James Ferguson’s new book, “Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution” (Kim Yi Dionne/The Monkey Cage)

As the evidence came in, headlines in The Washington Post and New York Times proclaimed a simple answer to ending poverty: giving poor people money. Experts prefer a little more nuance, saying, cash transfers “probably suck less than most of the other things we are doing.”

Cash transfers to the poor have become a favored anti-poverty strategy around the world because researchers have shown they cut poverty,  improve income distribution and they are relatively cheap.

[Want to end poverty? Brazil’s answer: Give people money]

In his new book, “Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution,” Stanford University anthropologist James Ferguson examines cash transfers and other social welfare programs in southern Africa. Before reading Ferguson’s book, much of my thinking about cash transfers was first, whether they work (the evidence is now clear that they do), and second, under what conditions and in which ways are cash transfers most effective at alleviating poverty?

Ferguson’s book, however, has changed the way I think about cash transfers. Ferguson goes beyond the debate over the effectiveness of cash transfers as an anti-poverty strategy and argues that there is even more at stake than the “gains in ameliorating the worst forms of poverty.”

Having read his book, I’m now more concerned with how the growing adoption of cash transfers will reshape what Ferguson calls the “politics of distribution.” In his book, Ferguson refers to the politics of distribution as the “the sorts of binding claims and counterclaims that can be made about [the general processes of distribution]” (20). In other words, how will expectations and relationships change as governments introduce cash transfers and related social welfare programs?

Ferguson’s approach has shifted my attention from cash transfers’ effectiveness to the consequences of introducing cash transfers in very poor settings. His focus is particularly important in southern Africa, where employment opportunities are “scarce and diminishing” (24). He shows how even in “highly proletarianized South Africa … broad sectors of the population are largely or wholly excluded from the world of wage labor and instead piece together livelihoods through a complex mix of other activities” (91). South Africa is not alone; only 28 percent of Africa’s labor force has stable wage-paying jobs.

As other social scientists studying development have begun to do, Ferguson challenges the old adage that if you “give a man a fish you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” In his book, he writes:

… the fishing example shows what many across the region already know, which is that in these times having training or education is no guarantee of a job, and having a job no guarantee of a decent living. Under such circumstances, one begins to wonder whether the real underlying cause of the deprivation of those with only their labor to sell is not their own failures of preparation (not knowing how to fish) but simply that they have been abruptly cut out of a distributive deal that used to include them. In such a view, getting cut back in to the distributive deal is not treating the “symptom” but goes, in fact, to the very root of the matter: the lack of any distributive entitlement is the underlying cause. Indeed, a distributionist (rather than productionist) analysis might revise the “fish” formula as follows: if the proverbial “man” were to receive neither a fish nor a fishing lesson but instead a binding entitlement to some specified share of the total global production, then (and only then) would he really be fed “for a lifetime” (38).

In challenging the way we think about the welfare state – in his words as productionists or distributionists – Ferguson has also pushed me to see cash transfers as a stepping stone to consider bigger questions about wealth distribution. In his conclusion, he writes of the work of University of Witwatersrand philosopher Lucy Allais, who proposes an alternative understanding of charity: “in which people given money after having been wronged by an unjust division of power ‘are only given back what is rightfully theirs,’ ‘getting back a small amount of what they in fact have a right to.’ ” (195).

See earlier posts about books in this year’s African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular: