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“Give a Man a Fish” Author Discusses Wealth Distribution And Poverty

Feb 9, 2018

Sharing small amounts of money with poor people can help alleviate poverty and spur economic growth.

In his book Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution, anthropologist James Ferguson focuses on the question of who is owned what. He is particularly interested in the question of what claims poor people have, and the kinds of resources that can be shared with them.

“I'm interested in the idea that payments made to poor people might be thought of as a share,” Ferguson told KGOU’s World Views.

He says “gifts” to poor people can leave them feeling devalued or stigmatized. But sharing a portion of a nation’s wealth because they own a part of it can help bring poor people out of poverty without stigma.

For example, a movement in the African country of Namibia is calling for a basic income grant. Proponents argue that Namibia is not a poor country because it has an abundance of mineral wealth. However, most Namibian do not benefit from their country’s wealth. Ferguson says proponents of the basic income grant contend that if Namibia’s diamonds and uranium really belongs to the people of the country, they deserve a share of it.

“Every single person should receive a certain amount of money, quite a small amount of money they're proposing, but a certain small amount of money every month as their share of a national wealth,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson says this is similar to the Alaska Permanent Fund, under which Alaska residents receive a small yearly dividend based on oil revenue.

“If you're a resident of Alaska, you get a check every year which represents your share of the oil wealth,” Ferguson said. “That feels very different it seems than getting a welfare check.”

Ferguson says the economy benefits when money is put in the hands of poor people because they will be able to buy things and start their own businesses. He says there is evidence of this working after social grants were introduced in South Africa townships. The townships became places where people could start businesses.

“People who were formerly just on the verge of destitution have a little bit of money. That means there's more opportunities to sell them things,” Ferguson said.

Additionally, Ferguson says poverty prevents people from being active in the economy. Their poverty makes it difficult for them to travel to look for work or tap into their social networks. A small amount of money allows them to pay for transportation and the opportunity to become economically active.

“The difference between somebody with no money at all and somebody with just a little money is a big difference, even if it's quantitatively a small amount of money,” Ferguson said.

Interview highlights

On money transfers to the poor as shares

The book [Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution] is very concerned with the question of who is owed what. And in particular where there are poor people what kind of claims do they have? What kind of resources are shared with them? And I'm interested in the idea that payments made to poor people might be thought of as a share. Usually they've been thought of more like gifts. They've been thought of more like things like, Oh you're in need. You're you're impoverished. We feel sorry for you. We'll give you a little bit of money. And of course that leaves people feeling often devalued or stigmatized or feeling like they're not able to reciprocate in some way. I'm interested in a very different way of thinking about what it means when a payment is transferred to a poor person, as increasingly is happening in many African countries.

On sharing Namibia’s mineral wealth

In Namibia I studied a very interesting movement there campaigning for what they call a basic income grant. And they made arguments like this: They said Namibia is not a poor country. Namibia actually has diamonds and uranium and there's a lot of money being made in Namibia. But most Namibians never see any of it. They said well why is that? Whose diamonds are they? Whose uranium is that? Doesn’t it really belong to the people of the country? And if it belongs to the people of the country, then why shouldn't we receive a share? The idea being that people should receive shares, everybody. Every single person should receive a certain amount of money, quite a small amount of money they're proposing, but a certain small amount of money every month as their share of a national wealth.

Now that sounds pretty unusual, I think, to American ears but we have something similar in the U.S. state of Alaska, where there is a trust fund that receives a share of the oil wealth each year and then pays that oil wealth out as direct payments to the residents of Alaska. So if you're a resident of Alaska you get a check every year which represents your share of the oil wealth. That feels very different it seems than getting a welfare check.

On how small payments to poor people can reduce poverty

Putting money into the hands of people who will spend it stimulates the economy. And so it's not a zero sum game. You actually end up with greater economic growth, more opportunities to start businesses, this sort of thing. And you see that in the the empirical work on cash transfers in South Africa. When social grants were introduced townships started being sites where people could start up businesses. Why? Because your neighbors can buy stuff. People who were formerly just on the verge of destitution have a little bit of money. That means there's more opportunities to sell them things.

