Cash and Markets in Development

This is from a story in Kenya’s Standard Newspaper:

Martin Wepukhulu is a small-holder farmer in Trans Nzoia County, popularly described as Kenya’s breadbasket. To produce a two-kilogramme tin of maize known as gorogoro here, he spends about Sh25 on land preparation, seeds and fertilisers on his one-acre farm.

Some 270 kilometre away in Turkana County, one of Kenya’s poorest counties, is Loseny Nguono, a goat keeper, with two wives and 13 children. Turkana is one of the 23 counties affected by drought which has left close to 4 million people in danger of starvation.

Loseny receives Sh8,000 after every two months from the national government through the national safety net programme. He is willing to pay Martin a decent Sh70 for his gorogoro of maize. Unfortunately, neither Martin nor Loseny will get his wish. A reclusive government, ruthless cartels, dilapidated roads and marauding bandits conspire to ensure that while Martin sells his cereals at a low of Sh40, Loseny buys it at a high of Sh150.

Read the whole thing here.

It is great that Loseny has cash; and that unconditional cash transfers for social protection are increasingly becoming a mainstream policy option (notice that the story doesn’t even acknowledge the awesomeness of this reality). But the other lesson that we can learn from the story is that in order to get Loseny out of poverty we need good roads, properly functioning markets, and security. All these are public goods that must be provided through collective action, above and beyond the improvements in Loseny’s private consumption.

More Evidence of The Effects of Unconditional Direct Cash Transfers

Haushofer and Shapiro have a really cool paper evaluating the impact of unconditional direct cash transfers to households in rural southwestern Kenya (Rarieda in Siaya County). The paper contains several great insights relevant for policy-makers on the promise of direct cash transfers. Here are some highlights:

[i] …… we find increases in holdings of home durables (notably metal roofs, ownership of which increased by 23 percentage points over a control group mean of 16 percent), and productive assets such as livestock, whose value increases by USD 85 over a control group mean of USD 167. These investments translate into higher revenues from agriculture, animal husbandry, and non-agricultural enterprises; monthly revenue from these sources increases by USD 17 relative to a control group mean of USD 49. Note, however, that this revenue increase is partially offset by an increase in flow expenses for agriculture, animal husbandry, and business (USD 13 relative to a control group mean of USD 24).

[ii] We find that indeed monthly transfer recipients are significantly less likely to invest in durables such as metal roofs than lump-sum transfer recipients, suggesting that households may be both credit- and savings-constrained. The fact that program participation required signing up for mobile money accounts, which are a low-cost savings technology (people could have chosen to accumulate their transfer – and even add other money – on their M-Pesa account), suggests that the savings constraint at work is more social or behavioral than purely due to lack of access to a savings technology.

[iii] …. contrary to previous literature and our expectation, we find no significant differences between transfers to men and transfers to women in expenditure decisions or any other outcomes.

Oh, and there is more…

… we find significant reductions in cortisol levels in several treatment arms: specifically, large transfers, transfers to women, and lump-sum transfers lead to significantly lower cortisol levels than small transfers, transfers to men, and monthly transfers. Some of these effects occur in the absence of differences in traditional outcome variables. Together, these results support a causal effect of poverty (alleviation) on (reductions in) stress levels. More broadly, they suggest that psychological well-being and cortisol can complement traditional welfare measures, and in some cases may in fact respond to interventions with greater sensitivity than these traditional measures.

Amazing stuff.

So what are some of the policy implications?

Direct cash transfers are not the panacea to underdevelopment. But these findings and others out there (see summary here) are evidence that we should seriously consider Martin Ravallion’s idea of raising the consumption floor of the poorest of the poor in developing countries through direct policy intervention (e.g. through cash transfers).

Making direct cash transfers work for development will be predicated on taking the interventions out of the humanitarian/aid sphere, and integrating them into the national political economies of developing countries.

In my view, the need for a higher consumption floor will soon become politically salient due to rapid urbanization rates in many developing countries. Obviously, aid money alone will not be able to fully finance such a policy. More efficient public finance management in developing countries will be one way to fill the gap. Putting aside the overhyped storied budgetary leakages due to corruption, many developing countries still do not meet their annual budgeted expenditure goals due to lack of absorptive capacity, i.e. money simply never gets spent at the end of the fiscal year and is returned to the treasury.

