In a recent newsletter ("Housing: Better Together," SAToday, June 4, 2012), Helen Zille, the leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa's principal opposition party, discussed the impact of the country's effort to provide its people with homes. Though the DA and the governing African National Congress (ANC) are locked in fierce partisan combat, Zille was not writing in entirely partisan vein; the points she made, she said, were also recognized by Tokyo Sexwale, the ANC's Housing Minister, and in the ANC's recent housing policies.
Essentially the central fact is this: it is impossible for South Africa to carry out a policy of providing free houses at state expense to all its people who lack proper housing. The need is just too fantastically large. "Given the available budget allocations, and the regulatory environment," Zille writes, "most shack-dwellers will wait more than 30 years for a house." But that's not all. Zille reports that "[i]n one Western Cape housing development, for example, 80% of beneficiaries moved back into shacks within nine months of receiving their new homes." Why? Because it turns out that what people really need is income; given a house, they sell it and use the money to sustain themselves back in a shack.
As a policy matter, these realities suggest the need for a range of efforts essentially to provide less but to have that "less" make more of a difference in people's lives -- for example, to provide building sites ready with basic services such as water, on which people will build their own dwellings with their own resources. Shaping those efforts is an important task, and a very hard one; the fundamental truth is that South Africa is not rich, and its people's needs will be hard to meet for years to come, no matter how wisely its leaders govern.
But the sheer fact that in one community 80% of households given a free house were back in shacks within 9 months deserves some attention in and of itself. It's not an argument against government efforts to achieve a just distribution of wealth in South Africa -- an urgent need. Nor is it an argument against redistribution as an element of those efforts. To some extent it's actually an argument in favor of pure redistribution: just give people the cash and they'll make the decisions on what they need to spend it on. As Zille says, it's far from cost-effective to give people a house so that they can then convert it into cash. It would be better to just write checks. (Which is not to say that writing checks by itself would necessarily be a wise policy either; there are no doubt many ways this approach could go wrong too.)
More important, it's an argument for respecting people's determination to act on their own behalf (their "agency," to use that omnipresent word), and for acknowledging how they will actually go about doing so. If what people need is income, then income is what they will likely seek. They won't remain in the free houses they've been given, unless they can make their lives work in those houses. It's good that they won't -- and it's important to understand that people will seek what they need, even if it isn't what they've been given. But the choices they make may wind up completely frustrating the aspirations of those who sought to help them. And all this is true even if those who sought to help did so with the best will in the world, and moreover in a plausible way -- if, for example, they thought that the way to provide people with housing was to build them houses.
I don't say it's easy to figure out in advance what people will need and do -- just that it's important for anyone seeking to help others to keep this question constantly in mind, and to look for answers that are real rather than ideal. Otherwise, whether we like it or not, we will fail.