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Book Review: James Ferguson- Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution

By Nicolas de Zamaróczy

In the spring of 2018, policy wonks around the world tut-tutted the Finnish Government’s decision to end a highly publicized trial of a pioneering form of social redistribution: universal basic income (UBI).  Under a UBI scheme, a country’s citizens each receive a monthly lump sum from the government with no strings attached, regardless of income, employment status, family situation, age, or any other criterion. A right-wing government decided to end Finland’s small-scale UBI trial after only two years, however, with critics denouncing it as useless since “work is the best social security.”  So much—at least for the time being—for Helsinki’s radical reconsideration of the Nordic welfare state.

Those interested in the future of social redistribution programs would do better to pick up Give a Man a Fish, by Stanford University anthropologist James Ferguson.  In the book, Ferguson argues that to truly understand the evolving relationship between production and distribution in the 21st century, we should look not at Scandinavia but instead at Southern Africa.  There, particularly in South Africa, a quiet revolution has not only led to millions of people receiving unconditional cash handouts from their governments but is also helping to redefine what South Africans of all political stripes consider to be their “rightful share” of the proceeds of the national economy.

As his title suggests, Ferguson’s starting point is the old development cliché that “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day.  If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” Ferguson doubts that this was ever helpful policy advice. Even if it was, however, it is not relevant for Southern Africans today:

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. […]  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.’”

From this starting post, Ferguson ranges far and wide, cramming empirical findings, historical background, anthropological insights, and philosophical asides into his study.  He shows that South Africa currently has a wide-reaching set of social benefits that transfer 3.4% of the nation’s GDP directly to needy citizens via cash payments that are received by 30% of the population, and reach 44% of all households.  (For comparison’s sake, about 21% of Americans received some form of means-tested federal government assistance in 2015, although rarely in the form of cash). South Africa’s transfers comprise a mix of pensions for the elderly, grants to the caretakers of children, and several other unconditional direct payments, all of which are having a noticeable impact on South Africa’s poverty rate.  For instance, sociologists have linked the increased social spending to a drop in the percentage of South Africans who report going hungry, from 29.3% in 2002 down to 12.6% in 2012.

All of this is happening despite—or rather, as Ferguson argues—because of a continued dearth in full-time employment in South Africa.  Only 43.1% of working-age South Africans were employed at the end of 2018, which sounds shockingly low until you realize that only 60.6% of working-age Americans are presently employed.  (The oft-cited “unemployment rate” reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics—currently standing at 3.9%—perennially underemphasizes how many Americans cannot or choose not to work for various reasons, since it only records individuals who have looked for a job within the last six months.)  Similar spending programs and social transformations are also underway in neighboring Namibia and Botswana, albeit on smaller scales.

Ferguson contends that across much of Southern Africa, social distribution systems are increasingly centered around the concept of a “rightful share.”  He notes that historically most social distribution systems have been premised either on the idea of market-based exchanges (“I exchange my labor for a wage;” “I receive a retirement pension because I paid into the pot while I was working”) or altruistic gift-giving (“I choose to give to you because you are in need”).  But there are drawbacks to both approaches. What can those with nothing to exchange, such as the unemployable, expect to receive from market-based systems? And while social welfare programs based on unreciprocated charity sound nice, Ferguson argues that in practice they not only stigmatize recipients but also tend to be volatile and short-lived.  In contrast, “a share is neither an exchange nor a gift. Shares belong to owners, and when one receives one’s rightful share, there is no relation of exchange or debt thereby set up.” Ferguson shares examples of other share-based social distribution systems around the world, such as Alaska’s Permanent Fund, which provides each of the state’s legal residents with an annual dividend check based on the state’s management of natural resources.  But he is less clear on how political systems outside of Southern Africa might react to the wide-scale adoption of UBI or similar schemes.  In particular, could “rightful share” economies play into the hands of nativists at a time when xenophobia is cresting around the world? Would a political economy based on the rightful shares of citizens imply that hard borders must be erected to keep out non-citizens, to whom nothing is owed?

One of the most refreshing aspects of the book is Ferguson’s iconoclasm when it comes to the traditional political divide between Left and Right.  While very much animated by a progressive spirit, Ferguson can be scathing on the Left, particularly on its knee-jerk mistrust of markets and cash, as well as its inability to offer anything substantive beyond rote denunciations of neoliberalism.  He argues that a well-considered push for UBI programs in every country could serve as a new platform for progressives worldwide, helping to get the Left beyond its “politics of the anti-”. In any case, his anthropologist’s bent leaves him less interested in ideological purity tests than in understanding how real people get by in real places in a world increasingly devoid of full-time employment.  Could it really just be as easy as simply giving cash to the poor? Readers of this book will walk away agreeing that it just might.

Nicolas de Zamaróczy is Assistant Professor at Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. 

Image Source: Goodreads

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