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Just GiveDirectly to the poor?A few thoughts on targeting and empowerment

July 8, 2011

In June 2010 the book ‘Just Give Money to the Poor’ was published, arguing for the merits of direct cash transfers to the poor, guaranteeing them a basic daily income. The approach is based upon the core values of trust, and respect; trust that poor people will spend the money wisely, and respecting the poor to make their own choices over expenses. Cash transfers are not new, but the book successfully highlighted the increasing number of approaches towards development which are bypassing traditional aid-structures.

Just as micro-finance became a simple and attractive way for donors to target the poor through providing grants and loans for micro-enterprises, GiveDirectly has now created a system where donors can directly contribute to poor households in Kenya through mobile phone technology (Thanks to Roving Bandit for highlighting the charity).

GiveDirectly is selling its approach on being efficient – (costing only 10% of each $), transparent (users can ‘see exactly where their money goes’), but most importantly, respectful. In GiveDirectly’s words:

 Respect means treating the people we help as we would want to be treated: as fellow human beings who are capable of making important decisions for themselves. We demonstrate this respect in a tangible way, by letting them decide how to spend the money that you send them. The poor all have needs and opportunities, but each person’s needs and opportunities differ. Cash transfers empower the poor to meet their most pressing needs and invest in the best opportunities.

Usually, I shy away from the word ‘empowerment’, as it is often over, and inappropriately, used. In this case however it seems appropriate in taking an approach which traditional micro-finance didn’t – give the poor the opportunity to use a loan as they see fit, and wish. Micro-finance has been a success storey for many individuals since its inception, lifting a few out of poverty, and providing a supplementary income which makes daily survival easier, to many more. Not everyone however is capable of, or in the right situation to become a micro-entrepreneur, and as Portfolio’s of the Poor demonstrated, not everyone wants to – using the mechanism of financial diaries, the authors showed that in many cases households took and used a loan to meet households needs, rather than start a business, as this approach was more practical for their situation.

Reading about GiveDirectly’s approach however, several alarm bells rang. Households who received the money transfer are targeted on the basis of whether they are built of mud, wood and grass, rather than say, having a tin roof. GiveDirectly’s research has shown that this is a fairly simple let reliable way of assessing poverty levels in a household, and importantly, it is a form of selection that other members of the community accept, reducing potential for conflict in a community over who receives GiveDirectly’s grants. What was missing for me however from the description of GiveDirectly’s targeting, was an analysis of intra-household dynamics, gender, power, and other forms of vulnerability (for example age, disability, widowhood). Wanting to give GiveDirectly the opportunity to respond to my concerns, I emailed them with several key questions:

  • Who, precisely, within a household receives the money, and how is this person chosen? Is it always the (normally) male head of household?
  • Are women ever actively targeted? And if so, have you found that this increases the risk and potential of conflict (through e.g undermining social norms and male power holders)?
  • Have you done, or are you looking to do, further investigation into who control the resources and the GiveDirecty money received, within the household?
  • You mention that households are targeted depending on whether they have a thatched roof, but have you ever investigated other forms of specific targeting, for example female headed households (who may not have a thatched roof but be in a vulnerable position), widows (may be socially and economically excluded) and the elderly (who are often overlooked in development interventions)

I was encouraged to learn that GiveDirectly are conducting a large scale impact evaluation of the programme, in which in 50% of cases the money transfer is sent to the primary female of the household, and in the other 50%, the primary male. The study will then collect information about spousal relationships, domestic-violence, and decision-making power in the household, which GiveDirectly will incorporate into its model. Details of the study can be found here.

It will be interesting to see, amongst the women who receive the money transfers, aside form their own spending choices, how much control over the money they have in reality, and if in fact, the transfer has any potential to increase women’s bargaining position within a household, as micro-credit initiatives have often specifically aimed to do.

Indeed a key difference between many micro-credit initiatives and GiveDirectly is the often clear objective of micro-credit in specifically targeting women, and using business as a means of female economic empowerment. GiveDirectly, on the other hand has the clear objective of ‘reducing poverty by providing financial assistance directly to those in need’, and not of specifically targeting women as a means of empowerment. And indeed should they? As GiveDirectly point out in their other responses:

 On targeting it is certainly true that there are households that have an iron roof and are still quite poor. In the villages where we work I have encountered a number of the type of households you mention – single women, widows or elderly people who have iron roofs but face economic hardship. While it is very sad not to make transfers to those people, there are a number of reasons we currently use the criteria we do.

Firstly, on average those living in thatched homes are poorer than those who do not (based on the data we have). This doesn’t mean that some people living in homes with iron roofs are not also very poor, but by using these criteria we can locate a poor group very cheaply – allowing us to send more in total to poor households

Secondly, these criteria are very transparent – everyone knows what the criteria are and can verify eligibility themselves. This is important for GiveDirectly (e.g. to ensure proper targeting) and also for recipients.

Thirdly, we are in the unfortunate position of having to exclude many households due to the simple lack of sufficient resources. Since 90% of the donations we receive reach poor households, giving to a poor household with an iron roof means that a poor household with a thatched roof does not receive a transfer. For this reason we are primarily concerned with having a set of criteria that identify a poor group of people, which housing materials does.

At this point in time, with limited resources, establishing a simple and reliable targeting system seems an appropriate first step; muddling the objective of reducing poverty with women’s empowerment or targeting specific other vulnerable groups has the potential to create intra-community conflicts and undermine the charity’s establishment. A second factor to consider is whether alone, cash transfers should be expected to improve a women’s bargaining position, change attitudes or tackle issues which are inherently about power. A blog by the International Centre for Research on Women excellently highlights the many factors that can constitute ‘empowerment’

Whereas one woman confidently proclaimed that the income from selling baskets increased her household power and ability to pay her daughter’s school fees, a fellow weaver shared that her household influence suffered greatly since her husband took a second wife. Even though our research focused on economic changes in women’s lives, their experiences reinforced that earning an income isn’t everything. They told us that being able to go wherever they want, getting an education and being economically secure are equally vital indicators of a woman’s “empowerment.”

The same principles apply to other groups which may not only be excluded economically, but also socially, such as widows, the disabled and the elderly. Here right’s based approaches, such as Tostan’s, which implements a 3 yr community human rights and education programme, may be a more appropriate basis, through encouraging a community to look at attitudes which lie behind the control of resources, rather than just attempting to use resources to shift power relations.

Perhaps as a reflection upon my own giving biases however, that’s not to say that I wouldn’t like to see an approach, such as GiveDirectly’s, which looks specifically at other more vulnerable groups, but with clearly defined expectations of the role of money transfers in economic and social empowerment.

Finally however, this also raises question’s about how this approach fits in more broadly with government social protection measure, such as pensions or cash grants to the disabled.  Indeed the book Just Give Money to the Poor focuses upon cash grants as a type of contract between the state and citizens, in the place of taxation. For an overview of some of these broader issues, Duncan Green has a nice summary here.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jaque permalink
    July 8, 2011 4:17 pm

    Excellent read. I’ll have to learn a bit more about this.

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