Smartphones Might Accelerate Lowering the Cost of Remittances

spNew Orleans   For so many smartphones have only meant an even bigger time suck on Facebook, an easier way to play games while waiting for the bus, and a chance to watch YouTube videos of cats or people tripping on sidewalks or whatever. For those people who still think the whole world is only their personal oyster, there might have been some head scratching as they heard that a must-have tool for migrants, fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and trying to navigate their way across Europe to promised lands, is a smartphone. Smartphones? They don’t hardly have two cents and the shirts on their backs, but they have a smartphone? What’s up?

Well, the migrants fleeing for their lives is a huge issue and a humanitarian crisis, but maybe there’s a way to see a silver lining in the increased ubiquity and the obvious affordability of smartphones, especially when it comes to the drum that ACORN International and its affiliates continue to beat about the vital necessity as well to lower the cost of money transfers or remittances from these same migrants and other immigrants to each other and their home communities. Cheap smartphones flying off the shelf from China are part of the clue here, but there are also hopeful signs in Africa as some companies finally are making it easier – and cheaper – to use mobile phones to make bi-national money transfers. Google’s entry into the market in Africa and other developing countries could – and should – accelerate this as well.

London-based Vodafone and South Africa’s MTN, the largest telecom in Africa, are moving forward to facilitate mobile payments between their two huge networks. Vodafone’s Safaricom subsidiary in Kenya through its 14 million customer M-Pesa network already facilitates mobile phone payments for a huge number of purchases and services. Finally central government banks in Uganda and Rwanda have approved telecom transfers. The network of partnerships these companies are building in East Africa is expected to lower the transfer costs of remittances from the current 20% to only 3% or less. The ACORN International demand to the companies has been 5%, so this would be huge. The toothless World Bank even says that reducing prices for the $48 billion worth of remittances in Africa by even 5% say from 20% to 15% would save desperate families $16 billion!

Small, old school “burner” type mobile phones with dual SIM card slots are all over Kenya to allow transfers across networks, but new market entries in large, developing countries could also make a difference. Google’s Android One phone, using its software and Chinese and other manufactures came out last year in India and ten other countries including Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, and Philippines. An upgraded model of Android One was announced by Google a couple of weeks ago for Nigeria with all the features needed from dual SIM slots to software lengthening battery life and speeding internet access where connections are weak. The phone is also available on-line in Egypt, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, and Morocco.

For smartphones to become the handsets of choice and tools for forcing the cost of remittances down and the predatory costs to plummet, pricing is still an issue. Many of the Chinese phones, that also use older versions of Android software, sell for $50, and African and other developing country customers, not unlike many of us non-I-Phone people, purchase on price. Google’s phone is now set at $89 in Nigeria and almost $100 in India. MTN offers $62 smartphones in South Africa and various models between $47 and $57 in Nigeria. Google is likely going to need to get the price down to $30 to $50 to play head-to-head. But, that’s their problem.

Ours continues to be how to put billions of more dollars into communities for their own development and to families to improve their living standards. Moving closer to a system that gets rid of the bankers, Western Union’s, and MoneyGram’s, and lets money move hand to hand through your phone at a fraction of the cost, is our big problem, and smartphones and even the Googles and almost equally predatory telecoms may help us get there, whether that was their intention or not.

Banksy’s Dismaland

Announcing: ACORN are an official part of Banskys Dismaland! And you can too - we need your help! Visit to get involved!

Announcing: ACORN are an official part of Banskys Dismaland! And you can too – we need your help! Visit to get involved!

New Orleans      At the end of a long catch-up Skype call with Stuart Melvin, ACORN United Kingdom’s national organizer, he mentioned he and some of the members were going to be spending some time at an odd street festival of sorts not far from our folks in Bristol, England along the coast in a town called Weston-super-Mare. Stu kinda laughed about it, said he couldn’t really describe it, but I should just Google the name of the town, and I’d get a sense of it. I meant to do so of course, but I didn’t, you know how these things go, there’s only so much time in the day.

A couple of mornings later I scan a piece in the New York Times about the latest mashup from world famous street and graffiti artist, and Bristol-native, the ever elusive, Banksy. The art community had been wondering what he had been up to during an unusually quiet stretch and suddenly, and in his typical way, secretly it seemed, he had opened a massive thing he called Dismaland on the English seaside. Interesting, I thought and kept on pushing.

Later at work an email from Stu says this bizarre experience went well. Ah, that’s right the gang was going to the shore, I’d almost forgotten. Finally, the pieces came together when I saw a Facebook picture of our crack ACORN Bristol organizer, Nick Ballard, waving an ACORN flag standing next to one of our volunteers, and in the background was, yes, you guessed it, Dismaland! Damned if Banksy and his people, whoever they might be, hadn’t invited ACORN to be one of the street attractions for this 5-week extravaganza that observers believe might attract as many as 400,000 people. No wonder Stu was excited that in his first afternoon out there in a couple of hours we had enrolled 50 provisional ACORN members, all of whom wanted ACORN in their towns!

