Thursday, October 31, 2013

No Strings Attached

I'm beginning to suspect that giving money away is harder than it sounds.

It all started with this NPR piece in August on an organization called Give Directly. This organization has the sexy premise of giving money to Poor People in Africa. That's it. Just giving money away. Gifts range on average around $300, although NPR's piece focuses on $1000.

A few days ago, I came across this article in the Economist, which evaluated the program. I don't have time to recap the whole thing in detail, but in a nutshell - the design of the study was done well (those of my evaluator friends will find that most interesting) and the findings were that - guess what? Poor people in Africa don't all immediately run out and spend their money on banana wine and hookers.

In development speak, we call these Unconditional Cash Tranfers (UCT). A few years ago, Conditional Cash Tranfers (CCTs) were really popular. That is, you give someone money but they have to do something, such as agree to send their girls to school, etc. These are widely popular as incentive programs (and also popular with economists).

Unconditional Cash Transfers kind of go against the grain of development work because most of us are beholden to donors (and taxpayers) that want Accountability, and to some extent, the Good Glow effect. That is, they want to know how and where their money was used so they can  justify to Congress where the money went; or as individuals, feel good about doing something nice for someone.

Makes sense, right? Why would you give something away without knowing how it is used? I mean, what if those resources get misused? (Like spend on - gasp - Overhead? Or banana wine and hookers?)

All of this talk of 'Unconditional Cash Transfers" got me thinking about giving away money, why and how we do it. The more I think about it, the more caught up I am in the term "unconditional". Is anything really unconditional? Think about it, even when you give money to a charitable organization in the United States, aren't you expecting something back (say, at the very minimum, a tax break)?

Giving something away unconditionally (otherwise known as "giving something for nothing") is harder than it sounds. No expectations. No returns on investment. No judgement. And, if you don't know how they spent or used it, then there's not even the warm fuzzy of knowing unequivocally that you did a Good Thing. Looking more closely, being able to give something unconditionally means you set aside your expectations and even your own Good Glow. Giving unconditionally means that you give simply because it is right, or because you are able, because you feel compelled.

And for no other reason.

I'm not arguing against accountability. Far from it. What I'm saying is that when you do something nice for someone - you want that little ego boost of seeing it be used - and used in a manner that falls in line with your values. But it's human nature to want to tie strings to something we give - whether it be operational or emotional. So, while I'm not against Unconditional Cash Transfers, I'm asking: does that really exist?

No comments: