Free money’s ideological nature: A comparative analysis of unconditional cash transfers in Eastern Africa

This article compares two East African unconditional cash transfer (UCT) programs and how they have been interpreted by their target populations. While the US-American NGO GiveDirectly focuses on poor households in Western Kenya in an allegedly unbureaucratic and digital way, the Tanzania Social Action Fund (TASAF) distributes cash transfers in a bureaucratic and analogue manner in Tanzania. While the narrative of “free money” instilled fears about occult actors and skepticism toward political hierarchies in some recipients, others considered UCTs as offering an opportunity to enlarge their individual freedom. We argue that this radical difference with regard to how our interlocutors interpreted UCTs was catalyzed by the portrayal of “free money” as a context-independent carrier and store of value or, in other words, by UCT’s socially produced “indeterminacy”.