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Can anthropological research inform the design of social protection schemes?


Cash Transfers in Context: An Anthropological PerspectiveProgramme beneficiaries in Tanzania

Maia Green

Programmes that give money to poor households are implemented across the Global South as part of donor-financed development assistance. Originally designed as a shortterm ameliorative for the social impacts of structural adjustment in Latin America, they are now components of developmentoriented social policy in countries as diverse as Kenya, the Philippines, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana and 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 10-15 dollars a month. Not all lowincome 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 selffashioning which has dominated development policy emanating from the Global North since the 1990s. 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 programmes 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 neo-liberalisation 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 smallscale 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 ontheground 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 realisation 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. 

Maia Green on whether anthropological research inform the design of social protection
Maia Green works on the anthropology of international development and issues of social transformation in East Africa. She has written on diverse topics ranging from anti-witchcraft practices to the proliferation of NGOs. Maia Green teaches at the University of Manchester.

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 how institutions are exported, appropriated and consolidated. The question for anthropologists isn’t only about how travelling models remain detached from context, the theme of Olivier de Sardan’s excellent chapter. It’s how some contexts scale. 

This article was originally published on https://anthrodendum.org/


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 theory104-122. 

Kidd, S  (2019) The demise of Mexico’s Prospera programme: a tragedy foretold.

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. 


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