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The paper reviews the history of the concepts used to depict poverty in Africa. “Pauperism” is a legal concept, deriving from early modern law in Britain, which frames individual situations, places the paupers under specific rights and duties, and was applied in early colonial situations. Percentile is a economic-demographic concept, implying class difference, indexed to measurable or imputed monetary income, which became an instrument of government in the colonial world mainly after 1945, moving into the international comparative world after the era of independence. In the neoliberal era after 1989, the concept of precarity, and a focus on realizable assets rather than income, has taken higher profile than an emergent replacement for the comparative-percentile approach, sometimes now depicted as “living on $2 a day”. The paper indicates the conceptual and political implications and challenges of each of these depictions.



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1 For further discussion of the language and concepts of poverty, see Rhiannon Stephens's contribution to this forum. Stephens, R., ‘Poverty's pasts: A case for longue durée studies’, Forum on Poverty, The Journal of African History, 59:3 (2018), 425–35.

2 Guyer, J. I. and Belinga, S. M. Eno, ‘Wealth in people as wealth in knowledge: accumulation and composition in Equatorial Africa’, The Journal of African History 36:1 (1995), 91120; Guyer, J. I., ‘Endowments and assets: the anthropology of wealth and the economics of intrahousehold allocation’, in Haddad, L., Hoddinott, J., and Alderman, H. (eds.), Intrahousehold Resource Allocation in Developing Countries: Models, Methods, and Policy (Baltimore, 1997), 112125.

3 Rutherford, S., Ruthven, O., Collins, D., and Morduch, J., Portfolios of the Poor: How the World's Poor Lives on $2 a Day (Princeton, 2009), 1, based on a World Bank definition.

4 Smith, R., ‘Social security as a developmental institution? The relative efficacy of poor relief provisions under the English Old Poor Law’, in Bayly, C. A., Rao, V., Szreter, S., and Woolcock, M. (eds.), History, Historians & Development Policy: A Necessary Dialogue (Manchester, 2011), 75102.

5 Day, D., ‘Poverty and precarity’, The Catholic Worker 2:6 (1952), 14.

6 Standing, G., The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (London, 2011). For a discussion of precarity and the tenuous nature of economic and social advancement in the South African context, Wayne Dooling's article in this forum. Dooling, W., ‘Poverty and respectability in early twentieth-century Cape Town’, Forum on Poverty, The Journal of African History, 59:3 (2018), 437–61.

7 Iliffe, J., The African Poor: A History (Cambridge, 1987), 277.

8 Guyer, ‘Endowments’; Salami, Guyer with K. K. and Akinlade, O., transl. by Warnier, J.-P., ‘“Kòs’ówó”: il n'y a pas d'argent!’, Politique Africaine, 124 (2011), 4365.

9 Guyer, , Marginal Gains: Monetary Transactions in Atlantic Africa (Chicago, 2004).

10 White, H. and Killick, T. for the World Bank, African Poverty at the Millennium: Causes, Complexities and Challenges (Washington D.C., 2001).

11 See Fontaine, L., The Moral Economy: Poverty, Credit and Trust in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 2014) on market risk.

12 Peters, P., ‘Conflicts over land and threats to customary tenure in Africa’, African Affairs, 112:449 (2013), 543562.

13 Scully, B., ‘From the shop floor to the kitchen table: the shifting centre of precarious workers’ politics in South Africa’, Review of African Political Economy, 43:148 (2016): 295311; Ferguson, J., Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Redistribution (Durham, 2015).

14 Boeck, F. De, ‘Domesticating diamonds and dollars: identity, expenditure and sharing in southwestern Zaire (1984–1997)’, Development and Change, 29:4 (1998), 777810; Saunders, R. and Nyamunda, T. (eds). Facets of Power: Politics, Profits and People in the Making of Zimbabwe's Blood Diamonds (Harare, 2016).

15 Guyer and Belinga, ‘Wealth’.

16 See Hammar, A. (ed.), Displacement Economies in Africa: Paradoxes of Crisis and Creativity (London, 2014).

17 ‘The history of poverty in Africa: a central question?’, Conference at Columbia University 6–7 March 2014,; accessed 19 March 2018. I gave an earlier version of this paper as a keynote lecture at this conference.

18 Kidd, D., The Essential Kaffir (London, 1904).

19 Klein, H. S., Engerman, S. L., Haines, R., and Shlomowitz, R., ‘Transoceanic mortality: the slave trade in comparative perspective’, The William & Mary Quarterly, 58:1 (2001), 97.

