It seems particularly hard to find information about the past impact of “gifts of livestock” programs (such as those promoted by Heifer International). I’ve been thinking about such programs conceptually, though, and I have a lot of trouble understanding the reasoning behind these programs. Two key points:
- It seems like giving out livestock brings with it all of the problems and challenges of giving out cash.
- It seems like giving out livestock also brings additional problems and challenges that don’t apply to giving out cash.
Giving out livestock brings the same problems and challenges as giving out cash
We’ve written before about the idea of cash transfers. One potential problem with giving out cash is that the more powerful people in a community may end up dominating (monopolizing?) the benefits. Giving out truly valuable gifts could interfere with power dynamics, incite jealousy, and fail to reach those that donors actually intend to help.
It seems to me that all of these concerns apply in full force to gifts of livestock. I doubt there are many people in the world who would turn down a free cow (I’m not sure I would). Even if one has no ability to take care of the cow, there is always the option of selling it (if one has access to markets) or simply slaughtering it and eating or selling the meat.
I couldn’t feel confident in a charity giving out livestock unless I saw compelling evidence that they were getting livestock to people in need, and not just to anyone (or just to the most powerful people) interested in free livestock.
Giving out livestock brings other problems and challenges as well
- Are the livestock in good health? Will they meet recipients’ expectations, or will they die or underproduce, potentially causing people to make bad plans and investments?
- Do the recipients of livestock gifts have the ability, in terms of knowledge and resources, to take care of the livestock well? (Similar problems as in the above bullet point could arise if they don’t.)
- Do the recipients of livestock intend to take care of the livestock well? Or is there reason to be concerned that gifts of livestock could lead to cruelty to animals?
- Are there other unforeseen consequences of introducing large numbers of livestock into a community? A few years ago, there were some allegations that “over grazing by goats in arid environments has disastrous effects on the fertility of the land … these ‘gifts’ merely add to the problems of hard-pressed communities because of the drain on limited resources the animal represents.” I haven’t been able to find any facts behind these allegations and I’m not sure what they’re based on.
- Most importantly, might recipients benefit more from other gifts – and why shouldn’t they make that assessment themselves? Perhaps the story Heifer International tells is correct, and livestock would make a tremendous difference for a family. If that’s the case, then a cash gift could be expected to be spent on livestock. If one of the many concerns above applies – or livestock is not what’s most helpful for any number of reasons we simply haven’t thought of – then a cash gift will be used on something else.
Why is it better for a charity to decide people’s needs for them? This question isn’t entirely rhetorical – there could be a good reason – but it seems that the burden of proof on a statement like “A cow is better for you than anything else you could buy with what the cow costs” should be on the charity.
I have trouble understanding the idea of livestock gifts, from the perspective of maximizing positive impact.
I understand that they make a good ad campaign, possibly because they draw people’s attention to the possibility of using a one-time gift to permanently escape from poverty (even though a cash gift can just as easily lead to a story like this, and could also lead to a lot of other positive stories that we simply haven’t considered).
It’s a scary thought, but it seems possible to me that these programs exist entirely because of how they can be marketed to donors, instead of for any reasons relating to maximizing good accomplished. What am I missing?