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For instance, according to an internal Ugandan government report, between 2004-2010 an average of 3.4% of budgetary allocations to central government ministries, departments, and agencies returned to the treasury (this was net of corruption and other leakages). Note that the figure is most likely higher if you factor in local government expenditures. And as Figure 2 above shows, late disbursement is the norm, which makes budgeting within government agencies a nightmare. In addition, over the same period (2004-10), the proportion of the budget that was simply not released (as opposed to released and not absorbed) was a staggering 9.92%!

This is money that can go directly to citizens’ pockets. And we have the technology, thanks to M-Pesa, to effect the policy. Governments shouldn’t be allowed to handle more money than they have capacity to spend. Plus making legislative appropriation conditional on agency capacity could be a way to incentivize capacity building more than a million workshops and study tours could ever do.

Lastly, the idea of a consumption floor for the urban poor might not appeal to some higher income tax payers. But smart politicians should be able to remind these voters that there is only so much physical security that one can get from high fences topped with electrified razor wire.

Does female empowerment promote economic development?

The conventional interpretation of the observed gender expenditure patterns re- lies on women and men having different preferences.4 And indeed, if all women highly valued children’s human capital whereas all men just wanted to consume, putting women in charge of allocating resources would probably be a good idea. However, we show that the facts can also be explained without assuming that women and men have different preferences. We develop a model in which women and men value private and public goods (such as children’s human capital) in the same way, but that nevertheless is consistent with the empirical observation that an increase in female resources leads to more spending on children.

Our theory does not lead to clear-cut implications for economic development. In particular, we find that empowering women is likely to accelerate growth in advanced economies that rely mostly on human capital, but may actually hurt growth in economies where physical capital accumulation is the main engine of growth.

…… Given that the human capital share tends to in- crease in the course of development, our results imply that mandated transfers to women may be beneficial in advanced, human capital-intensive countries, but are unlikely to promote growth in less developed economies.

That is Doepke and Tertilt in an NBER working paper (HT Marc F. B.)

This paper reminded me of of the BIG vs Small Development dichotomy, and why we should not take cash transfers (despite recent glowing reviews) to be a panacea to poverty and underdevelopment. Cash transfers (whether targeting poor men or women) should be seen as short-term relief whose development impact are, at the very best, highly contingent and long-term (especially if the transfers are used to increase the quality of human capital through schooling for kids). I could be totally wrong, but I think that the promise for real and lasting rapid development lies in creation of mass employment. And on this front the shoots are beginning to show on the Continent.

I wish more development economists were thinking of ways of growing African SMEs into mass employers, even if it meant flirting with the idea of Industrial Policy.

More on direct cash transfers

As Chris Blattman put it, the Cashonistas are rejoicing. And with very good reason.

There is mounting evidence that giving money directly to poor people does a much better job of improving their welfare than traditional channels of institutional(ized) aid-giving. On a related note, this evidence lends credence to claims by proponents of oil-to-cash programs. Oil to cash enthusiasts advocate for direct payments to citizens of revenues from extractive sectors (and especially oil) so as to avoid what is commonly known as the resource curse (more on oil-to-cash here). I am not one to argue against evidence, so I am intrigued by the success of Give Directly, and look forward to further impact assessments to ascertain the stickiness of the observed welfare gains.

However, I agree with Brett Keller that we shouldn’t allow the present evidence to distract us from thinking about things like schools, hospitals, business-promoting state institutions, etc.

Despite the within-community evidence of positive effects of direct cash transfers, we shouldn’t forget that these communities do not exist in a vacuum but within political economies of various states. For instance, given what we know about ethnicity and attendant barriers against collective action, what would be the effect of giving all the money to the people and then requiring them to comply with tax regimes and other collective action endeavors?

Furthermore, giving poor people money is often based on an implicit premise that the poor ought to become entrepreneurs and lift themselves out of poverty (People respond to incentives, and we know what would happen if say we guaranteed them direct cash transfers in perpetuity. So the scheme only works if poor people can use the money to start businesses). But entrepreneurship is hard. Even for people with trust funds and super-charged business incubation resources. So is it really fair to require that the objectively most risk averse among us lift themselves out of poverty by starting businesses? Isn’t this the role of the middle and upper middle classes who can tolerate the risk? I am not saying that entrepreneurship is limited to particular classes (lots of people from humble backgrounds have created wildly successful businesses the world over). What I am saying is that as a matter of policy we shouldn’t unnecessarily burden the most vulnerable among us.

