The Next Big Thing in Foreign Aid

The Next Big Thing in Foreign Aid

Cash transfers let people choose what they want to spend money on, like these buffalo. Other purchases could be anything from farm machinery to food. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/futura/3087912082/">andrew chang (flickr)</a>
Cash transfers let people choose what they want to spend money on, like these buffalo. Other purchases could be anything from farm machinery to food. Photo: andrew chang (flickr)

When people donate to charity, they don’t usually expect their money to go straight into the pocket of a needy person half a world away. But giving money directly to the poor is becoming a global trend. It's called a cash transfer and it's much more than a handout.

In principle, a cash transfer is a handout. There are usually limitations on what a recipient can spend it on — no alcohol or drugs, for instance — but the idea is that poor people know what they need more accurately than aid agencies, according to an article in The Guardian. Recipients are free to spend the money on what’s best for their families, which could include food, livestock or farm supplies.

The recipients also gain a bit of purchasing power, which they may never have had before. Being in charge of their own spending can teach people fiscal responsibility says Duncan Green, Head of Research for Oxfam Great Britain. It can also improve their self-esteem. On his blog, he writes that “cash transfers can be a good way to support and empower people.”

But can the system work? In 2006, Oxfam handed out about three months worth of wages to a group of Vietnamese farmers. They studied the results periodically over three years and their figures show that the poverty rate in that area fell from about 65 percent to about 40 percent. Among other things, Green says that the Oxfam team saw “improved community infrastructure, new opportunities for the youth and unemployed, increased community/social activities, [and] increased female participation” in community activities.

Though there are concerns that cash could do more harm than good, The Guardian notes that 45 countries have some sort of cash transfer system in place. And The Boston Globe points out that Brazil and Mexico have been using cash transfer programs since the late 90s. As more and more countries follow suit, this growing acceptance could mean that the world is ready to revamp its aid strategy.

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