Recent Publications on Biometrics (in South Africa, Kenya, and the UK)

I have three recent publications on the politics of biometric identification in, respectively, South Africa, Kenya, and the UK.

As part of a special edition of the Journal of Southern African Studies on Science & Scandal I wrote an article on the use of biometric technology within the post-apartheid welfare bureaucracy:

The Biometric Imaginary: Bureaucratic Technopolitics in Post-Apartheid Welfare

Starting in March 2012, the South African government engaged in a massive effort of citizen registration that continued for more than a year. Nearly 19 million social welfare beneficiaries enrolled in a novel biometric identification scheme that uses fingerprints and voice recognition to authenticate social grant recipients. This article seeks to understand the meaning of biometric technology in post-apartheid South African welfare through a study of the bureaucratic and policy elite’s motivation. It argues that biometric technology was conceived of and implemented as the most recent in a series of institutional, infrastructural and policy reforms that seek to deliver welfare in a standardised and objective manner. This has, at times, been driven by a false faith in technical efficacy and has involved a playing down of the differential political implications of biometric welfare identification.

(Open access version)

In the new issue of Environment & Planning D: Society & Space I have a piece on the material pragmatics of cash transfers in northern Kenya:

Infrastructuring Aid: Materializing Humanitarianism in Northern Kenya

In numerous African countries humanitarian and development organizations—as well as governments—are expanding expenditures on social protection schemes as a means of poverty alleviation. These initiatives, which typically provide small cash grants to poor populations, are often considered particularly agreeable for the simplicity of their administration and the feasibility of their implementation. This paper examines the background work required to deploy social protection in one especially remote area: the margins of postcolonial Kenya. Specifically, it documents the often overlooked social and technical construction of the infrastructure necessary so that cash transfers may function with the ease and simplicity for which they are commended. Attention to the practice of ‘infrastructuring’ offers insights into the tensions and politics of what is rapidly become a key form of transnational govermentality in the global South, showing that humanitarian rationalities and subjects cannot be understood independently of the material networks on which they rely.

(Open access version)

And, with Aaron Martin, I have a piece in Public Understanding of Science on the public contestation of biometrics in the UK:

New Surveillance Technologies and Their Publics: A Case of Biometrics

Before a newly-elected government abandoned the project in 2010, for at least eight years the British state actively sought to introduce a mandatory national identification scheme for which the science and technology of biometrics was central. Throughout the effort, government representatives attempted to portray biometrics as a technology that was easily understandable and readily accepted by the public. However, neither task was straightforward. Instead, particular publics emerged that showed biometric technology was rarely well understood and often disagreeable. In contrast to some traditional conceptualizations of the relationship between public understanding and science, it was often those entities that best understood the technology that found it least acceptable, rather than those populations that lacked knowledge. This paper analyzes the discourses that pervaded the case in order to untangle how various publics are formed and exhibit differing, conflicting understandings of a novel technology.

(Open access version)

Versions of each are available here.

‘Development’ as if We Have Never Been Modern: Fragments of a Latourian Development Studies

What might the work of Bruno Latour — and STS more broadly — offer critical development studies? Growing out of work in South Africa, I have a theoretical piece on what Latour can offer post-development studies and practice. It is being published in Development & Change. (open access version)

‘Development’ as if We Have Never Been Modern: Fragments of a Latourian Development Studies

The work of the French anthropologist-cum-philosopher Bruno Latour has influenced a wide variety of disciplines in the past three decades. Yet, Latour has had little noticeable effect within development studies, including those sub-fields where it might be reasonable to expect affinity, such as the anthropology of development. The first half of this article outlines some core aspects of Latour’s oeuvre as they relate to development and anthropology, particularly focusing on the post-development critique. Latour’s approach to constructivism and translation, his analytical commitment to ‘keeping the social flat’ and his distribution of agency offer novel ways of maintaining some of the strengths of post-development without falling prey to some of its weaknesses. The second half of the article explores the potential for a Latour-inspired theory of development that may provide fruitful avenues for scholarship and practice beyond post-development, emphasizing materialism, relationality and hybridity.

IC4D 2012: Maximizing Mobile

I have a chapter on mobile money in the most recent version of the World Bank’s flagship ICT4D publication, Information and Communication for Development 2012. The chapter serves as an overview of the sector, with special focus on the potential to use mobile money for meaningful financial inclusion, as well as some of the emerging issues such as universal access, competition & interoperability, and product innovation. You can download the chapter here, or visit the World Bank’s page for the full report with chapters on health, agriculture, entrepreneurship, governance, and broadband policy.

Abstract: Chapter 4 looks at the use of mobile money as a general platform and critical infrastructure underpinning other economic sectors. It shows the benefits and potential impact of mobile money, especially for promoting financial inclusion. It provides an overview of the key factors driving the growth of mobile money services, the barriers and obstacles hindering their deployment, and emerging issues that the industry will face over the coming years.

Update: I wrote a short post for the World Bank’s Private Sector Development blog about what’s next for mobile money.