The other way that it's more than zero-sum is that a lot of very poor people are prevented from being economically active by their very poverty. That may be because they're sick and badly nourished and therefore not able to go out and become economically productive. It may be because they're kind of paralyzed spatially to travel around looking for work to activating your social networks. All of that takes not a lot of money but just a little bit of money in your pocket so that you can afford the transportation to get across town or to go out and visit those relatives or take care of your social obligations. So in all of those ways the difference between somebody with no money at all and somebody with just a little money is a big difference, even if it's quantitatively a small amount of money.

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FULL INTERVIEW

Suzette Grillot: Jim Ferguson welcome to World Views.

Jim Ferguson: Thank you for having me.

Grillot: It's great to have you here. And I'm really interested in talking about the work that you're doing. You're on campus as part of a Dream Course, Andreana Prichard's Dream Course on the urge to help. And we've had some other guests, very fascinating, but I want to start with kind of your own background and how and why you started doing the work that you've been doing in Africa. Can you just tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started doing the work that you do there.

Ferguson: Yeah I can. I grew up in Southern California. I had no connection with Africa. I had no special interest in it until I was at university and at the University of California Santa Barbara. I got interested in anthropology and it's really as a result of my interest in anthropology that I first started to read things about Africa. And it happened that the people who taught me anthropology were distinguished Africanists and so the anthropology I learned had a lot to do with Africa. And when I decided to go to graduate school to specialize in anthropology, then it became kind of logical that Africa would be the place I would focus on. But it's not as if I grew up dreaming of the African savannah or something. It was not my story.

Grillot: But I assume that you spent some time there since then since you started studying it so and particularly in southern Africa.

Ferguson: In southern Africa first in Lesotho, which is a small country surrounded by South Africa, and then in Zambia. Those are the places I've spent the most time. For my latest project I spent more time in South Africa and Namibia. But all in the same region.

Grillot: Lesotho is a very interesting country to me. When you look at a map that you have a small country that's totally surrounded entirely by another country.

Ferguson: That's very much one of the interesting things about Lesotho because it is in fact functionally part of the wider regional economy. And for years and years people basically survived by migrating out of the country and working in South Africa, particularly men working in the gold mines. So you had this peculiar situation where you have a nation-state which is an internationally credentialed as a nation-state with a national economy that is mostly outside of its own borders. So that's one of the things I wrote about in my first book was this peculiar situation of a nation-state that really couldn't be described in terms of having a nation-based economic system.

Grillot: And not only peculiar but unique, right. I mean, do we see any other cases?

Ferguson: Not entirely unique because, yeah, there's a lot of countries that are very reliant on labor migration and resources coming from outside the country. I think of some of the Caribbean states, for instance, where they depend a lot on remittances and on people sort of coming home and building houses for retirement.

Grillot: That makes sense. Other island nations, but surrounded by water instead of by another state. Well let's talk about the work that you're doing. In fact the title of your talk here on campus, I was really intrigued by this, "Presence and Social Obligation: An Essay on the Share." So if I understand correctly, the work that you were most recently doing in your most recent book "Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution" focuses on the ways that presence rather than membership can serve as a basis of social obligation, including the obligation to share and that's a wonderful description that Dr Prichard gave to me. So tell us about that, that's such a fascinating presence rather than membership. What exactly do you mean there? And then this notion of social obligation, particularly to share with others?

