Publisher: African Studies Association

Formalities of Poverty: Thinking About Social Assistance In Neoliberal South Africa

James Ferguson
KEYWORDS: Formalities of Poverty: Thinking about Social Assistance in Neoliberal South Africa


In Marginal Gains (2004), Jane Guyer traces the logic of African socioeconomic practices that have long confounded attempts by modern states to impose what she terms “formalization.” Nowhere is the tension between pragmatically “informal” economic life and putatively “formal” state structures more evident than in the domain of poverty interventions, which typically aim to bring state institutional power to bear precisely on those who are most excluded from the “formal sector.” This article offers a preliminary analysis of some new rationalities of poverty alleviation observable in recent South African political and policy discourse. I will argue that new sorts of programmatic thinking about poverty represent a new development within (and not simply against) neoliberalism, and that they seek, by abandoning the regulatory and normalizing functions usually associated with social assistance, to bring the formal and the informal into a new sort of relation.

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