Give a Man a Fish

Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution

Give a Man a Fish

The Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures

More about this series

Book Pages: 280 Illustrations: Published: May 2015

Author: James Ferguson

Contributor: Thomas Gibson

African Studies, Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Sociology > Social Theory

In Give a Man a Fish James Ferguson examines the rise of social welfare programs in southern Africa, in which states make cash payments to their low income citizens. More than thirty percent of South Africa's population receive such payments, even as pundits elsewhere proclaim the neoliberal death of the welfare state. These programs' successes at reducing poverty under conditions of mass unemployment, Ferguson argues, provide an opportunity for rethinking contemporary capitalism and for developing new forms of political mobilization. Interested in an emerging "politics of distribution," Ferguson shows how new demands for direct income payments (including so-called "basic income") require us to reexamine the relation between production and distribution, and to ask new questions about markets, livelihoods, labor, and the future of progressive politics.


“Half comparative ethnography, half political pamphlet, Ferguson’s impressive narrative is a tour de force questioning, deconstructing and reconstructing classic and contemporary notions of poverty, development and the welfare state in the region and beyond. … With his creative and flexible analysis, he provokes thinking for action beyond narrow ideological boundaries. One could imagine enthusiastic endorsements of his work by Marxist campaigners, World Bank technocrats and traditional leaders alike. This highly original book is likely to leave a lasting mark not only on contemporary anthropological debates around poverty and development, but also policy and activist thinking in southern Africa and beyond.” — Vito Laterza, Anthropology Book Forum

"The book offers an exciting challenge to many of the default ways of thinking in development and social policy. ... Give a Man a Fish is a remarkable combination of scholarly breadth, intellectual challenge and grounded reflection on the realities of people living with hardship. Avoiding the easy characterisations of left or right, it is a thoughtful, stimulating and ultimately hopeful book, which deserves to be widely read, discussed and acted on."  — Sarah C. White, Journal of Development Studies

"Ferguson’s knowledge of the anthropological literature on Southern Africa is impressive, and this work demonstrates his ability to, once again, illuminate this literature through contemporary debates around political economy, national belonging, and citizenship.... The value of this book for labour scholars is twofold. First, it is a vital addition to recent debates about the nature of 'precarity'.... Second, conditions in South Africa are extreme but not exceptional and offer possibilities for imagining new forms of social welfare in the rest of the world where wage labour is by no means obsolete, but cannot possibly fulfill the distributive role imagined for it." — Christopher Webb, Labour/Le Travail

"Overall, this is an ambitious, imaginative, and hopeful book. Although the notion that distributive processes must be understood and appreciated is already widely accepted in African studies, Ferguson's achievement is in analyzing the dynamism and implications of these claims and relations within his chosen region’s shifting political economy."  — A. Peter Castro, Journal of International and Global Studies

"Ferguson provides a significant contribution to a growing area of social theory and practice, ably summarizing the conceptual bases of this movement, reviewing recent empirical evidence, and describing broader possibilities of new forms and mechanisms of distribution."  — Vanessa van den Boogaard, African Studies Quarterly

"Those readers concerned with development and/or income distribution issues will benefit from the reflections presented in this text. Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through professionals and practitioners." — J. E. Weaver, Choice

"[T]he book is beautifully written, and a pleasure to read. Ferguson seamlessly weaves together data, a wide range of social science literature, anecdotes, historical details, and a sprinkling of anthropological theory.... Ferguson’s book is an erudite, enjoyable, and important synthesis of facts, stories and ideas, bridging a wide range of topics around the rise of social grants in Southern Africa." — E. Fouksman, Basic Income Studies

"James Ferguson’s latest book makes an important contribution to the basic income literature. The book draws its empirical ballast from cash transfer programs in southern Africa, but this is not an ethnographic text; rather, Ferguson leverages the idea of cash transfers and basic income to launch a theoretical meditation on the nature of money, value, society, welfare, justice, and the state. The end product is reflective, thought-provoking, and beautifully written. One is left with the distinct impression that Ferguson is feeling his way into a social theory of the future."  — Jason Hickel, Anthropological Forum

