Are researchers scared of bursting the unconditional cash transfers bubble?

This is from Berk Ozler over at Development Impact (which you should all be reading religiously, btw):

……. An increasing number of studies show short-term effects of cash transfers dissipating over time, at varying speeds of decay. But, more on that below… What did surprise me is that I had to read the transcript of the interview to find out about this new finding (no working paper yet, it seems, but here is an abstract). No one was tweeting about the massive four-year effects disappearing: remember that women almost doubled their income compared to the control group five years earlier. It’s not news that these effects are gone?

We are all guilty. If the quote had been about the durability of the effects of cash transfers – even at half of the short- and medium-term levels – many of my tweeps would be shouting it from the rooftops. Why? Because, we disseminate evidence that reinforces our view of the world, but choose to ignore or rationalize away stuff that does not. That may help to keep oneself sane these days, but a good public academic it does not make. Most of us think we’re better than that but we are fooling ourselves. Yes, many of you will politely retweet one of my posts about this or that hype about cash transfers, but deep down you know what you think: unconditional cash transfers are great and there is not a thing any researcher can do about it…

Even in the most favorable interpretation of these new findings, however, the fact remains that there is no treatment effect of cash transfers on beneficiary households other than a sizeable increase in non-land assets, which are held mostly in improved roofs and livestock. This new paper and Blattman’s (forthcoming) work mentioned above join a growing list of papers finding short-term impacts of unconditional cash transfers that fade away over time: Hicks et al. (2017), Brudevold et al. (2017), Baird et al. (2018, supplemental online materials). In fact, the final slide in Hicks et al. states: “Cash effects dissipate quickly, similar to Brudevold et al. (2017), but different to Blattman et al. (2014).” If only they were presenting a couple of months later…

Cash transfers do have a lot of beneficial effects – depending on the target group, accompanying interventions, and various design parameters, but that discussion is for my next post…

Quick thoughts:

  1. Give Directly and the research agenda around their interventions have been great for showing the many ways in which targeted welfare provision can be structured to increase levels of household consumption and investment. I am curious to see the economic impact of their UBI project being rolled out in Kenya. Also, I don’t think that they would deliberately under-publicize unfavorable research findings — see here. Looking forward to the full range of research findings from their previous interventions.
  2. In addition to increasing household consumption (direct cash), we should also be thinking about ways to improve the provision of public goods and services — perhaps by doing the two together.

The other implication here (attributable to Justin Sandefur) is that may be cash transfers would work if they were part of a permanent welfare system.

But are the Malawis of this world (fiscally and politically) really ready for this? Should Malawian policymakers instead be spending their precious time worrying about agricultural productivity and getting their jobless youth into factory work?

All to say that more research is needed on cash transfers, especially with a focus on the political economy implications of such policy proposals and in conjunction with some public goods component.

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.

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 10.21.20 PM

Click on image to enlarge

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.

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.