The Guardian refers to Dismaland as a mixture of anarchism and amusement park. I’m Ok with that. Just days before the Bristol ACORN crew had posted pictures of a typical summer day and it was basically a shot of dark, cold, and rain. Now reading the descriptions of Dismaland and looking at some of the pictures, what can I say, I wish I were there!

For the art lovers, Banksy is displaying 58 artists’ work, and says these are pieces from the best contemporary artists in the world, “apart from the two that turned him down.” He has 10 new pieces on display including a thing on Cinderella where her carriage has crashed killing her and her horses. You buy your 3 pound ticket online except that the huge demand has crashed the website of course when I first visited, and then you have to endure a cardboard security station with guards in pink hi-viz vests who tell you that you cannot bring squid into the park. There is a warning that no officials or lawyers from Disneyland are allowed entry of course.

There are the normal amusement park features with a twist. The isn’t an ATM but there is a “loan shop” for children that satirically jabs at 5000% interest rates and payday lending. There’s a portrait artist, but you can only get a portrait of the back of your head, which the promo says “is surprisingly revealing.” In a takeoff of the longstanding English institution, the Citizens Advice Bureau, the Comrade’s Advice Bureau teaches all interested in how they can unlock the bus display advertising posters and sells a special 5 pound tool to do the job. When asked whether this was legal, the Dismaland guide told The Guardian, “it is not illegal.”

How great is this? ACORN is honored and excited to be a part of this whole affair. But, hey, Banksy, what does it take for us to put this show on the road, so we can all go, have some laughs, be part of the fun, and shove our funny bones into the fat guts of the powers that be here and elsewhere around the world?


These pictures credited to The Guardian. . .

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Politicians Silence Advocates and Organizations

10816511New Orleans   There is no doubt by anybody anywhere that the Fight for $15 and in general the fight for living wages has been led by unions and community organizations in every country where the campaign has been fought: the United States, the United Kingdom, and, certainly Canada. No matter the tactics and strategy the targets have been moving corporations and public bodies and elected politicians to sign on and support the workers’ demands for living wages. As we have discussed, some public bodies, including city councils in Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York in the United States as well as particularly Vancouver and Toronto in Canada and even the national government in the United Kingdome have moved substantially on these issues after sufficient organizational and popular pressure. This is how it should be. This is the work we do. Ostensibly, this is how countries subscribing to some level of democratic norms should work.

Well, think again, my friends, not in the age of state and corporate partnerships in the age of neo-liberalism.

The ACORN office in British Columbia received a message marked URGENT from the British Columbia Federation of Labor because we are an active member of course of the Minimum Wage Working Group. The message was pleading that all “Fight for $15” activities would have to be suspended until the mid-October federal elections, a period of almost 3 months since Prime Minister Harper had “dropped the writ,” or called for the election, unusually early in order to trigger the expenditure freezes for the election, favoring the incumbent party. Normally for ACORN the time to increase the pressure on our issues is during election periods when politicians and parties are most vulnerable and our leverage is at its highest! So, what the frick?

I’ll let the message speak for itself:


As you know Prime Minister Harper has called the election earlier than expected. Additionally new rules have come into place regarding the participation of third parties during an election.

As a result of these changes the BC Federation of Labour is very limited in how it may participate during the writ period, specifically related to advertising. Due to the similarity of our Fight for $15 campaign to the Federal NDP’s platform promise of a $15 per hour federal minimum wage, any traditional or on-line paid advertising that we engage in to support the campaign may be considered election advertising under the Elections Act.

This in itself wouldn’t present a problem. However, the BCFED and all other federations of labour and labour councils are considered by Elections Canada to be one entity under the Canadian Labour Congress. Therefore, we are not permitted to register separately as a third party. This means we are caught in the same spending cap as the CLC. There is no additional room within that cap.

Due to these restrictions we must limit our Fight for $15 campaign activities to those activities that are not considered to be election advertising. This means we are limited to on-line engagement without placement costs and direct communication with our members. We can also submit letters to the editor and op eds.

We are not permitted to petition, leaflet, hand out buttons, distribute t-shirts or participate in any activity that advertises this issue to the public until after the election period. That means we will need to postpone many of our upcoming activities until after the election in October. We are very disappointed by this news and will be developing a new strategy to mobilize the campaign in an on-line capacity that complies with the legislation.

We are asking you to not distribute any materials including petitions, buttons, signs or leaflets that were produced by the BCFED during the campaign period. You, of course, may use your own materials, but please be aware of the requirement to register as a third party advertiser should you incur more than $500 in costs.