Also, to borrow from Huntington, we are well advised to keep in mind that even though economic success leads to stabilization, the process of development can be destabilizing. With this in mind, for most development initiatives to succeed, they need political cover (broadly defined as the ability to shape or influence government policy). Interventions to accelerate growth must never lose sight of this fact. Those who make and/or can influence policy matter a great deal.

This might sound very 20th century, but I think that the best anti-poverty measure out there is still mass job creation by BIG business (and agree with Chris Blattman here). It beats all the pro-poverty pro-poor interventions I can think of. So may be instead of raining cash on the poor it might be better to think of smart ways of jumpstarting the growth of SMEs in the developing world into mass employers. This is not a trickle down economics argument. It is an argument for the continued emphasis on macro reforms in the political economy to provide an enabling environment for mass job creation.

We can’t continue to insist that institutions matter but then turn around and do our best to device anti-poverty interventions that skirt the very same institutions that we insist are the fundamental cause of long-run growth.

Direct cash transfers might prove to be a key part of the shortcut to Denmark (and I hope the successes stick). But like with most shortcuts, the potential for disappointment is a little higher than most of us would like to admit.

On direct cash transfers: a look at US domestic politics of aid-giving

This is a guest post by my colleague at Stanford, Lauren Prather, who works on the determinants of individual attitudes towards inequality, poverty, and redistribution, in both domestic and international contexts.

Does the American public oppose giving cash to poor people in developing countries? Giving cash instead of in-kind aid like food is a hotly debated subject in development circles and has recently received increased attention from the media. The apparent success of GiveDirectly, a charity that gives unconditional cash transfers to poor people in Kenya, has added fresh fodder to the discussion. Even the Obama administration entered the fray earlier this year by proposing changes to the way U.S. food aid is distributed.

Traditionally, much of the food aid provided by the U.S. government is procured in the U.S. and shipped abroad. The reforms would relax these requirements and include more flexible approaches to food aid provision including possibly giving cash or vouchers to people in poor countries to help them buy food locally.

Proponents of cash transfers argue that the poor know their needs best and therefore giving cash is a more efficient way of providing aid. With food aid in particular, providing aid in kind can be more expensive and can damage local economies by driving out local farmers. Giving people cash on the other hand can allow them to buy food locally, which can be more cost-effective for donors and can actually support local agriculture.

What are the political constraints to reforming aid to include cash transfers to the poor? While most of the opposition to the food aid reforms has come from the farm lobby, public opinion may be another constraint. Indeed, research on American political attitudes suggests that Americans oppose giving cash to the poor, at least to poor Americans. But do Americans exhibit the same level of opposition to cash transfers targeting the foreign poor?

To shed light on this question, I used a randomized experiment embedded in a survey fielded in July of 2013 to a representative sample of 1,000 Americans. In the survey, I gave individuals a fictional news article that described a government hunger relief program. The news article contained two experimental treatments. In the first treatment, I randomly told half of the survey respondents that the program gave the poor cash, while the other half read that the poor were given food. The second treatment was randomized independently of the first treatment: half the respondents were told that the program helped Americans and the other half read that it helped people living in other countries. After reading the article, survey respondents were asked whether or not they thought the government should cut the program. 

ImageThe results were surprising. Among those who read about the foreign hunger relief program, the cash treatment had little effect: 45% of respondents thought officials should not cut the program giving food, while a similar 43% thought officials should not cut the cash program. For those that read about the domestic program, however, the results were more expected: 72% of respondents wanted to keep the food program, whereas only 58% wanted to keep the program that gave the poor cash.

Two important conclusions can be drawn from these results. First, policymakers shouldn’t necessarily look to how the public thinks about domestic welfare programs to predict how they would respond to similar foreign aid programs. Instead, it appears that support for foreign aid remains relatively low regardless of whether the aid is distributed in kind or in cash.

Second, advocates of giving cash to the poor in developing countries need not fear the public; at least not any more than is usual for foreign aid. In the eyes of the public, the real issue seems to be whether to give any foreign aid at all.