The GiveWell Blog

Gifts of livestock (e.g., Heifer International)

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.

Bottom line

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?


  • Rob Fuller on December 27, 2009 at 6:38 pm said:

    I can think of another reason to be concerned: what are the economic impacts on the wider community from these livestock donations? If large numbers of livestock are given away in a community, then perhaps that will drive down the market price for these animals – so reducing the value of the livestock already owned by everyone else in the area. And where are the animals purchased? If they are bought locally, then maybe the program will instead drive the market price up… which will make it harder for other people to buy meat and to invest in livestock.

    Of course, whether these are significant problems depends on the specifics of the program design, and how intensely the livestock distributions are made (how many beneficiaries per community, and over what time period). The Heifer website is not particularly informative in that respect.

  • Ian Turner on December 27, 2009 at 9:31 pm said:

    Rob, Heifer at least buys livestock in-country, which is pretty much guaranteed to distort market prices. Given the extremely high transport costs in Africa generally, I’m guessing that the effect is to raise prices in one region (perhaps in cities) and to lower them elsewhere.

  • Two quick thoughts in defense of livestock programs:

    1)I once backstopped a project that procured livestock, and our tender for the animals was very very detailed about their state of health. I remember the sheep had to be either pregnant or capable of breeding, and free of any sickness, injury, or damage even if it didn’t affect the sheep’s ability to breed.

    2) In patriarchal cultures, women may be able to receive a gift of livestock when they would not be permitted by their husbands to accept cash.

  • Harry Greenwell on December 28, 2009 at 12:30 am said:

    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.

    Scary perhaps, but surely not surprising? This seems entirely natural behaviour by organisations like Heifer as long as they believe that:
    (a) some/most of the additional donor funds through livestock donations would not have been raised but for this campaign; and
    (b) livestock gifts will do more good than harm (ie, better than the status quo).

    Although both these claims are contestable, I think they could well have some instinctive appeal for some donor organisations.

  • michael vassar on December 28, 2009 at 3:25 am said:

    Existence supported by pure marketability doesn’t seem like a scary thought, but rather like what I expect, in the business, government, non-profit and intellectual spheres.

  • Thanks for the comments, all. Alanna, in response to your points:

    • I would guess that many livestock gifting programs take great care to avoid the various problems I mentioned. My point in raising these concerns isn’t that they are always problems, but that they are additional challenges that don’t seem to accompany giving out cash.
    • This is an interesting possible justification for livestock gifts, and one that we haven’t gotten from Heifer. Do you have any sense for how common this situation is? It’s my understanding that livestock are often a primary store of value and sign of wealth, so I would imagine that the same norms governing money often govern livestock, but of course I would also expect a great deal of variation between communities.
  • The program I was referring to was in Iraq, and it did seem to be genuinely true that having a woman earn a sheep my attending classes was acceptable in a way cash would not be. There was an implication of prostitution in a cash transfer not present with livestock.

  • Interesting. Thanks.

  • My problem with the Heifer model is that it doesn’t seem to make economic sense at a high level.

    I admit I am not an expert (to put it mildly) in third world animal husbandry or land rights, but…

    If a family in some poor rural area doesn’t have a cow or goat or whatever, it is probably due less to a shortage of animals than a shortage of land.

    i.e. A cow is not a milk producing machine that you stick in your basement and go get your daily milk from. Rather, a cow needs land (or grain and such harvested from land). Given an adequate amount of land, it is easy to make more cows (start with one cow, add a bull, and soon you will have more cows/bulls). It is not so easy to make more land.

    Yes, there may be instances where a family has land that is not being fully productive and adding a grazing animal may be a nice boost. But my guess is that the overall economic benefits of programs such as Heifer’s are rather more tenuous than the simple charity pitch would suggest.

  • Those reading this post may be interested in comments for this other post by someone apparently from Heifer, defending the organization:

    and in turn providing a link to this summary of an evaluation of Heifer:

    The summarized evaluation is positive. Unfortunately, this is only a summary and it appears that the full evaluation is not public.

