Forget “Teach A Man To Fish” Just Give Him Cash

An American charity is getting ready to test an idea to end global poverty: give poor people cash. GiveDirectly has been doing this for a few years already but never on this scale. Later this month, the organization will start a pilot project that aims to give 6,000 Kenyans the equivalent of a month’s salary, every month, for a decade or more. No strings attached.

GiveDirectly has already received praise for its past cash initiatives. It has been able to demonstrate that when you simply give families money – and let them decide what to do with it – myriad benefits ensue: children’s health improves, school attendance goes up, and families tend to save and invest. (Some feared people would blow the money on beer but they don’t.)

We spoke to GiveDirectly’s co-founder Paul Niehaus, a Harvard-trained economist whom Foreign Policy named named one of its 100 Leading Global Thinkers. He says there are many traditional aid programs, like job skills training programs, that just don’t work. He believes that it is time to reevaluate the old development adage that if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.

“We’ve got to go back to people, now, and admit that we evaluated it and it turns out our fishing lessons aren’t very good,” he says. “Frankly, there is so much stuff that we spend billions of dollars on every year right now, that we already know doesn’t work.” Niehaus says replacing those programs with cash transfers would be a “huge win”.

We discuss the sustainability of handing out cash to the poor, why Niehaus chooses to alleviate poverty abroad rather than in the US, and the role of humility in development work.


Foreign Affairs, To Help the Poor Give Them Cash

Stanford Social Innovation Review Give Directly? Not So Fast.

Details of GiveDirectly’s basic income pilot

GiveDirectly’s blog about refusals of cash in Kenya

Business Insider: A revolutionary experiment in giving 6,000 people free money may face a surprising challenge

Niehaus on Twitter


1 Comment

  1. Daniel Zeidan

    And how does giving cash directly, no strings attached, not generate dependency? How can external (from America no less…) and unconditional cash handouts given over a 10-year period be a SUSTAINABLE solution to tackling world poverty? It is a contradiction in terms if ever there was one. Except in emergency situations, when direct cash transfers are often the most efficient way to helping disaster victims access food and other basic needs by increasing their purchasing power (and even then markets don’t always work properly and goods are not always available locally–every case needs to be studied carefully), no-strings-attached cash transfers can be extremely counter-productive. The (mistaken) premise here is that poverty equals simply a lack of material (financial) resources. Thus, transfer the lacking money to the hands of the poor person and, voila, problem solved! If only it were so simple. Unfortunately, numerous studies have demonstrated that poverty is generally a symptom of deeper and complex structural, societal, and personal problems. It is not the problem per se. Ethnic or tribal prejudice; racism; sexual and gender-based violence against women; marginalization due to class, religion, or disability; family breakdown; poor governance at the community and national levels; regional or national conflict; dysfunctional institutions; substance abuse; lack of education; fatalism; cultural, family, or peer pressure to spend on non-productive assets (dowries, lottery tickets, offerings to various gods, expensive luxury goods, alcohol, brothels, excessive festivities, to name a few) and a myriad other factors, trap people in poverty. I actually believe that the best transformational programs that empower the poor and enhance sustainability involve zero cash.

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