Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy


Political Science


Harmes, Adam


The idea of “financial inclusion,” understood as the access to and use of a broad range of retail financial services (including bank accounts, payment services, credit, and insurance) by everyone in society, emerged as a global priority in the late 2000s. Financial inclusion now features prominently in global economic governance and the activities of disparate international organizations, states, businesses, and civil society organizations. This dissertation asks: what explains the origins and evolution of the global financial inclusion agenda? Existing scholarship often emphasizes the interests and power of Western states and businesses, asymmetric debt and power relations, and the centrality of class conflict. In contrast, I offer a more complete explanation by interrogating the agenda’s ambiguity and coalitional politics. Ambiguity is typically conceptualized as a tool deliberately used by an entrepreneur for the purpose of expanding support. I introduce the novel concept of participatory ambiguity, defined as the process by which entrepreneurs and coalition members construct multiple cognitive frames around a central idea. In so doing, I theorize how ambiguity is co-produced by disparate actors who use language (or branding) and creative action to legitimate multiple policies and outcomes and secure space for their own interests. I argue that the origins and evolution of the global financial inclusion agenda are best explained by participatory ambiguity and the specific mechanisms of quantification, institutional layering, and coordination effects. Empirically, I draw on more than 70 interviews and archival documents from three countries (Ghana, United Kingdom, United States), as well as quantitative text analysis on an original collection of 49 national strategies. Further, I combine variation in global support for the agenda over time with a “most likely” country case study (Ghana) and “least likely” issue area (humanitarian assistance). My research identifies how ambiguity mitigated coalitional conflict and enabled the incorporation of key constituencies, specifically those associated with global financial security or financial stability. This dissertation thus contributes to constructivist scholarship on the agency and power of global South actors in global politics, as well as research on the role of ideas and ambiguity in coalitional politics.

Summary for Lay Audience

Since the late 2000s, the idea of “financial inclusion” has become a global priority. Financial inclusion can be understood as the access to and use of retail financial services (bank accounts, payment services, credit, and insurance) by everyone in society. Explanations about why financial inclusion became a priority in the first place and how the idea has evolved over time are incomplete. Several scholars argue that the financial inclusion agenda is a continuation of commercialized microcredit, where small loans are provided to extremely poor individuals for the purposes of starting businesses. Additionally, the financial inclusion agenda is argued to be primarily promoted by Western states and businesses. These explanations make important contributions to our understanding of the agenda, but they do not consider the full range of policies, outcomes, and organizations that are associated with financial inclusion. In this dissertation, I ask: what explains the origins and evolution of the global financial inclusion agenda? I offer a new explanation that focuses on the ambiguity of the agenda. In this context, I argue that ambiguity is understood as the capacity of a central idea (like financial inclusion) to be linked with multiple policies and outcomes. My theory, called participatory ambiguity, focuses on how many different organizations together create ambiguity around the agenda, which ensures broad support for the idea. My explanation reveals how different organizations and countries from throughout the global South actively shaped the agenda during its creation and as it evolved. I use evidence from a variety of sources to support my argument, including more than 70 interviews with individuals from governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and businesses. I also gather and analyze a set of National Financial Inclusion Strategies from countries across the global South. I examine the financial inclusion agenda from several perspectives, including its origins in the 2000s and evolution in the 2010s, as well as its implementation across global South countries, in Ghana, and in humanitarian assistance activities. This project makes an important contribution to our understanding of financial inclusion, the agency of global South actors, and how new agendas are created and promoted in global politics.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.