  • Bruce Futcher on December 30, 2009 at 1:36 pm said:

    These seem important concerns. However, I sometimes go to scientific meetings with academic veterinarians (i.e., vets who teach at vet schools), and I have met several who work with Heifer and donate their time on trips to various countries. These vets were uniformly enthusiastic about Heifer Intl., and about the projects. So, a couple of points. First, Heifer is not just donating livestock; it is also donating expertise to go with the livestock. Second, people who are real experts in the field, and who have direct, first-hand knowledge of the work, are enthusiastic. Of course it would be nice to have objective evaluations of the programs, but the reactions of expert volunteers with direct involvement are fairly convincing to me.

  • Ian Turner on December 30, 2009 at 4:00 pm said:


    Enthusiasm is great, but not in and of itself to generate impact. For example, there are plenty of programs which fly doctors from the US over to developing countries in order for them to do work such as cleft palate surgeries or obstetric fistula repair.

    These charities generate a lot of enthusiasm by their participants (I know several personally), but universally fail when it comes to cost effectiveness. Flying people across the world, it turns out, is really expensive. Fistula and cleft palate charities are far more effective when the just hire local doctors.

    Frankly, that Heifer is engaging in this kind of behavior makes me doubt the effectiveness of their program more, not less.



  • Holden on January 5, 2010 at 7:04 pm said:

    The enthusiasm of veterinarians is encouraging on the “cruelty to animals” front. To be clear, I would guess that most programs make substantial efforts to deal with most of the challenges I raise. The argument of this post, though, is that livestock programs raise challenges that giving out cash does not, while still raising all the challenges that giving out cash raises.

    Alanna has given one good reason to prefer livestock gifts to cash gifts in some cases. I’d like to know how often this is a key factor in the design of livestock programs. (Heifer programs often seem to be working with families, in which case it seems that the concern Alanna raised would often not be a factor.)

  • What I hate about Heifer is that they were sending out fancy brochures every other month plus calling me for more and even more money sometime weekly some times daily. I called direct and told them I would not be donating AGAIN so they did stop calling, but even so they send a fancy brochure at least twice a year. I also think the head of the “paid staff” is paid too much, based on the income of the group. I can donate locally with much better and direct results…shame of Heifer, because its program does connect with donors.

  • My sister works as a doctor at a clinic in Kenya. Her impression of livestock donations is generally negative – as other posters have pointed out, land shortage is the issue. The only way that livestock donations could help is if there were underused potential grazing areas that livestock could exploit. Even if this were the case Heifer requires that recipients have enough land to support the donated animal, which means that in a best case scenario there is no net change in food production, in a worst case there is a negative change, and of course only the relatively well off people benefit.

    Chickens on the other hand are a different story.

  • Stephen Weinstein on September 9, 2012 at 11:22 am said:

    I believe that giving livestock is better than giving cash, because there is less potential for misuse.

    A cash gift can be used purposes that harm the recipient, such as alcohol, illegal narcotics, gambling, prostitution, etc. Although a charity may not be able to determine if livestock is the most beneficial possible use, buying livestock at least means that the money is spent on something that can be beneficial, and not on something that will definitely be harmful.

    Several years ago in New York, residents were told that if a person on the street asks another person for money to buy food, then the person with money should buy food and give the food to the person who made the request, but should not give the money directly to the requester, because of the risk that it might be spend on alcohol or narcotics. The same reasoning applies to Heifer’s activities.

  • Alexander on September 10, 2012 at 12:38 pm said:

    Stephen – thanks for the comment. Since people can quite easily sell livestock, we believe it has similar potential for misuse to cash. Additionally, there is little evidence that people in the developing world use cash transfers for disproportionately destructive ends, e.g. alcohol or drugs. (See here for a summary of the evidence.)

  • Jason Pratt on October 17, 2012 at 7:45 am said:

    I’ve been looking into Heifer International, and as of Oct 2012 I can comment on the concerns raised above as follows:

    1.) Yes, the donor illusion part of the marketing is annoying.

