04 December 2013

It's Complicated: The history and research behind Cash Transfers

Decades ago, some of the biggest NGOs simply gave away money to individuals in communities. People lined up and were just given cash.

The once popular form of aid went out of fashion, but it is now making a comeback.

Over time, coordination became extremely difficult. Traveling from home to home costs time and money for the NGO and the same problem exists for recipients when they have to go to a central location. More significant was the shift in development thinking that said giving hand outs was causing long term damage.

The backlash against ‘welfare queens’ in the US, UK and elsewhere during the 1980s was reflected in international development programming. Problem was that it was all based on unproven theories of change and anecdotal evidence, rather than hard evidence.

Half a decade later, new research shows that just giving people money can be an effective way to build assets and even incomes. The findings were covered by major players like NPR and the Economist.

While exciting and promising, cash transfers are not a new tool in the development utility belt.

Various forms of transfers have emerged over the past decade. Food vouchers were used by the World Food Programme when responding to the 2011 famine in the Horn of Africa. Like food stamps in the US, people could go buy food from local markets and get exactly what they need while supporting the local economy.

The differences have sparked a sometimes heated debate within the development community as to what the findings about cash transfers mean going forward. A Technology Salon hosted conversation at ThoughtWorks in New York City last week, featured some of the leading researchers and players in the cash transfer sector.

The salon style conversation featured Columbia University and popular aid blogger Chris Blattman, GiveDirectly co-founder and UCSD researcher Paul Neihaus and Plan USA CEO Tessie San Martin. The ensuing discussion, operating under the Chatham House Rules of no attribution, featured representatives from large NGOs, microfinance organizations and UN agencies.

Research from Kenya, Uganda and Liberia show both the promise and shortcomings of cash transfers. For example, giving out cash in addition to training was successful in generating employment in Northern Uganda. Another program, with the backing of the Ugandan government, saw success with the cash alone.

Cash transfers have been argued as the new benchmark for development and aid programs. Advocates in the discussion made the case that programs should be evaluated in terms of impact and cost-effectiveness against just giving people cash.

Continue reading on Humanosphere...

Note: I am finally coming up for air after a many month deep dive into cash transfers. Expect more substantive pieces to come out in the near future.

Permissions