Monday, August 26, 2013

Why buy the cow when you can get the cash for free?

See that tagline up there? “Part mommy blog. Part aid blog.”  Well, maybe you’ve been waiting for the aid part for the past year or so. Truth is, since I stopped working full time, my focus has been on the mommy part; on my own family’s diarrhea rates and not the worlds.

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. 


NPR’s This American Life and the New York Times Magazine both profiled the Give Directly 
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.


  1. Thanks for the clarity on this subject. I did hear it on NPR and wondered.

  2. Thanks for the clarity on this subject. I did hear it on NPR and wondered.

  3. Really interesting points, Mama Mzungu. I look forward to seeing how the program plays out. Thank you for writing this!

    Jen :)

    1. Thanks Jen! I look forward to seeing how this all works out too!

  4. I love reading your take on the aid world Kim - for me looking in from the outside it just seems like a huge mess and unfortunately I'm not at all surprised that the Heifer foundation doesn't want to be evaluated. If the program is studied and it is found that it is not particularly effective they stand to lose a lot of donor funding. The jealousy issue is always there when some people receive benefits and others do not - I don't think evaluating a program or not has anything to do with that reality and refusing to evaluate any program is a great way to keep from improving upon it. Thank you for sharing this information - it is the first I've heard of Give Directly - I'll also be interested to hear how it plays out. Maybe I'm just cynical but I'm not very optimistic.

    1. Yeah, I'm really interested to see what the GD evaluation finds too! There's a lot of concern that dropping that amount of money into a household can exacerbate domestic violence, but at least, because there's a rigorous evaluation being conducted, we'll have some idea if that's what happens, so that the program can try and mitigate against it in the future if it's a problem.

      I still think the Heifer Foundation's response is understandable for the reasons you gave. Why would any organization fund something that could provide fodder for a case against them? But donors are requiring this kind of thing more and more, and I think more and more organizations are seeing that evaluations can actually help them reach their goals but tweaking things which aren't working. They just need to take a big breath and plunge in!

  5. I'm glad to read your thoughts on this - I listened to the This American Life episode last week, and the story has been on my mind since then. I can sympathize with the VP of Heifer's view, but at the same time I feel like any business, whether NGO or a for-profit, should be evaluating whether or not they are providing the most effective services. Wouldn't you want to ensure you are helping people in the best way possible? And yet, Give Directly's tactics may unintentionally cause problems among neighbors. You mention the accusations of witchcraft - that's something that many Americans wouldn't even consider as a potential problem. So then they should consider, is there a way to minimize the interpersonal conflicts as a result of their giving? Can that be effectively studied as well?
    I'm interested to see the results due out from the Give Directly's studies, and if you have more observations, I'd love to read them in future posts. =)

    1. yeah, there's a lot of things that Americans would not consider about the cultural dynamics of aid distribution. And I love your idea about looking at ways to minimize the interpersonal conflicts as a result of the giving. I believe give directly is going to try to give to all members of a village instead of just those with thatch roofs because of some the acrimony selectively giving such an enormous windfall had created. I'll be interested to see how that goes too! I think the evaluation of the program should be public in a few months. It was conducted by Innovations for Poverty Action. I'll keep you all posted!

  6. Boy, did you ever beat me to it, Kim. I heard two Planet Money segments on NPR last week that I was going to share with you, but ran out of time. Now I see this blog post, based on the same content but full of additional information and insights. And I never guessed how close the radio interviews were to where you live.

    Personally, I'm intrigued by the Give Directly model and impressed by their commitment to RCTs. (I thought that might get your attention. :) ). And I was not impressed by the Heifer International response, especially not by their unwillingness to share data. I've been in this business (and international development is a business) long enough to know that traditional models have, at best, limited cost-effectiveness.

    But there's something about the Give Directly model that just doesn't feel right. I think it boils down to the difference between R&D (which seems like a very legitimate way to use donor funds) and operational expenses (which does not). Conventional projects conflate the two and lose any chance at real sustainability. But Give Directly's model seems to be, in effect, 100% operational funding. Even if their evaluations demonstrate impact, how are they (we) going to give $1,000 to each of 3 billion poor people in this world? And will $1,000 be enough, even if used well?

    Interesting questions, great post.

    1. I know what you mean by the "just doesn't feel right" factor. It's not clear what the scale-up model of this plan is? Major large scale wealth distribution? What? Governments try this, but only in countries that have the capital and a small enough percentage of the population with dire needs to hand it out to. Not countries where most of the population is living below the poverty line. And if Bono and Sachs can't get the rich to give to world-altering sums to the poor internationally, not sure it's going to happen any time soon.

      Still, not being "scale-able" doesn't mean you shouldn't do it, it just means it's not going to be a panacea. Chris Blattman makes this point more elegantly than I can but he says that it's really about developing SME which can provide jobs and growth and that to do that you need a bunch of structural changes (less corruption, better monetary policy etc...). But someone replied: that's well and good, but I can't donate to "structural changes" and I want to give my money to where I know it's going to do the most good. So... there we are.

      I think that was quite a tangent from your comment, Phil! ; )