- Give a Man a Fish: reflections on the new politics of distribution by James Ferguson
Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime. Clichés such as these seem so intuitive that one seldom thinks twice about where our intuitions come from. James Ferguson gets us thinking about the logic of this saying in his new book. We can recognise, for instance, that the cliché conveys liberal aversions to the dependency of the poor on charity. Ferguson asks whether the primary objective of development work is ‘teaching people to fish’, or whether in fact the principal goal is to make sure people have access to the things they need to survive. And if ensuring that people have access to the means of life is the end of development, and learning to fish no longer gives people the means to that end, then it is appropriate, after all, to ‘give a man a fish’.
The paradox which drives Ferguson’s book is that even though we are supposedly in a neo-liberal era in which the very idea of welfare is taboo and ordinary people are expected to take care of their own needs, entirely new cash transfer systems have been put in place that now help support large populations within dozens of countries in the global South. The particular intervention he seeks to make with this book is to interrogate the potential roles of cash transfer systems in addressing poverty.
Ferguson proposes that teaching to fish presents the problem wrongly as one of production; that if only people worked to produce something they would lift themselves from poverty. He points out that there is not only an oversupply of workers, but also an oversupply of many products in the world, and that poverty could be solved with the existing output of many global industries. The problem, he suggests, is not a lack of production per [End Page 127] se but the nature of distribution. There is no shortage of wealth, but only a small percentage is able to benefit from this wealth fully.
He develops an important philosophical justification for systematic distribution through cash transfer programmes, saying that they need not be thought of as charity at all if one reconceptualises ‘ownership’. One might say that the wealth produced in a nation is owned by all who live in it by virtue of past sacrifices and collective efforts, not simply those who formally own property, wealth and productive assets by virtue of legal title. Thus the ‘fish’ is not so much given as it is value already owned by those to whom it is then allocated through a system of distribution. Cash transfers can be thought of, then, as something like dividends from shares, rent, a birth right, and as liberation itself.
This gesture allows us to get away from a notion that recipients of cash transfers are helpless, passive and dependent. After all dependency is a given where people cannot sustain themselves from wages. Indeed he argues that under even the most rosy of job market conditions, being sustained through wages is in fact far less the norm than is often assumed. Many people are sustained not only through pay cheques but through all sorts of distributional flows. This is all the more the case in many parts of the global South where large populations are unemployed, yet they find ways to survive. Poor people labour extremely hard to try to create opportunities that will allow them to benefit from distribution, for example through remittances, romantic relationships, and some kinds of activities within the informal economy. For Ferguson the policy challenge is to recognise the importance of distribution in people’s survival and to support systems of distribution that help achieve more equitable outcomes.
Ferguson’s target is as much the left as it is the right. He does not claim that cash transfers in their present form represent a socialist nirvana. He acknowledges that they have many neoliberal...