20 Iliffe, The African Poor, 1.

21 Morten Jerven and Vincent Bonnecase both make this point in this forum, highlighting how the external association of poverty and Africa is recent, a product of numerical analysis as much as a social fact. Bonnecase in particular points to how the working class of Europe were the main concern for international studies of poverty long before the focus on Africa. Jerven, M., ‘The history of African poverty by numbers: Evidence and vantage points’, Forum on Poverty, The Journal of African History, 59:3 (2018), 463–74; V. Bonnecase, ‘When numbers represented poverty: the changing meaning of the food ration in French colonial Africa’, trans. Rachel Kantrowitz, Forum on Poverty, The Journal of African History, 59:3, 489–508.

22 On madness, see Faleti, A., Nwon ro pe wèrè ni [People Thought She Was a Mad Woman] (Ibadan, 1965). See also Prince, R. and Speed, F., Were Ni! He is a Madman: A Study of the Management of Psychiatric Disorders by the Yoruba of Nigeria, (London, 1963).

23 Iliffe, The African Poor, 2.

24 Tutuola, A., Pauper, Brawler and Slanderer (London, 1987).

25 Salami, K. K. and Guyer, J. I., ‘Confusion and personification in Yoruba thought and practice’, Social Dynamics, 4:1 (2015), 17-33.

26 Guyer, J. I., ‘Response: One confusion after another: “Slander” in Amos Tutuola's Pauper, Brawler and Slanderer (1987)Social Dynamics, 41:1 (2015): 6972.

27 Tutuola, Pauper.

28 Iliffe, The African Poor.

29 Carter, M. R. and Barrett, C. B., ‘The economics of poverty traps and persistent poverty: an asset-based approach’, The Journal of Development Studies, 42:2 (2006), 178199.

30 De Boeck, F. and Plissart, M.-F., Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City (Leuven, Belgium, 2004).

31 Carter and Barrett, ‘The economics’, 186, 189.

32 On the increasing impetus to compare between and among countries, as well as the increasingly statistical nature of such analysis, see Vincent Bonnecase's contribution to this forum. Bonnecase, V., ‘When numbers represented poverty, Forum on Poverty’, The Journal of African History, 59:3 (2018), 489508.

33 Guyer, Marginal Gains, 141–42.

34 Hill, P., ‘Some puzzling spending habits in Ghana’, Economic Bulletin (Economic Society of Ghana), 1:10 (1957), 311; 1:11 (1957): 3–7.

35 For further analysis on this point, see Duflo, E. and Udry, C., ‘Intrahousehold resource allocation in Côte d'Ivoire: social norms, separate accounts and consumption choices’, NBER Working Paper No. 10498 (Cambridge, 2004).

36 White and Killick, African.

37 See also Morten Jerven's contribution to this forum. Jerven, M., ‘The history of African poverty by numbers: Evidence and vantage points’, Forum on Poverty, The Journal of African History, 59:3 (2018), 475–87.

38 Berry, S., No Condition is Permanent: The Social Dynamics of Agrarian Change in Sub-Saharan Africa (Madison, 1993); Berry, S., ‘Stable prices, unstable values: some thoughts on monetization and the meaning of transactions in West African economies’, in Guyer, J. I. (ed.), Money Matters: Instability, Values and Social Payments in the Modern History of West African Communities (London, 1995), 299313.

39 Ibid. 66.

40 White and Killick, African, 66.

41 Guyer, ‘Endowments’, 114, 119, 113.

42 Guyer, J. I. (ed.), Feeding African Cities: Studies in Regional Social History (Manchester, 1987). See especially ‘Introduction’, 1–54.

43 Iliffe, The African Poor, 192.

44 Ribot, J. C. and Peluso, N. L., ‘A theory of access’, Rural Sociology, 68:2 (2003), 153181.

45 Hammar, Displacemen t Economies, 26.

46 Amanor, K., Land, Labour and the Family in Southern Ghana: A Critique of Land Policy under Neo-Liberalism, Research Report, no. 116 (Uppsala, 2001); see also Mavhunga, C., Transient Workspaces: Technologies of Everyday Innovation in Zimbabwe (Cambridge, 2014).

47 Sommers, M., Stuck: Rwandan Youth and the Struggle for Adulthood (Athens 2012).

48 Ferguson, Give.

49 Comaroff, J. L. and Comaroff, J., ‘Law and disorder in the postcolony: an introduction’, in Comaroff and Comaroff (eds.), Law and Disorder in the Postcolony (Chicago, 2006), 156.

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