Payments to the Poor as Development Instrument: Review of Olivier de Sardan & Piccoli’s Cash Transfers in Context, Berghahn Books (2018).

Payments to the Poor as Development Instrument: Review of Olivier de Sardan & Piccoli’s Cash Transfers in Context, Berghahn Books (2018).

Programs that give money to poor households are implemented across the global South as part of donor financed development assistance. Originally designed as a  short term ameliorative for the social impacts of structural adjustment in Latin America, they are now components of development oriented social policy in countries as diverse as Kenya, the Philippines, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania.

Program Beneficiares Receive Their Grant, Tanzania

The details of these schemes vary, as do the amounts of money which beneficiaries receive. While Latin American schemes are relatively generous, beneficiary households across East and West Africa  may receive somewhere in the region of ten to fifteen dollars a month. Not all low income households are included. Geographical targeting excludes entire communities. Targeting within them, often conducted by communities themselves, is used to restrict beneficiary numbers to predetermined limits.

Targeting is never simply about need. As Nancy Fraser reminds us, the interpretation of need and claims to it are inherently  political (1989). Narratives of need legitimate who gets what because they provide a moral claim to why. Allocation and distribution are always contentious in anti-poverty interventions. Historically and culturally embedded narratives about  who deserves support from others, or from the state, inform the acceptability or otherwise of social assistance whether provided through development agencies or national governments.

Contemporary cash transfer  programmes  are profoundly  ideological endeavours. They combine longstanding Euro American narratives about welfare and dependency with  the scripting of entrepreneurial financialised self  fashioning which has dominated  development  policy emanating from the Global North since the nineteen nineties.  Implementation templates are organised around the transfer of normative ideas about  work, responsibility and gender, along with anticipated  trajectories of  economic transformation  to be achieved through  behaviour changes that will increase productivity and saving.

Although cash transfer programmes in development tend to be represented by the agencies which promote them in terms of the language of choice, flexibility and empowerment, the  developmental outcomes attributable to them can only occur  if  the choices beneficiaries  are empowered to make align with the pathways set out in development theorisations of social transformation. The short time frames of development funding cycles where results have to be demonstrated quickly  preclude light touch `responsibilisation’.  The acquiescent subjectivities claimed by governmentality theorists do not automatically emerge  in the attitudes and practices of social actors as they are brought into engagement with state projects of one sort or another. They are part of the discursive architectures through which such programs seek to represent themselves as transformational.  Changes in beneficiary behaviour as indicators of  empowerment become important representational artefacts produced through devices for programme evaluation.

Social cash transfer programmes  as development interventions involve carefully crafted components directed at  demonstrating behaviour change through monitoring beneficiaries and their families.  Such programs have a distinctly performative dimension. Common elements include training sessions for beneficiaries in competencies they are thought to lack, conditionalities regarding the uptake of  health and education services  and public instruction about how the money beneficiaries  receive through the programme should be used

The current wave of social cash transfer programmes promoted by development agencies, situated at the interstices between foreign aid organisations and national governments, between states and citizens, and between social classes,  are simultaneously incubators for assorted incarnations of  instrumentalist social theory and a fascinating spectacle for social researchers.  An expanding literature in development studies and human geography  traces the genealogies of these programmes within the  histories of neoliberalisation and welfare reform, as well as their effects on gender, inequality and poverty (e.g. Ballard 2013; Peck 2011; Molyneux et al 2016).

A new collection edited by Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan and Emmanuelle Piccoli provides an anthropological perspective  on cash transfer programs gleaned from extensive ethnographic fieldwork among beneficiaries and implementors in  Africa and Latin America.  Cash Transfers in Context:An Anthropological Perspective explores how global policy models are changed through the messy realities of implementation in  a range of national programmes delivered by government agencies and in small scale emergency responses  carried out by  non- governmental organisations.

The case studies in this book are drawn from  Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Niger, Cote d’Ivoire and Egypt. They demonstrate how  the behaviours of  implementors and recipients  create on the ground adaptations  that  structure how programmes come to be appropriated  in particular settings  and how the common organisational features  of such programmes around payments and targeting intersect with established power structures  around race, class and gender to  reinforce political and economic marginalisation.

The collection seeks to make a contribution to the anthropology of public action. Informed by theoretical  insights from recent studies of development, Science and Technology Studies and political anthropology the editors  explore the gaps between  what they call `travelling models’ and local contexts- the ways in which situated actors engage with and are enmeshed in relations such programming creates.  Chapters examine  how payouts  are used to perform power, why queuing and waiting are so prominent in programme delivery and how the realization of  programme narratives about the possibilities of getting out of poverty depend to a great extent on a person’s access to and ownership of pre-existing  assets.

The authors of  this book write with the intention of filling a perceived knowledge gap between technocratic programme design and how people are affected on the ground. Knowing more or knowing differently could potentially help to make these programmes serve beneficiaries better and reduce poverty. Yet  the overarching conclusion to be drawn from the ethnography presented  here is that beneficiary concerns are neither a political nor a  design priority.  What these kinds of programmes are really concerned with is demonstrating that the poorest can be identified so that they can be included in the interventions  intended to change them. Transferring small amounts of  cash  from public authorities or development agencies to those deemed in need of receiving it can only be permitted to occur if  legitimated by  a bureaucratic superstructure of  selection, monitoring and compliance.

Social cash transfer programmes of the kind promoted by development organisations  over the past fifteen years face an  uncertain future (Kidd 2019). Populist nationalisms in low and middle income countries, and in the donor countries which have provided substantial finance, make paying for them  unpopular in the longer term. Mexico has recently announced  the ending of its  twenty year old conditional cash transfer programme, elements of which were adaptively modelled into many of the new wave of development disseminated social protection  interventions.  The  cases  presented in this book may be less of a snapshot  of current practice than a recent acquisition in the museum of early twenty first century development interventions.

Read this book for a thoughtful analysis of how models travel if you are interested in  institutional diffusion and  the globalisation of social policy.  Despite the authors’ emphasis on  the uniqueness of context, I was struck by  how these kinds of programmes generate contextual similarities.  Policy communities aren’t really interested in filling knowledge gaps unless it serves a programmatic  or political objective.  Anthropology can make a contribution to understanding the politics of aid and social policy. We should also pay more attention to to how institutions are exported, appropriated  and consolidated.   The question for anthropologists isn’t only about how travelling models remain detatched from context, the theme of  Olivier de Sardan’s excellent chapter. It’s how some contexts scale.

References Cited

Ballard, R (2013) Geographies of development II: cash transfers and the reinvention of development for the poor, Progress in Human Geography 37, 6 811-821.

Fraser, N (1989)Women, welfare and the politics of need interpretation, Politics and social theory 104-122.

Kidd, S  (2019) The demise of Mexico’s Prospera programme: a tragedy foretold, https://www.developmentpathways.co.uk/blog/the-demise-of-mexico

Molyneux, M, Jones, N & Samuels, N 2016 Can cash transfer programmes have ‘transformative’ effects?, The Journal of Development Studies 52, 8 : 1087-1098.

Peck, J Global policy models, globalizing poverty management: international convergence or fast‐policy integration?, Geography Compass 5, no. 4 (2011): 165-181.

One Reply to “Payments to the Poor as Development Instrument: Review of Olivier de Sardan & Piccoli’s Cash Transfers in Context, Berghahn Books (2018).”

  1. A very nice and useful review. Alerted me both to the existence of both the phenomenon (cash payments to the poor) and the anthropological research on it. Could be relevant to current political debates on the pros and cons of Universal Basic Income (UBI) versus Universal Basic Wealth (UBW).

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