During the spring term I taught African Studies at Uppsala University. Students created a blog Uppsala African Reviews where they published reviews of books with a focus on contemporary African issues. Stefan Granlund was one of the students.

Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the new politics of distribution

by James Ferguson
Duke University Press, 2015

More and more voices today reflect and discuss giving money directly to people living in poverty as a poverty alleviation tool. It gets mentioned in articles and blog posts in e.g Washington Post, in scientific articles by researchers and social justice activists, and economists and technocrats from left to right advocates it (Hickel 2015, Bregman 2013). In the development arena, social protection (in this case meaning cash transfers to people living in poverty) is today a firmly established concept within different actors such as the World Bank, the ILO, UNICEF but also civil society organisations. It’s rise in developing countries have for the last 15 years been remarkable (De Haan 2014, Barrientos et al. 2010). While there is significant differences betweens regions and countries in the design of the programmes, the trend is clear. Social protection in low and middle income countries is on the up. It is no longer an exclusivity for richer welfare nations in the West.

It is therefore not a surprise to see anthropologist James Ferguson tackle the subject in his latest book Give a man a fish (2015). Famous for his critical books on development and neoliberalism and with a long history of research in politics and livelihoods in the region, Ferguson has studied the rise of social welfare programs in southern Africa (e.g social pension and child support grant in South Africa) in what he labels the “new politics of distribution”. Focusing mostly on post-apartheid South Africa and Namibia, Ferguson shows that the countries have expanded their social welfare system progressively in the last 20 years and cash transfer now reach roughly 30 percent of the population in South Africa and similar systems exist in the neighbouring countries in Southern Africa such as Lesotho and Botswana etc. The grant have shown in evaluation after evaluation to be very important with good impacts on poverty alleviation and income security for people living in poverty (Bender et al. 2014). Although the grants are somewhat small in size compared to richer welfare states in for instance Scandinavia, Ferguson argues that these relatively new direct payments to people living in poverty represent an establishment of “welfare states” in Southern Africa.

South Africa has a history of pensions even during apartheid but the cash transfers went in the beginning exclusively to the whites in South Africa and when the entire population was included, the sums were significantly lower depending on which race you belonged to. In Ferguson’s analysis, the child support grant and the social pension nowadays represent a new kind of social inclusion in an otherwise neoliberal market economy that is South Africa. Millions previously excluded now benefits from these payments and the grants are very popular among the people and there is a fairly broad acceptance of the grants among the classes in South Africa (p, 9). This is crucial since it is an emerging institutionalisation of the welfare programs in the region and few if any other political parties wants to get rid of the grants. The welfare programs differ from many old colonial European counterparts in that they are not tied to labor participation, they are non contributory and unconditional. This is also what separates them from the more famous cousins in Latin America such as Brazil’s Bolsa Familia and Mexico’s Progresa (formerly Oportunidades) which are strict conditional cash transfers.

In light of the fact that a large part of population remain in structural mass unemployment with slim chances of getting a job today, Ferguson calls for a shift in development discourse and in radical left thinking from production to distribution. In the neoliberal market economy today in South Africa, there is no longer a similar need for a huge number of low-skilled, low wage labor which was one of the enabling factors for the apartheid economy to function. It is in these circumstances that radical calls for a basic income grant becomes louder and louder. The BIG campaign (universal basic income grant) in southern Africa (primarily the national Namibia campaign) clearly catches Ferguson’s attention and he sees the campaign as a radical move away from merely ameliorative welfare programs that target a specific group into something more universal and transformative for the future that include the entire population (p, 180–183).

The book’s greatest advantage is perhaps Ferguson’s anthropological analysis of cash transfers in Southern Africa which he sees are neither linked to market exchange nor a gift. Ferguson argues that the new social welfare programs are seen as a share in the country’s wealth and he calls it the “politics of the rightful share” (p, 184). The cash transfers are therefore according to him not seen as aid, assistance, gifts, or charity/generosity but a share that people claim as a right, an entitlement. A rightful share due to a rightful owner. Ferguson thereafter makes a reference to anthropological research on foraging societies where hunters share the meat in their community and the recipients are not only thankful for the meat but can also insult and accuse the hunter if the meat is not good enough. ”The meat is insulted, not praised” and Ferguson argues that sharing is a human trait and the recipients do not see the meat as generosity or a gift but a share they have a right to (p, 176–179). The new politics of distribution and a rightful share is as of today only an emerging politics in the region but the programs that are in place can lay the foundations and open up possibilities for more transformative approaches in the future.

Ferguson’s book is written for both an academic and non-academic audience and it can be seen as transcending boundaries between academic analysis and engagement in the burning issues of today. Give a man a fish is a well written, timely and up-to-date book on a important current subject and should be read by students, activists, researchers and policymakers alike. It is in times of ever growing global economic inequalities that the people’s call for their “rightful share” will only grow bigger and bigger.


Barrientos, A; Hanlon, J; Hulme, D. 2010. Just give money to the poor: The development revolution from the global south. Kumarian Press.

Bregman, R. Washington Post. 12 December 2013. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/free-money-might-be-the-best- way-to-end-poverty/2013/12/29/679c8344–5ec8–11e3–95c2- 13623eb2b0e1_story.html

Bender, K; Kaltenborn, M; Pfleiderer, C. 2014. Social protection in developing countries. Routledge.

De Haan, A. 2014. The Rise of Social Protection in Development: Progress, Pitfalls and Politics in European Journal of Development Research (2014)26,311–321.

Hickel, J. Guardian, The. 10 June 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/global- development-professionals-network/2015/jun/10/the-microfinance-delusion- who-really-wins