Thomas Neumark: Trusting the poor: Cash grants and the caring bureaucrat in a Kenyan slum

Published in Anthropological Quarterly, 2020.

cover of journal


Thomas Neumark


Across the world, attempts are being made to challenge and rework bureaucratic hierarchies. One such attempt is the policy to give cash with no strings attached to the poor. Lying at the heart of these grants is the belief that it is these people, and not experts, who know what they need to do to improve their lives. Benefactors seek to trust the poor by removing the regulation and bureaucracy from the charitable gift. But in one slum in Nairobi these efforts were met with opposition by local, slum-level bureaucrats, who took a keen interest in shaping and managing the visibility of behavior of the poor they represented. I argue that this interest was a form of care that took place in the context of particular social relationships, norms, and values within which the grants were embedded. This care work highlighted not the legitimacy of hierarchies, but the work that is involved in making them work. Against popular and scholarly images of the bureaucrat, this article calls for a recognition of the ethical and caring dimension of the bureaucrat, an actor cast, perhaps too often, as a morally suspect intermediary. It also calls for greater scrutiny of the ostensibly laudable goals of, on the one hand, extending trust, and on the other hand, flattening, inverting, and hollowing out hierarchies that are taking place across the globe.

Published Sep. 15, 2020 3:16 PM - Last modified Mar. 5, 2021 3:52 PM