But a development program operating near where I live in Kenya has created a bit of a media firestorm, and it seemed like an opportune time to get my “part aid blog” up to more than 5% of this blog.
First an explanation and then the “kerfuffle.”
Give Directly, is a new charity which gives “unconditional cash transfers” (UCTs) - basically free money, no strings attached - to poor rural villagers. UCTs have been heralded as the sexy, new, so-crazy-it-just-may work development strategy of the moment (OK, governments the world over have done this for years, but no international charities had seen fit to try it). The idea is that the poor know best just what they need, and the most efficient way to spend donor money is to just give it directly. Gone are hefty program overhead, training, and donated goods or services which might not be what the recipients need or want, so more donated money lands directly in the pockets of the poor.
Microloans, the sexy development strategy of the last decade, have fallen slightly out of favor. It turns out that even though many poor are credit constrained, not all have the gifts or wherewithal to be successful entrepreneurs, and in some places the loans simply put more people in debt, trapping them further in poverty. With UCTs, the logic is almost laughably simplistic: people are poor because they have no money. Give them money.
But it’s a hard sell. Of course, “free money” encourages dependency and reduces the incentive to work, the conventional wisdom goes. And a big wad of cash can create disunity among family members as they argue about what to do with their windfall and also among neighbors who may not have qualified for the program but justifiably feel equally poor. Then there’s the whole worry that recipients will spend the money on vices like liquor and gambling, things which donors are understandably loathe to subsidize and likely result in deeper poverty.
So, that’s pretty much the debate.
program in Kenya interviewing recipient farmers in Siaya district, about an hour from our house. Give Directly is not only open to the criticism thrown its way, it’s supporting rigorous studies to evaluate its program – to learn precisely how much the money improves recipient’s lives compared to a randomly selected comparison group. Does health improve? Do more kids attend school? Do recipients invest in productive businesses? But also does domestic violence go up? They want to know.
The kerfuffle starts with the fact that NPR compared Give Directly to the Heifer Foundation, which gives program recipients cows and training, and requires them to donate a calf to another family. Seems like sensible work and a good “teach a man to fish” counterpoint to the Give Directly model. Seems like the gift that keeps on giving. Seems like a great way to spend donor money. Hell, I’ve given to them in the past.
But the “seems like” is the issue. It becomes obvious in the radio program that the Heifer Foundation is not comfortable with evaluating its model to see if it truly is a great use of donor money.
Their VP balks at the idea saying:
“That (evaluating her program compared to UCTs) sounds like a terrible idea. I mean, it sounds like an experiment, and we're not about experiments. These are lives of real people and we have to do what we believe is correct. We can't make experiments with peoples' lives. They're just -- they're people. It's too important."
The development community (at least the bloggers and my personal acquaintances) let out a collective “Argh!!” in response, arguing that it’s more immoral to continue a program without testing its effectiveness. The development guru blogger, Columbia professor Chris Blattman, sums up the frustration best saying:
“Where it gets downright immoral to not measure them (participants and control group), I say, is if your program is so expensive it crowds out two other people who could benefit. We don’t know if that’s true or not, since Heifer (shame on them) wouldn’t share their studies or data with the journalists. But I’ve seen many, many, many projects that spend $1500 training and all the “other stuff” in order to give people $300 or a cow. Is it fair to ask, what if we’d just given them $1800? Or what if we’d given six people cows?”
I don’t disagree. Hell, I’ve spent the last 10 years evaluating programs so that money is better spent and people are better served. The logic and even the ethics of doing these types of “experiments” on development programs, in my opinion, is air tight.
But, the optics are not. And optics matter.
There’s a lot of subtext in the Heifer Foundation’s comment. The idea of being “experimented on” can makes people feel somehow discounted, like the whole of their being is reduced to an inconsequential number; like they are condensed only to those parts which might be interesting to science. And when an NGO from the wealth world runs randomized experiments in a former colony, people - drawing conclusions from that ugly history of plunder and exploitation- might just somewhere deep inside feel played with once more. Especially when they see their neighbor receiving something they feel they equally deserve and are told, “this is all in the interest of science” they feel suspicious and resentful.
I’ve seen resentments build up in the field. These perceptions do matter. People, jealous of their neighbor’s randomly assigned program benefit accuse them of witchcraft, they accused the NGO dolling out the benefit of devil-worshipping and corruption.
I still believe that this kind of research is vitally important. In fact, it’s too important to ignore the cultural dynamics and the perceptions of people who allow this research to happen by acquiescing to be studied. Researchers should, and often do, take great pains to allay fears and carefully explain the research goals to the people they study. Because if local suspicions and angers flair, there’s no research and no benefit.
So, I still don't find the Heifer Foundations apparent reluctance to be studied defensible. But I think there's something to be learned from their reluctance.