By Kim Knibbe What do a window washer at a cross-roads in a metropole who starts washing your window unasked, an old lady from a village in Africa who visits her son in the big city to ask for financial support, a beggar and a pickpocket have in common? According to the anthropologist James Ferguson, they are all involved in what he calls improvisational distributive labour. Ferguson said this during the seminar The Financial Crisis: views from anthropology, which was held at our department last week.
By taking these cases together, he calls attention to what he sees as one of the biggest challenges of the economy at the moment: that of distribution. However, the tendency in most countries with high income disparities is to create enormous physical barriers between the worlds of the rich and the worlds of the poor, making ‘improvisational distributive labour’ virtually impossible. The rich can just forget about the poor.
In South Africa, this problem is debated seriously, since the end of apartheid has not really led to a better income distribution. Some families are ‘lucky’ because they have a grandmother who receives a government pension that constitutes the only regular and dependable source of income in some families. This had led to the idea that it would be better to institute a Basic Income Grant (BIG).
The next speaker at the seminar was Howard Stein, who treated us to a lecture that showed, with detailed tables, how the IMF and the world bank have messed up African economies, how their power declined as countries started paying off their debts and how happy they are to have some of that power back since the financial crisis. A second chance! And this time, IMF and Worldbank mean to get it right, they will be more sensitive, more caring….
However! According to Stein, the rhetoric may have changed, the measures have not changed at all: drastic cutbacks on public spending, opening up economies and letting the free market do its job. Young economists, Stein suspects, have been reared on a diet of neo-liberalism and therefore simply don’t know any other ways to manage the economy…. Bad news for Africa.
The third speaker, Anton Hemerijck, recently appointed as Dean of our faculty, focused on the West. As a member of the Scientific council for the government (WRR), he interviewed a long list of political and economic superstars to ask them their opinion of what should and could change as a consequence of this crisis. The interviewees were asked explicitly to take into account the political feasibility of their suggestions for (institutional) change.
Finally, several anthropologists delivered ‘views from the field’ on the financial crisis. It became clear that while the crisis had different consequences in Indonesia, Ghana, Bolivia and Surinam, in all of these countries it did not seem to be such a major event as it is here. However, it was of course a major event in ‘the City’ of London, one of the main financial centres of the world. Tijo Salverda is initiating research on this topic. The next few weeks we will bring these stories to you in our series on the ‘Financial Crisis Worldwide’, to give another perspective on the crisis that keeps our imaginations in thrall…
Kim Knibbe is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at VU University Amsterdam.