James Hansen*

It may seem obvious, but there is a growing perception in the international aid sector that, ultimately, poverty stems from a lack of money.
The major postwar aid programs to stimulate growth were largely based on direct or indirect economic transfers among governments, with conditional donations, loan guarantees, as well as material aid such as sacks of cement or flour. Too often, the aid was hampered by inefficiency and difficulties: corruption and theft, simple conflicts of interest, administrative red tape, every kind of political interference. So why not give the money directly to the people who need it, and cut out all the bureaucrats and political middlemen? The idea has become increasingly popular in recent years, with growing numbers of projects adopting this sort of approach.

The GiveDirectly charitable initiative will shortly begin gifting a dollar a day, directly, to around six thousand Kenyans, who will be able to do what they want with it; this is the equivalent of an annual average salary according to the organisation. The aid, provided solely to help boost families’ income, is not restricted in any way. The money can be spent on education for the kids, on medical treatment or to start up a small business – but not necessarily. If the recipients want to use it to go drinking or play the lottery, they are free to do so.

The basic income concept is nothing new, but almost always it has been associated with moral or behavioural factors, to promote a “cause”. In the West, the underlying cause is typically social control (the aim of what are elegantly known in Italy as ammortizzatori – buffer programs) or to win the support of voters (idem). As early as the 16th century, one of the first proponents of the idea, Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives, recognised the problem: “Even those who have squandered their wealth in a dissolute life,” he wrote in 1526, “gambling, disreputable women, an opulent lifestyle and greed, should be given food, because no one should die of hunger”. In a global society that today seems to have more money than jobs, the time could at last be ripe for his idea, but there’s a problem – in many cases, surprisingly, people are unwilling to accept “free” money.

In Kenya, the GiveDirectly project has been met by an unusually high rejection rate among those who don’t want the money, even though it is offered entirely free, with no strings attached. In Kenya’s Homa Bay region, the rejection rate is 45{f94e4705dd4b92c5eea9efac2f517841c0e94ef186bd3a34efec40b3a1787622}, compared with acceptance rates of 96{f94e4705dd4b92c5eea9efac2f517841c0e94ef186bd3a34efec40b3a1787622} for similar projects in Uganda and Rwanda. The Country Director, Will Le, says: “We’ve found that people tend to refuse because they’re sceptical. The recipients find it hard to believe that an organisation like GiveDirectly would give them a year’s salary in cash, without conditions. So they’ve invented a series of explanations, including rumours that the money comes from cults or devil worshippers”. The Kenyans may be foolish, but perhaps there is a cult, even though Mr Le — formerly an analyst with Bain Capital and later the Gates Foundation — can’t see it.
Isn’t the Western idea of growth and universal prosperity a “cult”?
The purpose is admirable, but fuelled with the Devil’s dung…

 

*James Hansen came to Italy with the US Diplomatic Service. He stayed on as a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and The International Herald Tribune, later becoming spokesman first for Carlo De Benedetti and later for Silvio Berlusconi. More recently, he was chief press officer of Telecom Italia. Formerly the editor-in-chief of the East geopolitical review, he is an international relations consultant to leading Italian groups. He publishes a weekly Nota Diplomatica – real geopolitics.