My nephew John is currently in India where he is working with a team studying the effects of microfinance. Microfinance represents small loans – sometimes very small loans – given to the poor, often to help them set up a business. A woman might be given $100, for instance, to buy a mobile phone. This might be the only phone in the village where she lives, so she is able to rent it to others to make calls, while they themselves are able to use it to start or enhance their own business activities.
Finding out under what conditions microfinancing is effective requires some understanding of the culture, and in this pursuit John is now playing soccer regularly in the local neighbourhood. It’s the monsoon season, so this really means playing soccer in a field of mud, but it’s a popular neighborhood activity, in which almost everyone seems to join in. Taxi drivers will park their taxis and join in with school boys and shopkeepers. The unique Indian contribution to this game is that it is played without shoes. Players are either barefoot or wearing socks. This levels the playing field so that people who do not own shoes or who cannot afford to submit them to a regular mud bath can play on equal footing with the more well-off. Without this rule, a player with shoes, or even worse, with cleats in his boots would never be out-played by the barefoot.
Along with this approach to learning the culture, a group of the researchers also regularly go out to dinner together, when they play “credit card roulette.” It works as follows: at the end of the dinner, everyone gives the waiter his or her credit card, and the waiter is asked to pick one randomly. The person whose card is picked pays for everyone. The next time, that card is not included in the pack.
My nephew is studying for his Ph.D. in economics. He’s a brilliant numbers man, which I suppose explains the credit card roulette. I think it’s the muddy soccer field though, that’s going to make him an outstanding success.