books development poverty

Book review: Caring Cash, by Tom Neumark

Cash transfers are one of the big ideas in aid and development, and there was a lot of discussion about it a few years ago. Books such as Portfolios of the Poor or Just Give Money to the Poor made the case that people living in poverty were the experts in their own lives, knew what they needed, and were very skilled at handling their limited budgets. Why not just give them the money they needed, rather than setting up elaborate charity and welfare services?

Brazil and several other countries had proved it could work as government policy. Give Directly put the idea to the test in a charity context. Experiments in cash transfers fed into the ongoing debate about a basic income, as people thought about approaches to poverty in wealthy countries.

Ten years ago books were still making the case for cash transfers. Tom Neumark’s book feels like a natural successor to those. Rather than debate the merits of cash transfers over other ways to address poverty, it looks instead at the effects of cash transfers on people’s lives. How do people feel about them? How does it affect their relationships and communities? Neumark spent 18 months in Nairobi in Kenya, carrying out ethnographic fieldwork, and the result is Caring Cash: Free Money and the Ethics of Solidarity in Kenya.

Caring Cash is a study of cash transfers in a very specific context: the ‘ghetto’ district of Korogocho. The author gets to know people and the book is full of their lives and opinions, their struggles and their hopes. Neumark is particularly interested in relationships – how people spend their money to support others, the kinds of tensions that arise, the difficult choices they make. Development theory is drawn up in offices and discussed by policy makers, but on the ground “everything is relational”, he argues.

By giving people in need money directly, cash transfers disrupt local power structures and traditional middle men. Because they are given to those with care responsibilities and those are often women, they challenge gender politics – some consider them ‘women’s money’. The book probes ideas of welfare and how at its best it can be a form of solidarity with the poor, rather than hand-outs or charity. And it looks at how resident of Korogocho were not just using their cash grants to care for the people that mattered to them, but to care for the relationships themselves.

The book itself is slightly more academic than I expected. I wasn’t familiar with ‘non-Maussian forms of gift’, the ‘Foucauldian turn in anthropology’ or ‘Strathernian ideas of the dividual (sic)’, and so I perhaps didn’t get as much out of it as I could have. But Kenya is a country I care about and take an interest in, and there are broader lessons to learn too. I particular, I found myself thinking about the difference between charity handouts and welfare entitlements, and how British politics confuses the two.

Welfare at its best is a form of solidarity, and it should support the freedom and the autonomy of the receiver. This is something that has been forgotten in recent years in the UK, where benefits have become bureaucratic, divisive, and invasive to people’s privacy. Poverty is very different in Kenya than it is in Britain, but I wonder if there are some principles that we could learn from the cash transfers debate in development, and re-interpret them to address poverty and inequality here too.

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