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Responsibility of care: who is responsible for the most vulnerable?

By Daisy Courtauld, Jonathan Boyd, Laura Frampton, Nathan Bromley, and Thembi Adams

In this blog we raise the question of who is responsible for the vulnerable citizens of a supposedly ‘developed’ nation. We will analyse the frameworks of care currently operating to aid the most vulnerable. Neoliberalism has led to a shrinking of state provisions, leaving non-state actors like charities to potentially replace state support. Anthropology is valuable in offering a perspective on the lived experience of poverty and what it means to be cared for under state and non-state frameworks.

It is crucial to recognise that the long-held dichotomy of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ in humanitarianism no longer stands. Lewis (2014) argues that western nations are facing many of the same problems as in their so-called ‘developing’ counterparts, meaning that it is no longer possible (if it ever was) to divide the world into a binary of developed and developing. Recognising this, in 1995 Oxfam announced that it would no longer focus its efforts and resources merely on the ‘Third World’. Evidently, issues in the UK and the ‘developed’ world can benefit from similar bodies of knowledge (Lewis, 2014).

Bearing this in mind, we highlight several areas of contention that arise when considering the provision of aid in a developed nation. For instance, nearly one third of school children in the UK live in poverty (Child Poverty Action Group, 2018). So, who should be responsible for a country’s most vulnerable citizens, and in particular, its children? It is necessary to know how neoliberalism has failed semi-autonomous individuals and who should be stepping in to help them. Further, is it possible to identify the benefits in using either the state or non-state models of care? Is a ‘developed’ nation such as the UK failing its people by withdrawing its welfare provisions or simply succeeding in implementing its neoliberal agenda?              

Neoliberal policies contextualise responsibility and care today. According to Ericson et al. (2000) the five key facets of neoliberalism are minimal government intervention, market fundamentalism, risk management, individual responsibility and inevitable inequality in outcome. Neoliberal policies entail a shrinking of state provisions through privatisation and the assumption that individuals are responsible for themselves. Welfare, under neoliberalism, takes the form of a punitive ‘workfare,’ dependent on the active labour force participation of the citizen (Wacquant, 2009). Those outside of the workforce are thus neglected, leaving the unemployed, the elderly, and children vulnerable.

The rise in non-state spaces of support should not be read as a failing of the neoliberal state (as their framework is premised on such a retreat) but rather a failure to their citizens, exemplified by the high levels of poverty. As Adams (2013) argues, the increasing reliance on charity in the United States is linked to the ‘assumption that government should not be responsible for taking care of needy citizens when the private sector can and should do this job better’ (128). Muehlebach (2011) supports this by noting that the state often actively encourages this outsourcing of care to its citizens or independent grassroots groups. Alongside post-fordist neoliberal changes in Italy, Muehlebach (2011) found the deliberate construction of a ‘moral citizenship’, whereby voluntarism is encouraged by the state, rather than direct provision of support by the state itself. With this outsourcing of care, the state retreats from addressing the issue of poverty. As the welfare state slowly disappears in many ‘developed’ countries, we are moving from a government of society towards a government through community (Muehlebach, 2011:66).

Muehlebach and Adams take their arguments further by questioning what it is that volunteer based organisations can offer that perhaps the state could (or would) not. Adams suggested that by filling in for the government, charities offered something more among broken communities. In New Orleans, ‘a betrayal by the government was transformed into a spiritual sense of purpose through faith-based volunteers’ (Adams, 2013:131). Meanwhile, Muehlebach found that in Italy, volunteers’ relational labour (voluntarism) replaced ‘the absence of work and the kinds of public recognition it [voluntarism] afforded’ (Muehlebach, 2011: 68). However, was this the intention of the new moral neoliberal state?

We now turn to reflect on responsibility for children, who, in the west, are conceptualised as semi-autonomous and vulnerable persons under the age of eighteen. Aarre’s (2003) ethnography highlights the difficulties in non-state care for the child through lack of regulation. As she says of a Portuguese children’s home, the older generation view themselves and the home as a ‘replacement of the [orphaned child’s] biological family’ (Aarre, 2003:49). Clearly, this has the benefit of offering the children an individualised and familiar environment. However, Aarre claims that this also becomes a problem due to the lack of external regulation, meaning that the children must adhere to the strict, Christian rules of the family, as well as benefitting or suffering from Mama Carla’s favouritism (Aarre, 2003:51). In response, a new generation of volunteers wish to conduct the home through a more institutionalised model, treating the children as citizens of the state who should be guaranteed universal rights.

It seems that care rarely emerges from one framework of support. In the UK, our ever-side-lined welfare state is yet to disappear completely, and thus care comes from a combination of state and non-state actors. However, clearly, the huge levels of child poverty in the UK speak for themselves in revealing that not enough has been done. Whose responsibility, then, is it to step up? In the last nine years, there has been a year-on-year increase in the number of charities in the UK, with 168,237 registered charities in England and Wales on December 31st, 2017 (Hillier, 2018). Yet with the number of charities not reflecting a reduction in child poverty (rather, the opposite), should efforts turn instead to lobbying the British government to take more of a role in supporting its citizens (even if this is antithetical to the neoliberal ideal)? Anthropology can show how problems facing ‘developed’ countries are lived in reality as the dismantling of the parallel worlds forces us to reconsider who is responsible for providing care.


Aarre, K. (2003) ‘The child welfare debate in Portugal: a case study of a children’s home.’ Chapter 4. The Anthropology of Welfare. Edgar, Iain R., Russell, Andrew. London: Routledge.

Adams, V. (2013). Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina. Durham: Duke University Press.

Child Poverty Action Group (2018). Child Poverty Facts and Figures. Available at: (Accessed November 22nd 2018)

Ericson, R. et al. (2000). ‘The moral hazards of neo-liberalism: lessons from the private insurance industry,’ Economy and Society 29(4): 532–558.

Hillier, A. (2018). ‘Number of registered charities reaches highest level in almost a decade,’ Third Sector, January 16th [Online] Available at:  (Accessed November 22nd 2018)

Lewis, D. (2014). ‘Heading South: Time to Abandon the “Parallel Worlds” of International Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) and Domestic Third Sector Scholarship?,’ VOLUNTAS, October 2014, 25(5): 1132–1150.

Muehlebach, A. (2012). The Moral Neoliberal: Welfare and Citizenship in Italy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Chapter 3, pp.55-99.

Wacquant, L. (2009). Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity. Duke University Press.