    2.) However, donors can also contribute directly to many particular projects around the world, receiving annual updates about the project. (No doubt those updates will feature requests for more donations, 😉 but the point is that it is possible to have an idea what specific communities are being helped and how.)

    3.) HI doesn’t just throw cows and goats out the windows of their cars as they pass by the area.

    3.1.) They show strong evidence of concern about viable ecosystems particular to the regions in which they are working (for example why breeding large rodents in an area of West Africa is actually a good idea), and study to create proper balances to avoid deforestation or other results harmful to the ability of an area to sustain both people and wildlife.

    3.2.) They show strong evidence of understanding the socio-cultural effects of providing livestock and non-biological gifts in an area, and work to balance these gifts as appropriate to the means of the person–so yes chickens or goats for people who don’t have room for a cow. Plus training in how to best care for the livestock. Or gifts of methane-derivative stoves (plus training) along with methane reclamation facilities (plus training). People are encouraged to donate (not merely sell) some of their own livestock to other people in the area in order to similarly help them. The underlying concept is to aid communities as a whole in becoming more economically viable and socially cooperative.

    4.) As mentioned in a previous comment, HI has a vested interest (partly due no doubt to its religious roots in the Church of the Brethren, an early German Baptist group) in helping empower women in the community, although with respect to the cultural mores of the area.

    HI not only received extremely strong evaluation reviews from Western Michigan University’s Evaluation Center, Michael Scriven (a leading researcher in evaluating social programs) who wrote the evaluation says that “[t]hese evaluations have helped develop a toolkit we will use to help build evaluation capacity in the field so that we can continue to monitor and measure Heifer’s contribution to impact, and to demonstrate to volunteers, staff and donors the value of the work.” (I haven’t been able to find a copy of his 2009 monograph on their five year study of HI, “The External Evaluation of Heifer International’s Efforts in twenty countries, A Five Year overview”, but I would be surprised if the results weren’t somehow incorporated in his 2009 book “Evaluating Social Programs and Problems”. The publishers did not make the book searchable however, so I can’t verify this yet.)

    HI’s summary of WMU’s five year study can be found here:

    Unless HI is simply borrowing the name of an expert in the field and forging results, they have in fact been objectively studied longterm by at least one professional evaluator and emerged with flying colors.

    HI’s page of links to various portions of their largescale planning and implementation strategies can be found here:

    Speaking from the perspective of a strategy gamer, it looks very similar to methods in simulations for growing healthy sustainable communities.

  • Alexander on October 23, 2012 at 2:14 pm said:

    Jason – thanks for the comment.

    I’d mainly refer to you the exchange between Holden and Joedy Isert of Heifer International in the comments of this blog post. As Holden points out, the full text of the University of Michigan evaluation is not public; Holden was able to read the Africa section, but only after a signing a nondisclosure agreement with Heifer International regarding its contents. Without a public evaluation that can be subject to thoughtful outside scrutiny, I think you’re giving the association with Michael Scriven substantially more weight than it deserves.

    More specifically, we don’t doubt that Heifer is offering training along with the livestock gifts that they offer and taking other measures to address the concerns above. But we wonder whether these measures are effective, and whether training plus livestock gifts are the most cost-effective ways to help people. In general, we tend to believe that aid recipients are better placed to make decisions for themselves about how to use money than outsiders are, and so we believe that those attempting to give anything other than money should have to tell a convincing story about why their preferred gift is better than cash. We have not seen such a story from Heifer.

