Did you get a chance to listen to or read the NPR story about fixing poverty? It was eye opening for me, and I keep thinking about it.

The title is: How To Fix Poverty: Why Not Just Give People Money? Here’s a paragraph from the article that will give you the basic idea of what it’s about:

Today practically all aid is given as “in-kind” donations — whether that’s food, an asset like a cow, job training or schoolbooks. And this means that, in effect, it’s the providers of aid — governments, donor organizations, even private individuals donating to a charity — who decide what poor people need most. But what if you just gave poor people cash with no strings attached? Let them decide how best to use it?

According to the piece at NPR, this kind of direct giving can be hugely beneficial.

Like you, I’m intensely interested in seeing poverty disappear. I remember getting goosebumps while watching Bono’s TED talk and hearing the predicted dates of when extreme poverty will be eradicated. Sometimes it feels like so many people are working toward this goal and it’s amazing.

Like you, I’ve supported what seems like a thousand buy-one-give-one companies (glasses, socks, meals, shoes, laptops, school supplies), and I feel no regret about that. I’ve spread the word, or supported kickstarters, about innovative products designed to improve the lives of people who are in poverty — devices that help find water or that clean water, devices that help generate electricity or harness solar energy — and I’d gladly do it again. I’ve bought scarves and jewelry and bags that help provide income — and I will continue to do so.

That said, if I’m honest, I much prefer the ideas presented in the radio program. If you want to help, give money instead of stuff, and let the people in need decide the best way to spend it.

It reminds me of a Q&A I was lucky to take part in, with women in a small village in rural Ethiopia. Before the Q&A, we were given a tour of the village and shown the evidence of assistance programs that were working. It was inspiring. And during the Q&A I had a lightbulb moment. I asked (through translators) what the biggest challenge these women faced. Their answer? At night, when they were sleeping, people kept trying to steel their goats.

Stolen goats?! I was so surprised to hear that was their biggest challenge. It was a problem I wouldn’t have known existed, even if I had hung out in the village for days. And it was a life-changing reminder that an outsider can never know how to help as much as a community member does.

What are your thoughts on this? When helping others, would you prefer using your funds to buy people products or services? Or would you be okay giving them the money directly and letting the recipients decide how to spend it? When people are in the giving position, I know the instinct is to prevent money from being wasted. We wonder: Will the recipient use it to buy drugs? Will they gamble it away? Will their spouse steal it from them? And it sometimes feels “safer” to do the spending for them and give them products instead of cash. But is it more helpful?

Do you think our giving efforts could ever switch to mostly giving people money? It seems like non-profit administrative costs could almost be eliminated if we switched. In my head the whole idea seems much more efficient, with potential to be much more effective. What do you think?


Credits: Photos by Karen Walrond for ONE.org, from my trip to Ethiopia.