The case for upending humanitarian aid as we know it (and what I learned along the way)

food distribution

In the last few months, I sat on a blue chip panel debating how to make the humanitarian system work better. The report is out, and recommendation number one could not be more clear:

Give more unconditional cash transfers. The questions should always be asked: ‘why not cash?’ and ‘if not now, when?’.

As readers of the blog will know, I could not agree more. This is groundbreaking stuff for humanitarians. But I can’t bring myself to write another earnest post about cash transfers. You can see others make the case or read the report. It’s very good.

What interests me more are the insights into international aid that came from serving on the panel. A grab bag of impressions:

  • It’s amazing how often the US government came up as an obstacle to doing the right thing. Anti-terror legislation; financial regulation; the fact that giving cash to the poorest wasn’t as much in the interest of US lobbyists, no matter if cash worked or not. I know the US is not the only government with perverse incentives. If France was the biggest player surely we would have long discussed the vagaries of French politics. That said, other developed countries seem to have a more professional, more charitable aid regime. I wonder what it is about the US that its generosity is so self serving?
  • I won’t even get into how low an opinion people seemed to hold of the United Nations. If anyone can figure out how to take $10 to give a refugee $1, they will.
  • Evidence was extremely influential to the discussion, but little of that evidence overlapped with what economists have found persuasive. The recent randomized trials were seldom discussed, even though they point in the same direction–that almost nothing is as effective and cheap as cash. What was important, rather, was that lots of organizations had been experimenting informally with cash here and there for decades. The accumulation of these experiences mattered a great deal. Economists like to say that the plural of anecdote is not data, but that’s clearly not true when it comes to real innovation and organizational change. I don’t think we economists are right on this one.
  • It’s interesting to think that one logical extension of cash transfers to the poor and displaced is some sort of cross-border, universal social safety net. The interesting question is whether this increases or decreases incentives to flee an oppressive country, and what this does to incentives facing the oppressors. This strikes me as a good example of the kinds of international relations dissertations that are not being written.
  • I could not believe that busy, senior people—think CEOs of large non-profits—could attend overseas meetings with a couple of weeks notice. I had work and family commitments that kept me from joining half the discussions. I would’ve thought a CEO had more. But perhaps the nature of the job is fluid, and they have the seniority to reschedule whatever they like to do what they think is important. And maybe few had toddlers. (I prefer to believe these explanations over the equally plausible alternative: they were all consulted about the ideal dates in advance and I was the last to be told.)
  • A reporter asked me: Why now? Why didn’t this happen a decade ago, or two? I don’t have a good answer. Part of it could be the slow accumulation of evidence. Maybe the randomized trials pushed people over the edge. Maybe it’s technology like ATM cards and mobile money. Maybe crises like that in Syria are so big and so poorly suited to handing out food instead of cash, the world is being forced to think hard about cash for the first time. I think it has most to do with the aid world finally feeling accountable not just for measurable impact, but at a reasonable cost.

I am curious if people have other answers to some of these questions.