  • Coryn Weigle on December 30, 2012 at 5:26 pm said:

    I have donated to HI, and have solicited others to do so. I read the comments about HI with interest, but there are several issues I have not seen mentioned.
    If a family receives an animal, beehive, plants, or a stove, and the father decides to sell it/them to use the money for purposes that won’t benefit the family, the family is much more likely to protest than if he diverts cash they haven’t see the use or benefit of yet.
    HI encourages the recipient to pass on the gift by giving another poor family the first offspring of the animal they are given. Giving on certainly can raise the self-esteem of the person who was so poor they had to accept charity, and can encourage others in the community to help their poorer neighbors (“well, if A, who was so poor they had to accept charity, can give away a calf/baby rabbit/chicken etc., then so can I/how can I look less generous!”). The person accepting the offspring may also pass the gift on in turn, so one gift directly helps several. The family giving away the first offspring knows the mother is likely to have more; now, imagine if you gave a family the cash equivalent, and asked them to pass on that entire amount within a year. I doubt it would happen.
    HI does not just give cows, goats, and other animals that need land or expensive grain. They give plants, efficient/safe/heathier stoves, bees, chickens, and rabbits (which can be kept in hutches, and fed on cheap, easily obtained, or leftover vegetable matter). Plus chickens, rabbets, etc. can be looked after by the children in a family, which allows even young children to contribute to the family well-fare without working outside the home. This not only raises the health and income of the family, and perhaps permits a child to go to school; it also teaches the children early that work is the way to a better life, and it is within their reach.
    Regarding the volunteer vets costing the charity money, I have several family, friends and acquaintances who volunteer overseas with different charities. Each is required to entirely cover their expenses for transportation (including airfare), food and lodging. My niece recently volunteered in Africa, and had to raise $5,000 to pay for the trip. This actually makes good sense for the charity. Not only did they get Kelly’s labor for free for 2 months, but all the people who helped her raise the money (including all the strangers who came in contact with her bake sale, yard sale, and other public fundraising efforts) learned a lot about her cause, and many will no doubt consider donating money directly to the charity in the future. One could argue that the charity could have spent the $5,000 much better if Kelly had just donated it – but they would have been lucky to get $100 from her as a straight donation. It was the trip that inspired the hard work she and others did to come up with the money, and to donate. She hasn’t stopped talking about it yet to anyone who will listen, continuing to inspire direct donations and possibly even similar trips by others, which of course will continue the cycle of benefiting the charity.
    The volunteer vets, like foreign doctors performing surgery on cleft palates, may also be able to pass on knowledge of medicine, treatments, techniques and tools that are more up-to-date than the locals have access to. And it is also possible that something a volunteer doctor or vet sees overseas may inspire a line of research or treatment that helps here at home. More than once medical treatment “advanced” past, and scorned, folk medicine and old wives tales, only to find that there was wisdom therein (I am specifically thinking of the many potions wise women dispensed, which then turned out to have sound reasons for working. Or consider leeches, which are being used by Western doctors again after being considered an old-fashioned, outmoded and even primitive treatment).
    Having mentioned doctors, perhaps I should disclose I also sponsor at least one operation a year for a cleft palate, through the Smile Train. I will continue to support it as well as HI. The objections raised to involvement of foreign vets/doctors or to a direct donation of livestock, plants or stoves do not seem valid to me.

    Coryn Weigle

  • Alexander on January 10, 2013 at 3:12 pm said:

    Coryn: thanks for the comments. I agree with you that it’s possible that in some cases animal gifts may provoke different reactions (with regards to re-sale or “passing on”) than cash transfers do, but I don’t think it’s clear which directions the differences would point. My general attitude is that cash transfers are likely to be more effectively used because the risk of giving someone something they don’t want is minimized.

    I’m not sure I follow the story you’re trying to tell about volunteering overseas or the connection to whether or not one should donate to livestock charities. I agree that it’s possible that paying to volunteer overseas is better for the world than spending the required funds on personal consumption, but I agree with the critics you point to who say that there are better ways to spend money to help others than funding trips by typical developed world individuals.

  • I have worked with Heifer Albania on a project together with Rotary International in the Zal Bastari region of Albania. Hiefer is a reliable organization and offers training to each and every person that receives the “gift”. They do an extensive assessment of the area where to implement a project with either livestock conducive to that area or agricultural helpand are very careful of the environmental impact of such projects creating sustainable lively hoods…which goes far beyond “charity”.
    In other words, they just don’t give a cow to give a cow.

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