New moral economies of care and welfare in Africa. A return to the universal?

New moral economies of care and welfare in Africa. A return to the universal?

Although Africa has never had anything that could be termed a welfare state, the role of the state and its responsibility for welfare and public health in Africa was heavily undermined by structural adjustment programmes in the 1980s and 90s. Since the 2000s, however, we have witnessed a significant change in the ways welfare and healthcare are being addressed. Poverty alleviation, social development and social protection projects – ranging from the introduction of free primary education, cash transfer schemes, basic income grants and recently Universal Health Coverage, coupled with digital technologies – appear to suggest a return to the universal aspirations of an earlier era. These attempts at extending coverage, care and protection are happening amidst the shrinking of development aid, the privatization of public goods, increased corruption and widening inequalities, and at a time when other parts of the world, such as Europe, are experiencing serious cuts in welfare financing and retrenchment of state services. In this context, political commitments by African states to experiment with projects that embrace the language of social justice, solidarity, inclusion and equality open up questions about how poverty alleviation, responsibility for (poor) citizens, healthcare and welfare are conceived, engaged and enacted on the continent, and how these moves relate to earlier aspirations for universal rights and reformulations of citizenship. To approach these questions, we propose rethinking the concept of moral economy. A term that has recently enjoyed a revival in history and anthropology, moral economy connotes attitudes, beliefs and practices concerning what is right and wrong, just and unjust, fair and less fair, within which political decisions and resource distributions take place.

Panel 1: Generations of health and welfare in Africa: moral economy, history and the present
Convenors: Holly Ashford, University of Cambridge ( and David Bannister, University of Oslo  (  

The forms of healthcare and general welfare have changed over time in all African states, at large and small scales, shaped by global currents, national policies and local developments. From the extractive and developmental phases of colonialism, through the optimism and tensions of the independence era and Cold War decades that followed, through recent pasts of structural adjustment and global interconnection, and into the present, when ideas like Universal Basic Income and Universal Health Coverage seem to propose expansive new forms of solidarity and social protection.

As with smaller public health campaigns or social protection programmes, each rearrangement of national healthcare or welfare has given rise to public and private discussions about fairness, individual and societal obligations, and the right way to distribute health resources or welfare support.

This interdisciplinary panel aims to bring together contemporary, historical and comparative perspectives on the moral economies of health and welfare in African states, and on smaller initiatives that have generated debate around public goods.

For this panel ‘moral economy’ is an accommodating term. It simply means the ways that different groups and generations of people have thought (and currently think) with nuance about what is fair and unfair, right and wrong – in terms of their access to healthcare and welfare, the contributions and compromises that have sustained particular systems now and in the past, and how changes in these areas have directly shaped their lives.

Contact the panel or stream convenor for more information.  

Panel 2: Beyond mobile money: Digital technologies, economic life and the public good in Africa
Convenor: Tom Neumark, Centre for Development and the Environment and the Institute of Health and Society and Centre, University of Oslo, (

Digital computing devices, present from the 1950s but confined at that time to a few governmental institutions, have become significantly widespread in Africa. While the 1990s saw an increasing deployment of these technologies on the continent, the twenty first century witnessed the proliferation of relatively cheap mobile devices. This brought digital computing to ordinary, sometimes rural, citizens and ushered in a new era of mobile money and “financial inclusion”. More recently rapidly developing digital and data-driven technologies have led to ambitious, perhaps fantastical, ideas such as “leapfrogging” and the “fourth industrial revolution”. While these claims are often bolstered by the well-known “successes” of mobile money, they seek to incorporate or go beyond it, by showing how other newer, frontier technologies might contribute to economic growth and the delivery of public goods.

This panel invites contributors to discuss both the historical and contemporary role of the digital in the economy and in delivering the public good. The aim is to consider other digital technologies besides mobile money, from earlier desktop or even room-sized computers, to more recent mobile applications, digital biometrics, off-grid electricity, algorithms, blockchain, and the Internet of Things. Contributors may focus upstream by looking at research and design, or downstream as the technologies become integrated into pilots, programmes and into everyday life. They are also invited to consider the technologies as complex moral, cultural and social technical objects that incorporate a range of actors.

For more information, please contact the panel convener.

Panel 3: Healthcare, citizenship and the state: new figurations of obligation, solidarity and inequality in Africa
Convenors: Jacinta Victoria Syombua Muinde, University of Olso (, Ruth Jane Prince, University of Oslo ( and James Wintrup, University of Oslo (

Recent global healthcare and welfare projects such as Universal Health Coverage are framed in a language of universality, entitlement and inclusion. They emphasise the responsibility of the state for its citizens and the need to address health inequalities, focusing particularly on social protection of the poor. Increasingly promoted by many governments in Africa – alongside a range of other actors, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), digital technology companies and global health organisations – these moves seem to indicate a shift in the way that social justice, solidarity and inclusion are being conceptualised, engaged and performed. Yet they continue to operate in contexts in which unemployment is widespread, the cost of living and socio-economic inequalities are rising, and the middle classes are barricading themselves behind private health insurance and health care. This panel invites papers that consider how these recent moves are engendering new conceptions of and struggles surrounding the right to healthcare, the obligations and responsibilities of the state, and forms of citizenship and claim-making.

For more information, please contact the convenors.


Panel 4: (Re)Distribution and Universalism: The Moral Economy of Social Protection and Cash Transfers
Convenor: Liz Fouksman, University of Oxford (

Universal social protection is receiving increasing attention from intergovernmental organizations, development institutions, policy makers and national governments on the African continent. Yet while the discourse around social protection is often framed in universalist terms, the favored policy to provide it is frequently targeted cash transfers.

While cash transfers have been lauded both for being effective and efficient forms of poverty alleviation and for providing (re)distributional justice, most cash transfers on the African continent are targeted at select populations (often the poor who are also elderly, children or the disabled). Some scholars see such targeted interventions as a positive step towards more a universal ‘politics of distribution’ (Ferguson 2015), for instance by being a stepping-stone to the advent of universal basic income. Others are more pessimistic, arguing that such transfers are another form of bureaucratic control, or entrench a moral economy that purposefully excludes some as being ‘undeserving’ of such protection.

This panel engages with the tensions around the rise of interest in universal social protection on the one hand, and the instrumentalization of this vision via cash transfers or social grants on the other. In particular, it asks how the moral economies of deservingness and undeservingness influence the politics and practice of distribution. Who is worthy of being protected, and why? How do visions of distribution through work and employment conflict with the universalist premises and promises of social protection? How do views of fairness, just deserts, (economic) contribution and reciprocity interact with ideas of rightful share, distributory justice and universal rights within the politics of social protection? When and why is universalism within a distributory proposal resisted, and when is it welcomed? This panel invites papers that are engaged with these and other questions, within political and social debates over universal social protection and its implementation, from the perspectives of both beneficiaries, policy makers and political actors.

For more information, please contact the convenor


Organisers: Jacinta Victoria Syombua Muinde (; David Bannister ( and Ruth Jane Prince (