I was just trying…

This American Life, an NPR radio show, recently did an interesting piece on a new development strategy– just giving money to poor people.  The organization Give Directly works off of a simple premise, poor people know what they need better than an aid organization does.  They also found that there is a rich body of literature that supports this idea through government intervention and just giving money (with no strings attached) to poorer people.  The story highlights some of the things that people are using the money on, and they are definitely things that people need, but are perhaps not things that aid organizations would sponsor.  The most common thing that people bought was a new roof.  The roofs that people had were grass and they did not keep the rain out particularly well, had to be replaced yearly, and were expensive.  The new metal roofs, on the other hand, last 10+ years and actually keep the rain out.  As a result, these people will have extra money every year for the next 10 years, as they will not have to purchase a new roof.

Money making it to a cell phone.

The story also brings up another concept– hard data to support development work.  Give Directly, started by economics grad students at Harvard, is transparent about its desire to conduct research to get data.  They claim that all too often development is done and we share successes (pictures of smiling kids), but true research has not been done to determine how effective it is or could be.  The language that Give Directly uses is “experiment” where they compare two villages– giving money to one and not to the other amongst other things.

This idea of experimenting should raise questions.  For me it made me think back to colonialism and projects of white dominance. My mind even went to the Tuskeegee experiments, where white authority was dominated over African Americans.  While I have an internal tension with the language of experiments, I firmly believe in the importance of gathering data in a scientific way to analyze and understand these issues.  While no project can be 100% without its downsides, without careful analysis we cannot know if the project is causing significant harm or even causing any good.  The collection of data can also tell us if our work is even effective.  My time in the Balkans sadly taught me that even if someone has the best intentions with their work, it can be relatively ineffective.

Here’s a link to the story on the This American life page.  What do you think?  Do you think that giving money to poor people is a good idea?  Should it be restricted?  Should they have to pay back a small portion of it?  What do you think about the idea of experimenting?

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