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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The spaces of social finance : poverty regulation through the "invisible heart" of markets Rosenman, Emily Thea


Social finance is a style of investing organized around the theory that private profit-making can create positive benefits for society. It is practiced through a diverse range of financial instruments that invest in welfare and anti-poverty services, making the “social” into the object of financial investment. In the wake of the financial industry’s crisis of legitimacy after the 2008 global financial meltdown, social finance attempts to reframe finance as a force for, rather than barrier to, social good. As governments embrace social finance and as new investors flock to the sector, this dissertation asks whether social finance uses profit to engender a more holistic range of values – as argued by the movement’s proponents – or whether it marks a further entrenchment of financial logics into existing models of poverty regulation. The research questions explored here are: 1) what are the institutional configurations of the industry, 2) how does social finance represent financial and social value, and 3) what are the relational connections between what I call the ideology of social finance, its models and calculative practices, and the governance of poverty interventions? I answer these questions through a commodity-chain approach, analyzing social finance models in relation to case studies of how investments in the American subsidized housing sector are marketed and made. The project draws from multi-sited ethnography, participant observation, and document analysis. I find that social finance appropriates existing models of poverty alleviation in what I argue is a process of financialization. To attract new capital, social finance operates through shifting the governance of the anti-poverty industry toward profit logics and prioritizing investor decision-making over funding priorities, muting the role of government and NGO service providers in determining social needs. The success of social finance projects depends on segmenting people and places into those deemed more or less deserving of investment; profits rely on expanding the infrastructure of contracted-out intermediaries that have facilitated private investments in welfare since the 1970s. In practice, social finance marks more a shift in the governance of anti-poverty programs than a shift in the practices of the financial industry.

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