Monday, October 5, 2015

Revisiting IMTFI Researchers: Introducing the 2015 India Field Report

An IMTFI blog series in India by Liz Losh

(Seated left to right: Mani Nandhi, Liz Losh, Mrinalini Tankha)
In March of 2015 IMTFI arranged for a comprehensive visit to India to gather updates on four of their sponsored research projects. These four case studies examined a broad range of financial inclusion issues for specific targeted populations that differed by region, gender, and occupation. These studies included in-depth long-term field work with Delhi rickshaw pullers, rural women in Bihar, fishermen in Kerala, and silk workers in Karnakata.

As an observer, I was conscious of visiting the country at a time of dramatic changes. The government of Prime Minister, Narendra Modi had promised the country twenty-first century foundational technological transformations: biometric authentification, big data government, smart cities, mobile money, branchless banking, digital markets, shortened supply chains, and disintermediation of all kinds.

Although many of the research subjects participating in IMTFI studies often had access to cell phones and other communication technologies, and some maintained bank accounts, the access was uneven, and literacy gaps often played a role. In this context, empowerment efforts could have unintended consequences, the loss of local intermediaries was often mourned, and many reasons existed for people to prefer the informal sector over the formal one.

For many years now, I have covered the annual IMTFI conference as one of their official bloggers. This involves sitting in an air conditioned conference center at a high-tech research university in front of my laptop and trying to synthesize the statistics, diagrams, and photographs in the rapid-fire presentations to create stories that both accurately reflect the claims of the scholarship and emphasize the human interest questions that the yearly gathering of researchers raise. As one of the co-facilitators of FemTechNet, a research hub for scholars of technology whose work is informed by feminist theory, I thought I understood the material, the embodied, emotional, labor-intensive, and situated character of interactions with money and technology. However, to a certain extent, from the vantage point of the university, I could only vaguely comprehend the IMTFI research in a mostly abstract way. Of course, these researchers based in the Global South, who had overcome visa hurdles and jet lag to get to UC Irvine were people I had gotten to know a bit over the years. But I was only familiar with them in their roles as accomplished and articulate scholars. I didn't have the opportunity to see their empathy, humor, introspection, curiosity, frustration, and generosity as human beings until I traveled to the places where they did their field research.  

During my visit, I spent time with four remarkable women who were IMTFI Fellows and principal investigators. Among them were a human rights advocate and journalist who was serving as a research assistant to one of the PIs (see her "What I Learned in India" for more), a postdoctoral scholar based at IMTFI who grew up in Delhi, two female photographers, and eight field surveyors. It was an almost entirely female group that represented many different disciplines: anthropology, engineering, political economy, marketing, sociology, design, journalism, and nonprofit administration. I visited researchers in field sites, offices, and conference cities all over the country. I shooed away dogs and goats, ran across highways rumbling with trucks, tromped down mud paths inaccessible to automobiles, shuttled through mazes of back alleys and side yards, and navigated around industrial, animal, and human waste. I tried to be attentive and at the same time was anxious to avoid the possibility of disrupting the trust that the researchers had built with their subjects, sometimes over the course of many years.

Liz Losh with Nithya Joseph at the silk factory

I had been to India before -- to do research on hashtag activism in the wake of the notorious 2012 Delhi rape case, but much of that time had been spent in the familiar territory of college campuses, think tanks, and NGO offices. Visiting people who earned less than a dollar a day made me reflect on the ways that I could accept the food and hospitality they offered without further sapping family resources. Initially I probably also worried excessively about food safety issues, but I soon learned to follow the lead of my guides who always treated their informants with respect, friendship, and warmth. I was also privileged to see them in action, problem solving and formulating new research questions as new situations emerged. So it was an exciting intellectual environment as well. The fact that the IMTFI investment continues to pay off, sometimes years down the road, was particularly striking. From my perspective, the researches that these women are contributing to the field appears to be highly original, nuanced, practically applicable, and often counter to received wisdom.

This series of stories represents the work of Mani Nandhi on rickshaw pullers in Delhi, Deepti KC and Vanya Mehta on rural women in Bihar, Nithya Joseph on silk workers in Karnataka, and Janaki Srinivasan on fishermen in Kerala, . These stories describe very specific places and people, but I have tried to do so in ways that protect the privacy, dignity, and consent of participants. By offering portraits of these five researchers and their subjects, I hope to contribute in a very small way to broaden the public policy conversation about development, money, and technology to honor the labor of these inspiring women.

The stories will be published within a 6-part blog series over the next three weeks through the IMTFI Blog starting today, stay tuned~

Blogpost 1: "Rickshaw Pullers in Delhi with Mani Nandhi"
Blogpost 2: "Balancing Optimism and Realism: Dan Radcliffe of the Gates Foundation"
Blogpost 3: "From Eko Headquarters to Mobile Money Agents: IMTFI Opens an Account
Blogpost 4: "Financial Literacy through Comic Books in Dharavi & Bihar with Deepti KC"
Blogpost 5: "Silk Workers and Gold in Karnataka with Nithya Joseph
Blogpost 6: "Revisiting the Fishers of Kerala with Janaki Srinivasan"

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