Aid Watch raises an interesting question: why should nonprofits provide medical treatment, education, or anything else other than cash handouts to those in the greatest need?
I can only think of two reasons, both noted in the Aid Watch post.
Reason 1: perhaps charities can make better decisions on behalf of disadvantaged people than those people can make for themselves. It’s certainly possible – disadvantaged people may often be poorly informed or educated. Still, if this is the primary justification for a charity’s activities, doesn’t it seem like the burden of proof should be on the charity?
A standard evaluation of a program compares “participating in the program” to “not participating in the program.” Isn’t that too low of a bar? Year Up spends about $20,000 for every person receiving employment services. Wouldn’t an ideal test of Year Up be to hold a lottery where “winners” receive Year Up services and “losers” receive $20,000 each?
(As a side note, such an evaluation ought to see less attrition – if cash payouts are dependent on participation – and face fewer ethical objections as well.)
Reason 2: cash transfers would become a huge target for cheating. (I include the concern that “this approach puts women and children at a disadvantage, while men take and spend the cash” in this broad category – i.e., money failing to get to the people it is intended to benefit.) This is also a valid concern, but it does not apply only to cash transfers.
PeopleAid gives rickshaws to people in the developing world. Who in the area wouldn’t like to pick up and sell a free rickshaw? The same concern applies, in varying degrees, to a host of other goods provided by charities, including drugs, bednets, cellphones, spectacles, fertilizer, and credit. (Who wouldn’t want a loan with a below-market, donor-subsidized interest rate that could then be re-loaned for a profit?)
The more a charity’s goods/services are transferable, the more of a concern it becomes that anyone who can get their hands on one will want to … which, in turn, may mean that the people who benefit most from the charity’s services could be the ones with the greatest power, rather than the greatest need. If a charity is giving out transferable items – including loans – for free or at donor-subsidized prices, it’s essential to know how they control who has access to them.
The promise of cash transfers
These two concerns noted, giving out cash to low-income people does strike me as a potentially promising approach. If it could be done effectively and on a large scale – giving many disadvantaged people the funds to meet their own needs – then many other humanitarian organizations could get more of their funding from their clients, and less from their donors. Which would you bet on to get water to people in Kenya: an organization funded by wealthy Americans (motivated by guilt and the wish to display generosity, among other things), or an organization funded by Kenyan customers (motivated by a need for water)?
Why do cash handouts seem to be so rare in the charity world? Perhaps it’s because extensive experience and study have shown this approach to be inferior to others. Or perhaps it has more to do with the fact that giving out cash fundamentally puts the people, rather than the charity, in control.