Accepted paper:

The pursuit of ignorance: unconditional cash transfers and the dismantlement of bureaucracy


Tom Neumark (University of Cambridge)

Paper short abstract:

Unconditional cash transfer welfare projects have a vision of alleviating suffering through the dismantlement of bureaucratic knowledge practices. I draw on ethnographic data from a Kenya slum to explore the tensions that emerge when they come into contact with existing bureaucracies.

Paper long abstract:

The politics of ethnic recognition rather than socioeconomic redistribution is said to have characterised the Kenyan state since independence. However, from the early 2000s a range of transnational actors have pursued a project to expand social welfare to the ‘most vulnerable’. Increasingly, this has been through the technology of the ‘cash transfer’; the transfer of money from the state or an NGO to recipients’ personal bank or mobile money account. Across Kenya, cash transfer projects have proliferated and, with funding from a range of donors (but also the government), are set to reach ten percent of the population by 2017. For many advocates, the project goes further than traditional welfare. Supporters of unconditional cash transfers have utopian visions of dismantling a bureaucratic infrastructure which has often been blamed for unwanted patronage and paternalism. Thus attempts are made to remove the monitoring, workshops and seminars traditionally associated with welfare. Here, experts confront the failure of their own knowledge to solve the problems of the poor, and in doing so embrace a vision where the poor use the money to pursue their own values in the market. Drawing on ethnographic data from fieldwork in Kenya, this paper explores the implications of unconditional cash transfers which involve not the impartation or gathering of knowledge, but attempts at what I am calling the pursuit of ignorance. It highlights the tensions this creates as this pursuit comes into contact with an existing governmental and non-governmental bureaucratic infrastructure, involving chiefs, village elders, and community health workers.

panel P04
Architects of utopia