Ferguson: Yes, well let me start with "the share." The book is very concerned with the question of who is owed what. And in particular where there are poor people what kind of claims do they have? What kind of resources are shared with them? And I'm interested in the idea that payments made to poor people might be thought of as a share. Usually they've been thought of more like gifts. They've been thought of more like things like, Oh you're in need. You're you're impoverished. We feel sorry for you. We'll give you a little bit of money. And of course that leaves people feeling often devalued or stigmatized or feeling like they're not able to reciprocate in some way. I'm interested in a very different way of thinking about what it means when a payment is transferred to a poor person, as increasingly is happening in many African countries. So for instance in Namibia I studied a very interesting movement there campaigning for what they call a basic income grant. And they made arguments like this: They said Namibia is not a poor country. Namibia actually has diamonds and uranium and there's a lot of money being made in Namibia. But most Namibians never see any of it. They said well why is that? Whose diamonds are they? Whose uranium is that? Doesn't really belong to the people of the country? And if it belongs to the people of the country, then why shouldn't we receive a share? The idea being that people should receive shares, everybody. Every single person should receive a certain amount of money, quite a small amount of money they're proposing, but a certain small amount of money every month as their share of a national wealth. Now that sounds pretty unusual I think to American ears but we have something similar in the U.S. state of Alaska, where there is a trust fund that receives a share of the oil wealth each year and then pays that oil wealth out as direct payments to the residents of Alaska. So if you're a resident of Alaska you get a check every year which represents your share of the oil wealth. That feels very different it seems than getting a welfare check, right. It doesn't mean that somebody feels sorry for you. It doesn't mean that you've somehow failed in life. It means that you own something and because you own something you're entitled to receive as your share that payment.

Grillot: As you were speaking I just wrote down "ownership." So we got to the concept of ownership right. This raises the "Who owns what?" So the perspective on private versus public goods. Right. If people in a country own the goods of that country, the resources of that country, it's a public good as opposed to whoever maybe sits on top of it or who ever paid for those rights or that the private ownership of it. So you're really getting into a broader notion here of private versus public goods and ownership.

Ferguson: Well and a lot depends on what you think public means. Because traditionally people made those kinds of arguments. For instance the minerals belong to the people. The conclusion that they drew from that is that therefore the state should run the mining company right. There was an argument for nationalization, that everything should be in the hands of the state which is the classic argument for socialism. That has worked out horribly, right. We have seen what happens when you put all the economic power into the hands of the state. What you get is an overbearing, often totalitarian state. The experience in Africa with nationalization of major industries has been very poor. What interested me is that the arguments I was encountering in Namibia were not arguments for the state to take everything over. They were arguments for directly distributing some share of the wealth that is being produced to the citizenry via a small monthly payment. It doesn't sound like pie in the sky in Namibia because they have other grant programs that are already giving people small monthly payments for old age pensions for instance and child support grants and so on. So people are very familiar with the idea that the state might promise to pay you a certain amount of money every month and make good on that promise. So that's kind of opened up the door for imagining cash transfers as the vehicle for something much more far reaching than that, which I think is an interesting moment.

Grillot: And maybe changes, maybe to the concept of looking at these resources and the goods of a country or whatever it may be as a positive sum situation as opposed to a zero sum situation. Because if you look at, because I started listening to you talk about shares of something, and I start thinking about shares of a pie right. No pie is finite. And so there's only so much pie you can dole out. So that raises issues of Zero-Sum thinking and power distribution and who gets the most part of the pie and then it goes back to those questions of ownership. But if you're looking at it in a different way, in terms of sharing resources in a way that basically enlarges the pie and you know it's a positive sum relationship. Very different mindset very different way in which you distribute things and can work against this power asymmetry. Right? Is that what you are kind of suggesting?

Ferguson: I think that's right and there are a couple of ways in which that can happen. That is by improving the distribution system so that more people are getting pieces of the pie. One of the things you do is to create markets, right. People who have money can buy stuff and if more of the population has money, then there are more people buying stuff. This is something that the Keynesian economics figured out a long time ago. Putting money into the hands of people who will spend it stimulates the economy. And so it's not a zero sum game. You actually end up with greater economic growth, more opportunities to start businesses, this sort of thing. And you see that in the the empirical work on cash transfers in South Africa. When social grants were introduced townships started being sites where people could start up businesses. Why? Because your neighbors can buy stuff. People who were formerly just on the verge of destitution have a little bit of money that means there's more opportunities to sell them things. The other way that it's more than Zero-Sum is that a lot of very poor people are prevented from being economically active by their very poverty. That may be because they're sick and badly nourished and therefore not able to go out and become economically productive. It may be because they're kind of paralyzed spatially to travel around looking for work to activating your social networks. All of that takes not a lot of money but just a little bit of money in your pocket so that you can afford the transportation to get across town or to go out and visit those relatives or take care of your social obligations. So in all of those ways the difference between somebody with no money at all and somebody with just a little money is a big difference, even if it's quantitatively a small amount of money. And the research shows that people who have that little bit of money are often activated or enabled to be active socially and economically in a way that they wouldn't if they didn't have a little bit of money. So again you're getting you're getting more than just that amount of money expended. You're getting a bunch of social effects.

