The GiveWell Blog

By default, assume aid projects aren’t reaching the poorest

If you don’t have evidence one way or the other, should you assume an aid’s projects benefits are reaching the poorest?

We think it’s fair to assume the people with the most need are the people with the least power. We’d also guess that, in general, the people with the most power are best positioned to get anything valuable (training, materials, loans, or whatever else) a charity is subsidizing.

There are ways a charity can get around this dynamic, such as:

  • Working in an area where everyone is in need. We believe that such areas exist, but just because an area has low average incomes, high disease rates, etc. doesn’t mean it has no relatively privileged and powerful members.
  • Running programs that are only appealing to those in need. Some health programs work this way (it’s hard to be treated for tuberculosis unless you have tuberculosis). Microfinance may work this way when interest rates are competitive with (not highly subsidized relative to) alternative sources of credit.
  • Carefully targeting those in need. We should expect this to be very difficult. Charity is inherently about coming into a community from the outside; targeting those in need will generally mean trying to outmaneuver at least some locals. The more locals genuinely share the charity’s mission, the better, but how is the charity to know which it’s dealing with?

Unfortunately (as usual), there isn’t much information out there about how often charities actually succeed in targeting those in need. In conducting our grant application process, we’ve found that systematic assessment of this question is relatively rare. But there is certainly room for concern, as shown by a World Bank review that we’ve quoted before:

The frequent tendency for participatory projects to be dominated if not captured by local elites is highlighted by several case studies. Katz and Sara (1997), in a global review of water projects, find numerous cases of project benefits being appropriated by community leaders and little attempt to include households at any stage … even well trained staff are not always effective in overcoming entrenched norms of exclusion. In a study of community forestry projects in India and Nepal that worked reasonably well, Agarwal (2001) reports that women were systematically excluded from the participatory process because of their weak bargaining power. Rao and Ibanez (2003) find that in the participatory projects in their Jamaican case study, wealthier and better networked individuals dominated decision making. In a similar case-based evaluation of social funds in Jamaica, Malawi, Nicaragua, and Zambia, the World Bank (2002) Operations Evaluation Department concludes that the process was dominated by “prime movers.”

Abraham and Platteau (2004) present evidence on community participation processes in Sub-Saharan Africa based largely on anecdotal evidence from their work in community-based development and on secondary sources. They argue that rural African communities are often dominated by dictatorial leaders who can shape the participation process to benefit themselves because of the poor flow of information. (40-41)


  • James Edward Dillard on December 3, 2009 at 12:25 pm said:

    Kind of an open ended question here:

    How much would you prefer a non-profit to target the poorest of the poor, even if it’s at the expense of an effective program?

    My guess is that in terms of impact per dollar you’ll actually get more when you’re targeting people that aren’t the poorest of the poor, especially if your goal is to make an intervention and then graduate them quickly to a higher standard of living.

    Do you have any thoughts?

  • James, I think this is an excellent point and one that we may be elaborating on in a future post.

    Charities are often reluctant to disclose that they serve anyone but the poorest, and the data we get is often in difficult-to-interpret terms (PPP-adjusted dollar income) rather than in standard-of-living terms. So, it’s difficult to figure out where the line is between “Not the poorest, but still in need” and “Not the right people to be benefiting with your donation.” However, I would not be optimistic about the good accomplished by getting cash to the wealthiest and most powerful people in an area, even a very poor area.

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