"Give a Man a Fish is an original contribution by a scholar who distinguishes himself by his ability to think outside the box." — Benedetta Rossi, Africa

"The implications of the trend Ferguson has pointed out are broad. Give a Man a Fish suggests that with the increasingly popular cash transfer programs, an idea has been planted in powerful circles--an idea that could grow into a new way of thinking about poverty, political mobilization and relationship between state and citizens." — Ståle Wig, Forum for Development Studies

"In frankly motivational terms, Ferguson speaks of and exemplifies a search for new ways of thinking by studying theory already being invented through practice." — Christine Jeske, Anthropology of Work Review

"The writing is clear and the analysis lucid throughout. Readers may be left wanting more extensive ethnographic treatment of the way existing cash transfer programmes are playing out, but the book comprises a powerful theoretical intervention, and can be expected to provoke anthropologists to undertake such studies." — David Cooper, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"Like the best kind of anthropology, James Ferguson’s latest book, Give a Man a Fish, invites readers to see the world differently, questions taken-for-granted truisms, and reasserts the significance of lives considered peripheral to the concerns of powerful elites.... In a world of radical inequality and chronic unemployment, few development agents are willing to spend time 'translating' anthropology into action. Ferguson has done this work with the sensibility of an anthropologist." — Ilana van Wyk, American Anthropologist

“Ferguson’s latest book is well-structured and imaginative, and hopeful for a new politics and new norms. It reframes the question ‘Why can’t we just give money to the poor?’ to ‘What would a world look like where it was the norm for all people to receive a “rightful share”’?” — Beth Timmers, Canadian Journal of Development Studies

"Give a Man a Fish is a vitally important book that aims to unsettle often-unspoken commonplaces about the contemporary politics of social welfare. Its wide-ranging and provocative investigations in southern African countries—which raise fundamental questions about the changing relationships among autonomy, dependency, and security—are of global relevance and importance."
— Stephen J. Collier, author of Post-Soviet Social: Neoliberalism, Social Modernity, Biopolitics

"Give a Man a Fish disentangles the confusion of languages in which we talk about work, welfare, and distribution. Some of these languages are old and anachronistic, others new but inchoate. James Ferguson himself speaks with clarity and grace, compelling us to inspect long-held intuitions and inviting us to explore a genuinely new politics." — Jonny Steinberg, author of Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York

"What—give away money? In this clear and cogent discussion of the politics of cash transfers, James Ferguson urges us to reconsider our basic ideas on states' responsibilities to their citizens. Give a Man a Fish will stimulate new thinking both within and beyond the academy. Distribution may be the new way to empower the poor, he argues—but only if we can work our way past conventional economic truths." — Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, coeditor of Words in Motion: Toward a Global Lexicon


Availability: In stock
Price: $26.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

James Ferguson is Susan S. and William H. Hindle Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. He is the author of Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order and the coeditor of Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology, both also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Foreword / Thomas Gibson vii

Preface and Acknowledgments xi

Introduction. Cash Transfers and the New Welfare States: From Neoliberalism to the Politics of Distribution 1

1. Give a Man a Fish: From Patriarchal Productionism to the Revalorization of Distribution 35

2. What Comes after the Social? Historicizing the Future of Social Protection in Africa 63

3. Distributed Livelihoods: Dependence and the Labor of Distribution in the Lives of the Southern African Poor (and Not-So-Poor) 89

4. The Social Life of Cash Payments: Money, Markets, and the Mutualities of Poverty 119

5. Declaration of Dependence: Labor, Pesonhood, and Welfare in Southern Africa 141

6. A Rightful Share: Distribution beyond Gift and Market 165

Conclusion. What Next for Distributive Politics? 191

Notes 217

References 237

Index  259
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Winner, 2016 Elliott P. Skinner Book Award, presented by the Association for Africanist Anthropology

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5886-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5895-4
Publicity material