Insurance: Lessons from Mauritania (III et fin)





The third and final installation in a series of lessons learned from my time in Mauritania in the late 1980s and early 1990s (the first one is here, the second one is here), this post represents the lesson that changed my understanding of how people survive in an uncertain world.

Most people may not realize that the original insurance companies were more like “mutual aid” organizations, many of them structured as cooperatives or “mutuals” run by owner-members. In other words, people got together to pool resources to support one another in crisis. Today, these mutuals have grown into large, globe-straddling corporations who employ large numbers of people to quantify risk and underwrite policies based on clear profit goals.

We all own insurance–auto, home, crop, life, burial–and others more specific to our needs. We can hardly imagine a world where we can’t purchase a policy in the market and shop for the best rates for the product we want.

But most people in the world do not have access to those markets. A combination of poverty, broadly co-varying risks, and lack of regulations to keep predatory behavior at bay mean that most people must race losses in other ways.

I would have never understood this had I not analyzed migration in Mauritania. My Ph.D. was in Population Dynamics within a school of public health, and so most people were studying fertility–its determinants and ways that people seek to control it. But early on, I was drawn to population movements–what makes people leave home and family to venture into the unknown. I have written about that elsewhere, and I was fascinated by theories that explained the “why” of migration.

By the time I did my Ph.D. I had already lived in Mauritania and seen how migration had devastated villages–leaving entire areas with mostly women, children, and a few older men. I wanted to return to understand what it was all about.

I did not expect my search to lead me the question of insurance, but my approach to learning about migration started with going to small rural communities–the source of all that out-migration–and spending time learning from people about their lives. And that broad learning agenda revealed how insurance worked in that setting.

We would arrange to spend a week to ten days in a location, walk with people through their daily lives, and structure participatory learning activities to encourage them to talk about everything from tenure arrangements to seasonal work organization. In the process, we started to learn about gift-giving. I don’t remember when exactly we started paying attention to it, but I do recall it came about when we did “social mapping” with communities.  

Rendering of a social map drawn on the ground in Bougadoum, Mauritania.

Social mapping is a simple activity that generates lots of rich information. We would start by asking a group of people to talk about all the people or groups that were important inside the community, and then we would ask the same about people and groups outside the community.

When people would describe the external relationships, they would often refer to terms that, upon further discussion, revealed a variety of related concepts about giving gifts: grain, contributing small amounts of money to a community pot, in-kind donations like labor to fix a roof or search for lost cattle, or other things like loaning a goat to someone who would care for it and use its milk.

The gifts were varied and used by individuals and larger groups. Initially, when we asked why people gave these gifts, they would say it was because they were of the same tribe, or wanted to help others, or because of religious duty. However, when we probed more, they would talk about how if they ever needed anything, they could go to the person to whom they had given a gift, and that person would, naturally, help them.

And when we started delving into those relationships, the entire web of connectedness started coming together into a narrative in which people gave very targetted gifts to obtain, as needed, very precious favors in return.

For example, someone would give grain to a person with access to a car, knowing that if they ever needed to drive to a hospital, they could get help. Or, they would offer to fix someone’s roof, and then if they ever needed help with a legal entanglement, that person would come to their aid.

Many people described gifts for which the hoped-for (expected) return related to health care, medicine (traditional or modern), or even spells to drive away evil causes the sickness. 

In one fascinating case, a community of former slaves talked about how they had cultivated a relationship with a nearby wealthy community for years–offering to fix their houses, search out camels that had gone astray, and other menial tasks. They did this with a long-term view to obtain two things. First, they wanted to be able to turn to these people for help if they were injured or bitten by snakes. Second, they wanted to plant a date palm grove and needed the technical expertise the community had. The offered “free” service to this community for years before asking for anything and, when they did, the other community readily agreed to help them.

I was struck by both the foresight with which people gave gifts and the number and variety that people used. In the end, I used a different, quantitative approach to examine how migration–what I called “effective migration”–might influence the giving of gifts. My research showed that if a family had a migrant who sent them goods or money, they were very likely to invest it in gift-giving. They would increase the number of grain and other gifts to neighbors and go further afield to offer gifts outside their communities (thereby spacially spreading their risks).

I realized that most people in the world do not seek to “maximize” profits or utility (as I had been taught in my econ courses). Instead, in these extremely marginal environments (deserts edge, deep poverty, lack of food), people had evolved ways to minimize their risk of loss. 

Maybe this is not a novel discovery. But for me, seeing the variety of exchange mechanisms (the ways people create obligations towards themselves), and seeing how they used extra resources from migration to expand their gift-giving, changed my understanding of what people will do to reduce the uncertainty of life.

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