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Should we just give money to the poor?

Should we just give money to the poor?

Have you ever been around a development program that was gradually getting more and more complicated? Maybe something that started out helping to improve education had become a program filled with underused administrators and layers of reporting and bureaucracy that never trickled down to benefit the students?

Just Give Money to the Poor by Joseph Hanlon, Armando Barrientos, and David Hulme, suggests a much simpler method of reducing poverty. How about we skip the complex programs and just transfer money directly to the poorest in our country? Already there are around 45 countries that have cash transfer programs, including South Africa, Malawi, China, Bolivia, and Mexico, and they become the basis for the argument in this book.

However, setting up and running a cash transfer program isn’t as easy as “driving through the countryside throwing $10 bills or 10 peso notes out of a car window” (p. 11). And as the protagonists in Dave Eggers’ novel You Shall Know Our Velocity quickly find out as they set out to do just that, questions soon arise: What’s the point of the money, what’s expected of the recipients, and who is most deserving of the money?

Just Give systematically discusses similar questions, using examples from already established cash transfer programs in the “Global South,” which can take many different forms depending on the local context and the current political and economic situation. Perhaps the two most important points to consider when designing a cash transfer program are: who are the beneficiaries and what are the goals of the program. Aims for such programs can range from development and economic growth, to social security, to rights and equality (including access to food and education) within the society (p. 47-48).

Deserving vs Undeserving

The longevity of a program depends not just on continued finances (most often from taxes and some external funding) but also the popularity of the program among the general population, and this is where the notion of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor comes into the decision-making process.

For example, in Malawi, elites blamed the poor for their poverty and worried about cash transfers leading to dependency and lack of will on the part of the poor to change their situation, and so their cash transfer program takes the form of a fertilizer subsidy, targeting “only the labor-constrained ultra-poor” (p.168). In Brazil, where only 1% of the elites interviewed blamed the poor for their poverty, cash transfers are much more widespread and politically popular.

Perhaps the largest populations that are exempt from the “undeserving” label, and hence the most common cash transfer recipients, are the elderly and children. These populations of beneficiaries have the added benefit of being relatively simple populations to define and target; people know who the elderly are and all people will hopefully fall in both categories in their lifetime (p. 92). In the future, programs to provide national identity cards and innovations in biometrics and identification technology may help make more kinds of populations easier to define and segment.


Once there is a program in place, how can its effectiveness be evaluated? Unfortunately, as with all evaluation, it is not a straightforward endeavour. Some indicators of impact might be measuring the amount and quality of food consumed, local investment and entrepreneurship, and school attendance.

Ultimately, the authors seemed to deem a program successful if it reached the intended population and remained politically popular. Further research (or perhaps it’s already out there) might compare the impact of cash grants to low-interest loans or other financial development programs.

In the end, I’d recommend reading Egan’s You Shall Know Our Velocity side-by-side with this book, to bring alive the debates about benefits and challenges of just giving money to the poor. I’d also like to see a discussion comparing Just Give Money and David Roodman’s Due Diligence on the topic of micro-finance versus cash transfer programs.

On the other hand, if you have the opportunity of working with a government to implement a cash transfer program, this book alone will provide useful examples of other successful and not-so-successful programs already in action around the world.

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Tanya Cothran is the Executive Administrator at Spirit in Action, an international micro-grant organisation working in East Africa. Trained as a librarian, she finds satisfaction in tracking down bits of information. Tanya is working on a book of essays, "Smart Risks: How small grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems," with 23 other international development professionals. She holds a B.A. in Geography from UC-Berkeley and a Master's of Library and Information Science from St. Catherine's University, and she lives in Toronto.

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3 thoughts on “Should we just give money to the poor?

  1. my name is khalid sanam my big poor family i am not afford to my family yor are help me
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  2. […] Should we just give money to the poor? Tanya Cohran poses the question in her post on WhyDev. […]

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