Challenging the dominant narratives of a Digital Financial Inclusion

Ishita Ghosh. Challenging the dominant narratives of a Digital Financial Inclusion. Ph.D Dissertation. Advisor: Jenna Burrell. University of California, Berkeley. 2018.


‘Financial Inclusion’ has over the years assumed a central role in poverty alleviation by connecting the materially poor with formal financial services. Access to these formal financial services is expected to help the poor manage their erratic income streams and thus manage their day-to-day and critical expenses. In this way, the financial inclusion narrative assumes that the poor around the world are a homogeneous population that suffers from a universal condition of ‘financial exclusion’. In this scenario, informal finance is considered to be sub-optimal, expensive, and unpredictable. Yet researchers have begun to challenge this formal/informal, and consequently the inclusion/exclusion (false) dichotomies. I maintain and extend this intellectual tradition in this dissertation within the context of a digital financial inclusion paradigm.

With the growing popularity of mobile money in the developing world, and its ability to connect the poor to financial services, the financial inclusion agenda is becoming increasingly digitized. Mobile money now constitutes a type of formal financial access that preserves and further normalizes the assumptions made about ‘formal’ and ‘modern’ financial services and their ability to help the poor. I interrogate these simplistic assumptions of a digitized financial inclusion paradigm. In general, the mobile money narrative prioritizes its technological innovations and its ability to create and sustain a cashless society while sidelining the broader infrastructure(s) that helps accomplish the challenging task of managing the poor’s unique and precarious cash flows. This narrative also renders invisible the human work that goes into making financial inclusion work for the poor. I challenge these prioritizations and focus instead on the less glamorous aspects of mobile money and how it can help the poor manage their precarity. I also demonstrate the politics of financial inclusion and how misguided policies in its name can fail to accomplish their stated goals, or worse have unintended consequences that actually hurt the poor rather than help them. The 2016 Demonetization event in India provides the ideal research context for this. Eventually, the goal of this dissertation is to develop a more circumspect, and therefore meaningful, analysis of financial inclusion, especially when considering the persistent precarity of poverty.


Last updated:

January 23, 2019