Since our recommendation of GiveDirectly last year, we’ve seen a fair amount of pushback and skepticism. We’ve recently been speaking with donors who have supported our other top charities – and not GiveDirectly – to get a better sense of what their reservations are.
This post lays out what we see as the most common objections people have expressed to our recommendation of GiveDirectly, and our responses to such objections. Most of our responses have already been written up previously, so to a large extent this post simply attempts to consolidate them.
At this point, we feel that we have put substantial effort into understanding and responding to people’s reservations about cash transfers, and after considering all objections we fully stand behind our ranking of GiveDirectly. We encourage those who continue to disagree with us to comment on this post, highlighting which objections they find most important (including any we may have missed) and laying out what they see as weaknesses in our responses.
- Objection 1: the case for cash relies on intuition, while the case for bednets and deworming relies on rigorous research. We disagree with this, and have written that the evidence bases for cash transfers and deworming are comparable.
- Objection 2: the studies used to support the case for cash transfers aren’t applicable to the case of GiveDirectly. For example, key studies were of conditional cash transfers, while GiveDirectly makes unconditional cash transfers. We acknowledge this concern but believe that it does not apply to cash transfers any more than to deworming. In both cases (and to a lesser degree in the case of bednets), there are important differences between the programs that were studied and the programs that are being carried out today, but there are also important reasons not to dismiss the studies that are available. More at the same post linked above: Evidence of Impact for Long-term Benefits.
- Objection 3: it’s intuitively implausible that $1000 in cash for a single family (much of which is often spent on a metal roof) can do as much good as, say, 200 distributed bednets or 2000 deworming treatments. We believe that a closer study of the evidence behind all three interventions makes the case much more plausible. While we do believe bednets and deworming have strong evidence behind them, the evidence points to very small per-person effects that add up to a lot only when looked at across a large population. (We aren’t confident that deworming’s benefits are non-negligible.) Our cost-effectiveness comparisons imply that bednets and deworming are around 2-5x more cost-effective than cash, which isn’t a large multiplier: if deworming cost $2.50 instead of $0.50, or if bednets cost $25 each, we believe the calculation would weigh in favor of cash transfers (though we would guess that the same intuitive arguments would be voiced).
- Objection 4: GiveWell concedes that cash transfers are 2-5x less cost-effective (in terms of “good accomplished per dollar”) than bednets and deworming; therefore, there would need to be overwhelming considerations on other factors (such as “upside” and “learning opportunities”) to justify giving to GiveDirectly instead. Broadly speaking, we think this objection overstates the reliability, and importance, of (a) abstract estimates of how much good an intervention does relative to (b) confidence in the organization and people behind implementation. Aside from the very real considerations of “upside” and “learning opportunities” (discussed briefly here), we think that the details of implementation matter greatly, and we don’t believe it’s wise to be confident in or dismissive of such details when one has little window into them. For more, see
- Our writeup on cost-effectiveness comparisons for bednets, cash transfers, and deworming, which not only gives the bottom-line numbers but discusses the limitations to such numbers, and why they shouldn’t be taken too literally.
- Elie’s post on concerns with the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative as an organization.
- Our charity updates for Against Malaria Foundation and GiveDirectly as compared to our charity updates for Schistosomiasis Control Initiative; we believe the first two sets provide substantially stronger windows into the details of implementation.
- Objection 5: giving out cash has more potential to do harm than bednet distribution or deworming programs. We broadly agree with this claim, but we also think that bednets and deworming each have higher probabilities of having negligible positive impact. Because bednets and deworming are very specific solutions to very specific problems, they’re less likely to empower people to do self-damaging things, but also more likely to turn out to be unhelpful if the details of the scenario are different from what our analysis suggests. (To give some specific examples: bednets may be ineffective in areas of high insecticide resistance, and deworming ultimately may have negligible impact overall.) In addition, large-scale government cash transfer programs are widespread and largely well regarded, implying that the scope of any harms that have emerged is limited. More to the point, the evidence we’ve reviewed is designed to capture average total impacts (positive and negative), and (as stated above) we believe that the evidence suggests a positive net impact for cash transfers that is of the same ballpark magnitude as the positive net impacts of bednets and deworming. We also don’t find the specific concerns that have been raised about cash transfers to be highly compelling, especially when juxtaposed with the data from GiveDirectly’s followup surveys.
- Objection 6: cash transfers have worked poorly, or would work poorly, for the U.S. poor; therefore they are not a promising approach for the developing-world poor. We disagree with this objection and addressed it at length in a previous post, The Case for Cash.
- Objection 7: cash transfers are inferior to loans, because loans are more leveraged (the money lent is repaid and can be lent again) and because loans encourage productive investment. We discussed these issues in a post entitled Cash Transfers vs. Microloans.
A final objection to our recommendation of GiveDirectly is along the lines of, “Even if GiveDirectly has important advantages relative to other groups you’ve looked at, it just doesn’t pass the smell test that giving money directly to the poor is the 2nd-best way to help them. It seems like an overly simple solution; there must be something (other than bednets) that’s better.”
In some sense we agree with this: we believe there is probably some giving opportunity out there that beats all of our current top charities, and we’re looking actively for it via GiveWell Labs. Given the information we have and the approach we’ve taken today, however – looking for interventions that have strong evidence behind them and concrete room for more funding (taking into account that some of the best-proven interventions have already attracted the funding needed for straightforward rollouts) – we think it’s fairly clear that GiveDirectly’s work makes the short list.
We’ve frankly been puzzled by the amount of pushback we’ve received on GiveDirectly, relative to SCI, since the evidence on deworming looks no better than the evidence on cash transfers and since we’ve voiced what we see as more serious concerns about SCI. We’ve seen a level of skepticism applied to evidence on cash transfers that we haven’t seen applied to anything else we’ve written – which is largely a good thing (we want skepticism applied to our work), but also raises the question of whether there are deeper-seated, more intuitive objections to GiveDirectly than what’s been explicitly voiced. One guess we’ve made is that to many, what’s exciting about GiveWell is the idea of using extraordinary analysis to produce extraordinary results. People expect “the best option of all” to look more like “saving lives for absurdly low amounts of money” than like “getting money directly to the poor and letting them spend it as they will.”
Our response to this line of thinking is that the challenges of analyzing and solving problems half a world away, at scale, are real and significant – not so significant that we should drop all attempts to do better than cash transfers, but significant enough that we shouldn’t assume we’ll see much better options than cash transfers either. Having looked far and wide for underfunded yet evidence-backed interventions, we’ve concluded that having a high enough level of technocratic knowledge to do “better than cash” isn’t impossible, but it’s extremely difficult. The bar is high, and we’ve only found one charity that (not overwhelmingly) clears it. And to us, doing extraordinary analysis means being willing to embrace that result, as many less informed donors (who end up taking charities’ bold claims at face value) will not.
With that said, we also don’t think cash transfers should be seen as either an “easy” or an “unexciting” intervention. The difference between wealthy developed-world citizens and the world’s poorest people is massive, and I find it continually stunning how high a percentage of someone’s income I can provide by giving a small percentage of my own. To me, being able to send my dollars directly to the world’s poorest people, living half a world away – with only ~10% diverted to costs along the way – is an astonishing opportunity.