Thursday, February 11, 2010

Checking Checks

In this almost wholly unbanked part of the world, I overheard an interesting bank rant this morning.

When one attempts to cash a check in Bangui (there are less than a handful of bank branches outside the capital), the teller examines it minutely. Very often, she will declare that the signature is “non-conforme” and reject it. This happened to one man's wife with the last six checks she wrote. He “was forced to tell her to change her signature.” This, however, will set you back 11,000 CFA (about $25; it used to be free, he said). Even just to examine the signature they have on file for your account you must pay some 5,000 CFA. The man, a government employee as a guard for the Ministry of Water and Forests, declared these practices a “politique commerciale” - the bank is just out to get money by charging more fees. (Levying fees, both official and unofficial, is of course how the government functions as well, and they contribute to the payment the man receives.)

But leaving aside the issue of whether this is “commercial politics” or not, I was struck by the extreme lack of trust that it belies. I thought of my own signature: thanks to all those electronic signature pads, it has devolved into a scrawl that could be mistaken for a toddler's doodles, different each time. When was the last time the cashier examined what you entered there? More often he tells you to just go ahead and push the green button, because the signature pad is worn out.

I've heard countless stories of Central Africans getting defrauded. You give a friend money to buy you a computer in Europe; he tells you it costs 1000 Euros, and you pay, but when encouraged to look up the model online you find it actually cost less than 400 Euros. Meanwhile I buy books online from some random person trying to clean up his shelves and have every expectation that I'll get what I ordered on time and of the advertized quality. I had a conversation with a humanitarian worker recently in which he said he'd never do development work in Africa because there's no solidarity. He feels useful working, as he put it, as “a band-aid.”

Would the technology of bank cards erase the mistrust in Central African economic transactions? (As of very recently, there are a few ATMs in Bangui, but they work only with local EcoBank cards.) Or would the mistrust simply take a new form? In Nairobi and Mexico City, private security guards continually patrol ATMs, but that doesn't stop thugs in the latter locale from carrying out “express kidnappings”/“millionaires' tours” during which they cart their captives from ATM to ATM until they've withdrawn their day's limit.

I've heard of economic studies that trace the lack of large-scale trust in much of Africa to the legacy of slave trading. I'm not sure if any economists have tried to look at the ways that trust has been affected by the fact that until colonization, with all of its violent distortions of social life, many people lived in “stateless” societies – that is to say, decentralized, with no leader assembling each community into a larger-scale whole. I look forward to someday teaching Thomas Beidelman's article “Beer Drinking and Cattle Theft in Ukavuru” (I might be butchering the place name; internet is too slow to look it up to verify) because I think it shows, simply and yet elegantly, the ways that the colonial introduction of force created inequalities and mistrust that persisted with independence.

From the burgeoning literature on African cities, it seems like there are places – Rem Koolhaas' Lagos and Marie-Francoise Plissart and Filip De Boeck's Kinshasa come to mind – where whatever mistrust exists becomes a catalyst to all sorts of improvisations, sometimes predatory but also productive, such as 419 schemes. In CAR, though, which is landlocked in so many ways, it seems only like a brake. People here in rural CAR describe themselves as moving backward.

Derrida fans would no doubt have their own take on this problem of the signature.

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