Grillot: Right. So social, political, economic effects across the board, right. Because again, the distribution of this power, if you will, the distribution of resources across many prevents perhaps the abuse of power in the hands of a few. But before we finish today because this has been such an interesting conversation let's get to presence rather than membership. We have to talk about that. What do you mean by presence rather than membership?

Ferguson: The thing that I talked about in the book was about citizens claiming rights as citizens to a share. And that's a pretty well-defined set of relationships, right. We know who the members are. We know why it is they think they have a claim on something collective; it's because they're members of a collectivity. The wealth of Namibia should belong to Namibians. The thing that you immediately run into with that conception is the problem of the nonmember, which is to say in most countries today there are a lot of people living in the country who are not citizens of that country. We find that in the United States, we find that in South Africa, we find it all over. And there are a whole bunch of questions then about well I understand why we have certain social obligations toward our fellow citizens. But what social obligations should we have or do we have toward people who are not citizens? And who are actually not supposed to be here at all? In South Africa, many probably most of the poorest people, the people most in need of social assistance are not South Africans. They're from Zimbabwe or Mozambique or something else. So how do we answer that question and that I didn't really answer in the book, so I'm trying to do it with this new paper. The easy answer would be to say, well, they're owed nothing because they're not members and they're not supposed to be here. But in practice that's not a very good answer. Right. If you consider here in the United States, and you say OK we've got these undocumented people living all around us. Should their kids be able to go to public school? Well if you think if that is a question of rights, you would tend to say no. They have no right to public schools. They're not citizens. They're not supposed to be here. But what if we don't let their kids go to school. Just practically. Is that a good idea? For whom is it a good thing to have these kids here living among us but not going to school? All kinds of ways in which that doesn't work out well for anybody. So on practical grounds just about everywhere in the United States, children of undocumented people are allowed to go to public schools, not because of a rights based argument but because it's a practical imperative of governing. Similar things happen around public health. If you've got a vaccination campaign, does it make sense to only allow the citizens to be vaccinated? Well that's not how diseases work. Diseases don't care whether you're a citizen or not. You have to vaccinate at the level of the population and the population is whoever's here. Right. That is its presence not membership that matters for some of these things.

Ferguson: So I'm interested in the question of how do we think theoretically about this thing I'm calling precedence and it strikes me that we've we've done a lot more theorizing about membership than we have about presence, which we've kind of taken as a common sense category. One of the things I'm trying to do is say we can't do that. It's much too important. It's an increasingly prominent, and I think in some ways promising basis for social claims, for arguments about social obligation. And there's a lot of thinking that's still to be done about what presence is and how we ought to understand it.

Ferguson: That kind of argument, though, do you think that the response to some might be, that's exactly why we want to work against presence? That it actually works to fuel the let's build walls let's you know not let people in argument?

Grillot: Well I think so. I think so. You know what one of the things that the anti-immigrant sentiment picks up on is that once people are here among us, it's much harder to say no. It's much harder to pretend they're they're not human beings like we are. It's much harder to ignore the pressing claims that they have. I think that's that's one of the reasons why people are willing to take such risks to cross borders is because they know how much stronger their claims will be once they get to the other side. At the same time I think one of the things I'm trying to press us on is our understanding of what it means to be here in the first place. Why do some places count as here, and other places don't. You know, if you living in Southern California, why do I think that Oklahoma is part of my here and that Tijuana isn't? Tijuana is much closer to me. It's actually culturally in some ways much more connected to me. But we have this taken for granted idea of what counts is here and what counts as there who is really here among us and who isn't. And I think if we can make that all seem a little less self-evident and problematize our thinking about who counts as the people who are here and what and who doesn't, that will also change that will argue against the significance of the border and open us up to other ways in which people are in fact present.

Grillot: All right Jim, well, thank you so much for that fascinating conversation. Appreciate you being here today.

Ferguson: Thanks very much.

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