String attached or unattached?

What is the best way to help people with money? If you have money and you want to help people what should you do? A question that has wracked many a mind and one that I have spent countless hours considering while lying on my cold concrete floor staring up at a thatched roof.

The above economist article describes two ways aid money can be used to potentially better help the world’s poorest people. Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT’s) are a fairly new idea and Unconditional Cash Transfers (UCT’s) are even more recent a d very much considered part of the avant garde of international development ideas. As Michael Faye, Give Directly’s founder, remembers when he went with the idea of just giving out money to the world’s poorest people to traditional aid donors “they thought I was smoking crack!”

The ethos behind UCT’s appeals to me – it doesn’t treat poor people as ignorant passive participants in the development process, rather it acknowledges that many poor people have a better idea than aid bureaucrats stuck behind desks of what can actually improve their lives. It also cuts out the middle men, to some extent, which you would hope would also cut out some of the corruption, inefficiency and waste so prevalent and sometimes endemic in many aid agencies.

Counter to the thinking that poor people know what they need to improve their lives, is the idea that if you give a poor person a lump of cash they will blow it all on booze and brothels, or in the Gambia’s case – green tea and fancy flip flops. I live in The Gambia and every two weeks I make a cash contribution to the head of the household, Abdou. This contribution is basically rent but seeing as no one else would rent the hut I stay in if I was not there and would not pay anywhere near the rate I pay (I pay around $400 per YEAR for the use of my 12”x12” hut), it can be seen as a form of cash transfer. Whether it is conditional or unconditional, I am undecided. Whilst I have never explicitly told Abdou he need to spend the money on specific things, I think there is an unspoken understanding that, at least while I am here contributing cash, working at the school, and living with his family, Abdou will send his sons to school. Out of 14 children of primary school going age in the compound that I stay in only two go to school, Abdou’s sons, and they didn’t go to school until I moved into the compound.

I believe that Abdou sending his sons to school is beneficial not just to them personally but to the family as a whole. I’m not sure Abdou sees it that way. I think he sometimes sees school as an inconvenient distraction from good honest farm labor. It is hard to convince people of the benefits of education when ther is not a tradition of formal school education in the community. The people of Ker Sait Maram have only had access to a school since 1996. The majority of students have come from the richer families in the village; therefore it is hard for people to see the long-term economic benefits of education – that for every extra year spent in secondary school wages increase by 10-15%. I see CCT’s as a useful tool in helping convince people that education is a wise economic choice in environments where economic benefits are not easily visible due to lack of peer examples of people improving their economic status through education.

P.s. I was interested to note that in The Economist article cited above it stated that thatched roofs were seen as an indicator of poverty. I personally love having a thatch roof, it is cooler than corrugate and much more aesthetically pleasing. The article also mentioned that in Kenya you have to replace your thatch twice a year at a cost $40 a pop. Maybe it is different in Kenya but that sounds bizarre to me. A good thatch here will last for two years. The materials – grass and bark rope – are free, and the job can be done by two men in one afternoon. The more things I read about economic conditions in Africa, the more I begin to realize how difficult it is to gather accurate data. It is so hard to get accurate estimates of costs of materials and labor here, especially as an outsider; it seems there is an engrained culture of overestimation to outsiders, especially social scientists and aid agencies.

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