How cash transfers enable agency through livelihoods in South Africa

Chibuikem C. Nnaeme, Leila Patel, Sophie Plagerson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)


Although cash transfers primarily support recipients' consumption of goods for basic needs, there is a growing body of evidence showing that they can also promote livelihood activities. Yet there has been little theoretical or empirical analysis of the contribution of human agency in facilitating the conversion of cash transfers into livelihood strategies. This paper presents findings from a qualitative study conducted in a poor urban community in South Africa. Giddens's structuration theory provides an analytical tool to understand how cash transfers enable agency through livelihood activities. The first finding is that beneficiaries conceptualized as “developmental agents”, were highly motivated to improve their lives; and that they were decision-makers who made different types of strategic and operational decisions to improve their livelihood activities. Agency expressed through a strong sense of self, ingenuity and resilience denoted participants as active rather than passive recipients of public assistance. Receipt of cash transfers activated agency, enabling recipients to start or diversify livelihood activities. Second, the challenges and constraints are identified that limited their livelihood outcomes, such as high levels of poverty in the community and unemployment. Finally, it shows how beneficiaries attempted to circumvent structural barriers to human development. The study contributes to understanding the interaction between citizens and the state in reducing poverty and in promoting social and economic development.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104956
JournalWorld Development
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2020


  • Agency
  • Cash transfers
  • Livelihood activities
  • Social protection
  • South Africa
  • Structuration theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Development
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Economics and Econometrics


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