In what follows, I would like to tell you what I believe went wrong with the CGAP + Bancomer + IDEO.org year-long attempt at banking Mexico’s unbanked poor and working class residents. I do so as an economic anthropologist who has worked in and around Mexico City since 2005. The problem, in short, was unchecked assumptions, a series of which shaped IDEO team members’ thinking and therefore drove their innovations.
- The IDEO team studied the tanda (a traditional savings club that functions as a highly successful method for saving, despite its risks, and is embraced by the majority of unbanked poor and working class women in urban Mexico). However, the in context in which this was studied was as a point of departure – a traditional, outdated and unsuitable product that needs to be replaced – rather than viewing it as a current economic tool of significant and measurable success. To be fair, I know some anthropologists who have made similar mistakes.
- The IDEO team believed two weeks was a sufficient amount of time for collecting the interview data in order to design a truly human-centred design product. Human-centred design for financial services requires an in-depth understanding of the target clients day-to-day lives and challenges, much more than (say) a designing a water pump or a kettle does.
- Most importantly, anyone with a year or more of experience in Mexico’s economic sector can tell you Bancomer isn’t a social mission-driven bank. I am not criticizing Bancomer management when I say this. Mexico in general does not offer the kind of fiscal rewards for donating time or money that make corporate responsibility and investment in sustainability worthwhile and even lucrative in the U.S.
- Not unrelated to the above point, class relations in Mexico (in the present as in the past) and cultural understandings of class difference, are nothing like they are in the US. In stark contrast to the US’s we-are-all-middle-class-and-pulling-ourselves-up-by-the-bootstraps nationalist ideologies, class difference is essentialized in Mexico, and even naturalized. Cross-class empathy isn’t yet a thing, you might say. Which merely reiterates the fact that the “miscommunication” between IDEO and Bancomer regarding final project returns should never have happened. And it would never have happened if the IDEO recruits had invested in examining local meaning-making along with shared systems of understanding (ie culture) in Mexico.
In short, making assumptions based on the researchers’ own culture, in the absence of real knowledge of the culture of the intended stakeholders, very likely doomed this project to failure from the very beginning. Investment in training of the researchers in 1) cultural relativism and 2) ethnographic research, however abridged such training may have been, would, I strongly suspect, have avoided this failure.
So, too, I firmly believe, the contracting of an anthropologist to guide the designers would have ensured increased attentiveness to the assumptions that became traps in this attempt at innovation.
This article was written for Fern Software by an economic anthropologist who has worked in and around Mexico City since 2005. The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of Fern Software or any employee thereof. We make no representations as to accuracy, completeness, timeliness, suitability or validity of any information presented by individual authors.