Friday, June 21, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

How speculations dictate our lives

Update : 04 Dec 2021, 11:50 PM

Buy now, pay later (BNPL) services gained global attention innovating an “amazing” offer -- one can buy products without paying for those at once while purchasing, but in instalments later. Moreover, there is no interest to be paid, but a late fee if the payment deadline is missed. Thus, the scheme enhances consumers’ purchasing power without pressuring their finances, we are told.

Pathao launched the BNPL service recently on a test basis in Bangladesh. The “pay later” option is introduced in Pathao Food services with a spending limit of Tk2,000 for 15 days. Users have the option of replenishing the limit upon repayment. Pathao will not charge interests, but the users must repay in full within 30 days. If the user fails to pay by the deadline, there will be a late fine of Tk200.

This development, or opportunity, emerged on a backdrop of minimal credit card penetration in the country, with just 1% of the entire population owning a credit card. Besides, while the younger generations are into online shopping, those with credit cards -- people with stable jobs and incomes -- are no match for online purchases. While pointing out a problem, this context also leads us towards a solution, and a market niche of BNPL appears before investors.

Pathao, with a sizable young user base in its ride-hailing, food delivery, and logistic services, along with advanced technological capabilities, could partner with financial institutions. Thus, Pathao has unlocked new opportunities in the realm of digital credit as the CEO of Pathao claimed that they could “catalyze an important growth stage of the Bangladesh economy.”

Globally, BNPL schemes have increased the purchasing power of young customers. However, this scheme that allows us to consume more with our pledges for future payments represents what the recent economic speculations promote with a two-part strategy: Identifying a problem and providing solutions to overcome it.

Let us shift our attention to the more fundamental problem of inequality that everyone wants to eliminate. Inequality exists globally, and accepting this as inevitable, institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, and the national governments propose and implement policies arguably to alleviate the grave situations. In these processes, speculation plays a crucial role that proceeds by laying out the uncertainties and ways of navigating towards the desired future. Thereby, speculations produce spatio-temporal arrangements of resources. 

Delineation of the whole mechanism is out of scope for an op-ed. But we can understand the process from Dhaka city being repeatedly labelled as one of the least liveable cities globally, and consequently, massive reconfiguration of the city is ongoing. 

To transform the city, imitating the cities of the western world, new lavish and grand amenities are built. To this end, various technologies of imagination are used: Promotional brochures, branding, international agency reports, political visions, risk analyses, social and environmental evaluation, etc.

However, the “not-so-fitting part” of the city -- where the working-class people usually live -- disappears in the process. Diverse reasons for urban reconfigurations produce the same results -- evictions of the working class/poor. It is evident from the satellite images that squatters and slums are disappearing from the centre of the city and appearing on the outskirts.

Another example: The government is building a long-awaited third terminal at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport. As more people started travelling in and out of the country, the existing airport facilities were strained. 

The Tk21,300 crore project is expected to increase the airport’s capacity, and thus significantly contribute to the country’s economic growth. Many tasks of this project have been subcontracted, creating many jobs. However, on the night of November 25, 130 workers of the Concord group demonstrated for the payment of their unpaid wages. It shows how speculations for economic growth may produce ripple effects but are often overlooked.

Interestingly, speculations are akin to practices of divination or magic. For instance: Recently, the e-commerce company Evaly came under scrutiny. To solve the problem of consumers’ suffering, a new managing board was formed by the court after the company’s CEO and chairperson were arrested on accusations of trickery, fraud, irregularities, and embezzlement. The new board is expected to provide solutions for the people who already paid but never received the products from Evaly. 

But we must not forget the ways Evaly came into prominence. People invested money to buy products and received some products at a much lower price than the open market. With massive discounts and cashback offers, people could buy a motorcycle, car, TV, air conditioner, and other luxury items at a significantly lower price. 

They did not care to wait for two to six months to get the product. For many, the goal was to re-sell the product at a much higher price and eventually profit. Evaly could only survive till more people came into its loops; it could continue to provide products to some people until the loop became too much to control.

The repeated popularity of similar Ponzi schemes indicates economic speculations are extended through various financial products and credit instruments. As workers, business owners, government officials, families, communities, and individuals, it becomes our responsibility to speculate. Personal debt and microfinance are other examples of contemporary labour speculation. We organize our lives to pay these institutions’ interest, sometimes juggling informal debts to achieve this.

Since speculation is future-oriented and aimed at directing our labour and resources, it promotes particular lifestyles and time-maps. For instance, Pathao’s “buy now, pay later” scheme, as the standard credit cards, encourages us to spend more, giving us a feeling that we could earn enough to pay back in the future. As such, these speculations orient our lives towards some imagined future prospects. 

But the future does not always remain in our control. Eventually, we become buried under personal and institutional debt -- storing up problems for the future. 

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. Currently, he works as a research fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden University, the Netherlands.

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