Grant Funds Research in East Africa

Georgetown University will expand its research on mobile money in East Africa and its effect on the Kenyan and Ugandan populations after receiving a $3.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced Feb. 12.

The Georgetown University Initiative on Innovation, Development and Evaluation, also known as gui2de, created the project as part of its research to evaluate the effects of policies implemented in developing countries. This specific project will involve two years of field research and data analysis on mobile money platforms and their effects on low-income populations in East Africa.

The project, which is a joint operation conducted by the McCourt School of Public Policy and the economics department, has yet to begin, but will be based in gui2de’s new office in Nairobi, Kenya.
Co-director of gui2de and Georgetown economics professor Billy Jack defined mobile money as a means of transferring money through the technology found on mobile phones and computers.

“All you have to do is write a text message and you can transfer money across a country,” Jack said.
Jack said that the grant will be used to study this technology in an attempt to further develop platforms that utilize it.

“This grant is to facilitate the speculative innovation on the mobile platform,” Jack said. “We’re going to work with a mobile platform, a bank and an IT platform in Kenya and Uganda to look at ways that we can actually create new services on the mobile platform.”

McCourt School of Public Policy Dean Edward Montgomery stressed the importance of conducting this research not only in East Africa, but internationally.

“It’s part of our mission to think about the best way to improve people’s lives around the world,” Montgomery said. “This technology is changing conditions on the ground and allowing people to have access to important financial markets. We want to do some research to see if it’s working well.”
Jack highlighted the various uses of mobile money and the implications this has for safety and convenience in financial transactions.

“Even at an individual level, finance is really important. It can mean just the ability to pay someone — and to do that, you have to have cash on you. In some places, that can be dangerous,” Jack said. “Someone else could steal it. Having money on your mobile phone is less dangerous and you can send or use money not just with someone right in front of you, but with someone on the other side of the country. It can also be expanded to include other financial services such as credit, insurance and savings.”

Jack emphasized that the aim of the project is to assist lower-income populations in East Africa.
“A lot of people think of Wall Street and rich people when they think of financial services. Poor people need these services too,” Jack said. “Virtually every single adult in Kenya now has a mobile phone. Ninety percent of them have access to the mobile money platform. We’d like to build innovative progress on the platform that is already established.”

The gui2de program also encourages students to become involved in its research. It hosts a summer internship open to rising seniors and Masters students that allows them to spend at least two months in developing countries. The initiative expects to have eight summer interns this year.

Montgomery emphasized the program’s aim to allow students to conduct hands-on research.
“This is an exciting way for both McCourt students and undergraduates at Georgetown to get involved with field research or to work with faculty members here to apply what they’ve learned in their economics classes or computer science classes or business classes to see how this technology is changing people’s lives,” Montgomery said. “Research is a great complement to what you’ve learned in the classroom and apply it to the real world. For our students who are thinking about going on to grad school or continuing with these studies, this program offers a unique opportunity to gather experience.”
Max Magerman (SFS ’16), who previously worked in Tanzania with gui2de, said he valued the opportunity to gain insight into international developments.

“It’s a really incredible opportunity that allows you to travel to and work in a part of the world that you may not be able to otherwise. The work you do is important and the feedback is definitely appreciated back home,” Magerman said. “It was really interesting to see how an idea can be conceptualized and implemented into a country. It’s the best way I can think of to get real experience in the field.”

Applications for internships can be found at http://gui2de.georgetown.edu/studentexperiences.

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