The Unbearable Modernity of Mobile Money


In this paper, we describe an ethnographic study of a mobile money infrastructure, especially its design, organization, and implementation, and its potential consequences for financial inclusion goals. Through using the analytic lens of infrastructure studies to ground our findings, we observe is that infrastructures emerge in organized practice and use. Moreover, they are constantly evolving with no specific beginning and end; any bounding is contingent on our own methodological and theoretical affiliations as well as our logistical constraints. To this end, we focus our attention on the two different infrastructures – the mobile money and the loan management infrastructures – that were operating in tandem to connect low-income auto-rickshaw drivers to mainstream bank loans. We specifically privilege the human work that goes into making and sustaining this mobile money infrastructure. In doing so, we challenge the ‘unbearable modernity’ of mobile money and its purported effects on helping the poor manage their unpredictable cash flows. Eventually, we make two main contributions. First, we demonstrate that what appeared on the surface to be solely a ‘mobile money infrastructure’ is in fact a complex and, often, visibly seamless organization of at least two interacting infrastructural systems. These come together in an intricate, layered way to enable mobile money to be used for loan repayments in this low-income setting. It becomes especially important to emphasize that an infrastructure is not always organically built or spontaneously accessed in order to challenge the dominant narratives around mobile money where an insulated infrastructure is thought to enable all digital transactions and thus achieve financial inclusion. Second, we privilege the human work of what is otherwise often considered an exclusively technological infrastructure. Bringing attention to these sidelined human workers is an important concern for CSCW with its focus on the work that enables systems to function seamlessly. Indeed, mobile money remains a favorite topic of interest for development scholars and practitioners and in the emergent conversations the focus continues to remain largely on the technological innovations. Even where the retail agent networks are discussed, their work is not completely understood. Bringing attention to these sidelined human workers is an important concern in this paper.

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  1. 1.

    To elaborate, the conversion of cash to digital currency (cash-in) and vice versa (cash-out) happens via an agent network. This agent network is generally comprised of local mom-and-pop stores whose primary business is often selling airtime, small grocery items, lottery tickets etc. Once the digital currency is in their wallets, mobile money users can now transact from the comfort of their homes.

  2. 2.

    One way to broadly differentiate between these terms is to check if they are ‘additive’, that is if the tool is a supplementary platform for conducting financial transactions, or ‘transformational’, where the tool makes an entry into unserved regions as the one of the few platforms for conducting financial transactions (Porteous 2006). ‘Mobile money’ immediately indicates transformational tools – a term with many positive, dramatic undertones that further propagates the perceived, magical possibilities of mobile money in the developing world.

  3. 3.

    The Global Findex database collects data on financial inclusion around the globe, and was launched in 2011 by the World Bank with funding from the Gates Foundation.

  4. 4.

    Larkin’s claim diverges from the more dominant understanding of infrastructures and their invisibility. Much of the academic literature notes that infrastructures are invisible to us in our daily lives unless a breakdown exposes us to its many components and organized, embedded practices (Star 1999; Collier 2011). However, Larkin (2013) argues that such predominant notions of infrastructures breaking down to reveal their invisible parts are ‘fundamentally inaccurate’ because some aspects will always remain more invisible than others and it is worth asking why (ibid, p. 336).

  5. 5.

    It is, however, noteworthy that this paper uses a broader definition of infrastructure in their paper; that is they attempt to provide a relational understanding of human and technological infrastructures, and in doing so firmly establish ‘human infrastructure’ as an ‘analytical lens with which to magnify the social’ of an infrastructure whose social and technical properties are anyway, otherwise, firmly intertwined (Lee et al. 2006).

  6. 6.

    Auto rickshaws are especially popular in South Asia and are a motorized three-wheeled rickshaw that can be publicly hired to go between places. They are generally cheaper than taxis, but more expensive (and arguably more convenient!) than mass public transit systems such as the bus or train.

  7. 7.

    At the time of writing, 100 INR = 1.53 USD.

  8. 8.

    This includes TWU’s service fees. Additionally, since most auto drivers are unable to pay the upfront security deposit amount, they take out another, smaller loan, which is repaid over 18 months.

  9. 9.

    NGOa is NGO2, and NGOb is NGO3 in previous work on this (O’Neill et al. 2017).

  10. 10.

    Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD)is a communications protocol used by GSM cellular phones. Most mobile money services in the developing world (excluding M-Pesa in Kenya actually) use USSD for users to communicate with their financial platforms.

  11. 11.

    This initial investment amount can vary, but Novopay argues this is only a nominal amount and is expected as a sort of guarantee to ensure that agents will focus on their specific business. However, when agents do not see the kind of business they were expecting, they will lament this initial investment – money that can be withdrawn at any point for a small cost but money that is locked away nevertheless. This is particularly consequential when we remember that agents working in the types of areas where auto-drivers live are also by and large going to be running cash businesses with a limited turnover, making the initial investment more burdensome.

  12. 12.

    From personal communication between TWU and Airtel Money.

  13. 13.

    Interestingly, this is similar for Airtel Money, who lamenting the lack of uptake of Airtel Money do not invest in their infrastructure, but without the infrastructure to make Airtel Money usable by low income communities, enthusiastic take-up of Airtel Money becomes ever more unlikely. This might be conceived of as a sort of Catch-22 of market forces!

  14. 14.

    In fact, service providers prefer that agents manage multiple businesses at a time so that the burden of sustainability is not just borne by the mobile money business – if anything, the mobile money business is driven by volumes and can seldom be the primary business for a small shopkeeper. The only situation in which it becomes the primary business is when super-agents are able to invest in a big space and mobilize a steady stream of migrant customers (generally, in a neighborhood that is almost completely made up of immigrant communities) who remit money back home on a frequent basis. Loan repayments do not quite offer the same margins or value proposition.

  15. 15.

    See also previous work (Ghosh 2013; Panjwani et al. 2013) that has recorded the use of these informal paper receipts in mobile banking transactions where their real legitimacy, especially in the event of any transgressions or lapses, remains limited.

  16. 16.

    The equivalent of high school in the local schooling system.

  17. 17.

    This is just a generic welcome message that pops up before the Airtel Money transaction menu begins.

  18. 18.

    KYC or Know Your Customer regulations are imposed on banks and other financial institutions to prevent money laundering and fraud.

  19. 19.

    There is a rich, vast literature on trust and trustworthiness (for instance, see Hardin 2002) that is certainly relevant to this study but is outside of the scope of this particular paper.


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Ghosh, I., O’Neill, J. The Unbearable Modernity of Mobile Money. Comput Supported Coop Work 29, 227–261 (2020).

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Key Words

  • Mobile money
  • Infrastructures
  • Financial inclusion
  • Ethnography