You get it? One of the parties, the National Democratic Party, had succumbed to the pressure and made $15 a part of their platform, therefore continuing to organize, advocate, demonstrate, and agitate for $15 suddenly was reclassified as not only electioneering, but advertising rather than action. A similar perversity was recently part of the rules in the United Kingdom federal elections with about the same limitations except 5000 pounds per group rather than 5000 Canadian dollars. Not much doubt that the Canadian Conservative Party might have gotten the idea from the UK Conservative Party, eh? Of course in the United States where anything about money in elections is dysfunctional, the one effort by the IRS to reign in 501c4 social welfare organizations on their political activity, despite the fact that the 501c4 status curtails such activity, was immediately derailed by Congress and then postponed and pulled by the IRS until after the 2016 election, despite the fact that c4s as social welfare front groups and SuperPacs are already flooding campaigns with money, taking over their management, and flaunting every known rule.

But the perversity of organizations being prevented from advocating for change so that politicians can dupe voters into whatever is past the pale. If there were ever rules that were made to be ignored, which is to say, broken, here is a prime example. When government attempts to silence people, it is time to roar.

Citizen Wealth for the Rural Global Poor

ScreenHunter_120_Aug._26_15.38New Orleans     About the only global response to rural poverty, where millions are living on less than $1.25 per day, has been where the poor have voted with their feet and migrated to urban areas, often finding themselves in similar impoverishment. Some small hope is breaking through the hardscrabble though in a study by the much touted Poverty Lab researchers and authors, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their finding is that if you transfer assets to poor families and, importantly, also train them in asset management, along with other basic citizen wealth skills like money management, basic health maintenance, and similar foundational tools, and monitor the process regularly with outreach workers in a people-centered program, then, not surprisingly, it makes a difference.

With this number of “if’s,” it is already obvious that we’re climbing almost as many mountains as we are trying to level in order to impact abject rural poverty. Nonetheless, Duflo and Banerjee studied similar programs piloted by a number of NGO’s including Oxfam, Heifer International, World Vision, and BRAC in Bangladesh that ran projects that transferred ownership of livestock or chickens to low-income rural families. The programs they studied were run by local nonprofits in Ghana, Ethiopia, Honduras, India, Pakistan, and Peru. Since ACORN International organizes in cities in three of those countries, this item quickly caught my eye.

According to The Economist the program in each country allowed 10,000 families in the half-dozen countries to select an asset gift. The families received full support along with a one-year allowance of money sufficient to purchase a kilo of rice on a daily basis.   After two years the family consumption of food had risen by 5% and the value of family citizen wealth had increased by 15%, both significantly higher improvements when measured against a control group not in the programs. The researchers report that each person in the program worked an additional 17.5 more minutes a day.

Yes, these are very, very modest results, but hope – and sometimes effective projects – rests of such slender reeds. The costs are not inconsiderable ranging from $414 per person in India and $3122 in Peru. If the average per participant across all six countries was only $1000, the investment would have been $10 million, if $2000, then $20 million – a lot of money, but not outrageous.

The Economist columnist speculated that India could just move 1% of their GNP in this direction to replace 0.3% of their GNP being spent currently on a popular, but controversial, rural workfare program designed to keep population in the villages. That’s unlikely. He also wants to argue that the justification of the costs would be the fact that this program in his view would be a magic bullet – a one-off solution, rather than a continuing investment. Sad to say, and the evidence is everywhere, but there is no one-off expenditure solution to poverty, particularly when we are holding onto marginal improvements as little as 5% in nutrition and 15% in “value,” which is hard wealth to retain.

The same columnist also believes that you can eliminate the most expensive part of the program, not surprisingly the family-to-family organizing program where outreach workers are part of the support, instruction, and encouragement network. He bases this on an apple-and-oranges interjection of something from Uganda, which undermines the rigor of the report, which is the whole point of the Poverty Lab and its claim to fame. Nonetheless eliminating the people driving the change likely undermines this narrow progress on a whim.

I’m not quibbling though. Whether abject rural poverty or low-and-moderate income families in cities around the world, creating real citizen wealth is the ticket, and this progress, no matter how slight, warrants serious attention, even if a real celebration is still many years in the future.

The “Venmo Line” and Moving Cash More Cheaply

venmoNew Orleans     We are making progress on our Remittance Justice Campaign. A federal bill has now been introduced in Canada to cap fees and other costs at 5%. Provincial bills have now been introduced in British Columbia and Ontario. Reports from Honduras indicated that there is movement in Tegucigalpa at capping the fees finally. A report from France indicates that the giant telecom, Orange, has announced lowered costs for transfers to French speaking African countries. These may be baby steps though compared to what is possible with newer technology, startups, and other tools, if we could get our members over the digital divide.

