means of (self-) development often rested on assumptions about time: teaching finance meant teaching self-restraint and the time-horizon of long-term investment, the amortisation of debts and the future benefit of savings…. In the nineteenth century, people accustomed to systems of obligation to chiefly nobles found themselves hard pressed to understand why the repayment of monetary debts would be in their best interest: wealth in people and wealth and cash were hard to reconcile, leading colonial merchants and traders to complain that ‘you have to give credit to the Blacks here and they pay late or never’ or ‘The greatest caution is requisite in giving credit to the natives … [because] once [you] allow them to exceed a certain sum … they cease to pay anything further’…. It is a small step from this colonial raciology of debt to twentieth-century development discourse and its depictions of people as poor because they cannot manage money, do not possess an entrepreneurial spirit, or are incapable of the abstract thought that finance seemingly requires…. Hence, the World Bank reports that unsophisticated lenders in some ‘transitioning’ or ‘developing’ economies are reluctant to accept certain kinds of collateral from potential borrowers, specifically movable property held by the prospective borrower such as factory machinery or inventories. ‘Rather’, the Bank writes, ‘lenders require that the moveable property be placed under their direct control – as if they were valuables in a bank vault or goods in a bonded warehouse’…. The Bank then asks, incredulously, ‘Why is real estate or merchandise in a vault acceptable as collateral, but not livestock, machinery, and inventories?’ …. The Bank thus proposes the development of legal regimes that permit the ‘creation of security interests for any person over any thing’ ….

In Maurer, B., 2005. Finance. In J. Carrier, ed. A Handbook of Economic Anthropology.  Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, pp. 179&180.

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