A Wall Street Journal column recently began with a story about a US viewer of a news report on a demonstration in the Ukraine last year where a protestor held up a sign with their bitcoin transfer information and the savvy techie sent him $10 in bitcoin. That is NOT what I’m talking about, because even while repeating that story, I feel like I’m talking a foreign language.

On the other hand in Canada, we tried to figure out if Venmo worked there. Oh, you don’t know Venmo? Then don’t call yourself hip, though my tongue is solidly in my cheek, because I only know Venmo since one of my closest living relatives is on the proper side of what the company calls the “Venmo line,” which is people 30 years old and under. The cost of transfers through Venom is nada, zero, zilch! Venmo can do this for free because they are moving bits of data around with permissions from one bank account to another. Sadly, Venmo, when we checked, is no-go in Canada and only works in the USA now because of complicated banking regulations, similar to what is hampering us on remittances. Electronic payment methods using credit cards aren’t better. In fact we have a strange bedfellow ally in Walmart that is suing Visa for more than $5 billion “alleging the fees it charges when customers use plastic are unreasonably high.”

The Wall Street Journal agreed with ACORN as well, saying that Western Union, MoneyGram and the like charge fees that “run as high as 8%, not including the less-than-favorable exchange rates….” They cite some potential competitors like TransferWise that “matches pools of people in two different countries who want to send money to the opposite country, thus eliminating the need to actually transfer money at all.” What they seem to have done is apply technology and a matching service to the age old hawala system still popular in the Middle East and frequently used in South Asia, though technically illegal there. In fact a company with a similar name, Dwolla, has “built a federally approved payment network, called FiSync, that allows any connected institution to instantaneously send any amount of money.” And, yes, they also do this for free!

It’s hard to tell what the tipping point might be that stops the predatory money exchangers from muscling up on transfers from migrant workers and immigrant families back to their home countries, especially given the persistence of the unbanked, but the gap is closing on these rip-off artists whether politically or technically as they get driven to either change or die.


Wang Feng In the Spring

Chants, Swag, Cookies, and Raps for ACORN

DSCN0036Pittsburgh     When people who care about something get together in an organization that they also care about, stand back and admire the creativity that starts to blossom.

Of course there’s always ACORN swag which is almost a cottage industry in itself. There can’t be an ACORN convention without a convention t-shirt. I’m pretty sure that’s a rule. I have a whole shelf of them at home along with a couple in my bag with me now. I can remember a buzz at the back of the room, when I finally managed to get an ACORN “uniform” of sorts introduced to the organizers. I drink my own Kool-Aid though and I’m sitting here now with an ACORN short sleeve shirt on and wore my ACORN button-down long sleeve shirt in Montreal and a hundred other places. I will put an ACORN baseball cap on my head when I go to the ACORN “family” picnic at Homestead Park, and there’s an ACORN Canada handkerchief in my back pocket. There are always ACORN buttons and ACORN flags flying everywhere around the world where we work. I ride for the brand.

But, it’s not just me, because the members get even more creative. A member from Toronto brought me a bag of cookies she thought would be a great fundraiser for ACORN everywhere and at Fair Grinds Coffeehouses in New Orleans. In the bag were beautifully made gingerbread cookies with colorful icing. When you lined the cookies out on the table one by one, each one had a letter on it ,and they spelled What a treat!

Another member from British Columbia, Vern, regularly produces and designs his own notion of ACORN slogans on t-shirts and the occasional sweatshirt. The most famous, and almost a collector’s item, is one we call the “tiger” t-shirt. The slogan on the shirt is that “ACORN is the People’s Tiger” and the design has an ACORN symbol in gold on the front and a bit of the tiger. I love that shirt!

A member from Toronto named Heidi was called up to the podium in Montreal because she had developed an ACORN rap. From where I stood in the back it was hard for me to catch all of the words, so I’ll have to track down the lyrics verse by verse as soon as I can, but I know it started with ACORN and ended with ACORN, and other phrases included, “No back down,” and “Take a stand” and “Stop the greedy,” so however they were strung together it sounds like she was on track and the members were on their feet, clapping, finger popping, and hollering right until the end of her rap.


Another member from Ottawa had developed his own chant, which was also readily adopted on the march, and could become a standard with a little work:


Stop the war on the poor

Make the rich pay

We’re hungry! We’re angry!

And, we won’t go away!


Other members sometimes changed the last line on subsequent verses to “And, ACORN won’t go away,” and I even heard one chanting “We’re ACORN every day!” as the last line. There’s always the classic, “A-C-O-R-N,” and “People want to know, who we are, so we tell them, we’re ACORN, mighty, mighty ACORN.” In Montreal, we heard some of these chants in French as well, and of course we all learned “Sol, Sol, Solidarite!”

When we all get together in groups large and small, we know the story: “The People United Will Never be Defeated.”