Poor people are not reality invariant, give them your money

On Monday I wrote about the reality invariant. Often these people are reality invariant because they can afford to be wrong. Nothing too bad will happen. They won’t be brutalised by the police if they crack down on non-existent crime. They won’t be detained at the border. They won’t discover themselves poor.

Some people can’t afford that level of detachment, people who are poor. In fact often they have few views on policy, they’re too busy. That’s poor people and they’re very practical. That is why I support Give Directly, a charity that gives money directly to poor people, no strings attached.

I’ve written about them on a number of occasions. Just search this blog for more. They find poor households in Kenya and Uganda in areas which have a mobile payments network and give them money. This seems personally the least patronising way of helping people and ideologically the most appealing to me.

But am I being reality invariant? Am I giving poor people money because I want to feel empowering and it reflects my anti-bureaucracy instincts? Well, as it turns out no. I was right all along. Which is a relief. As well as doing regular audits of measured outcomes the Give Directly people also speak to recipients and ask what they want.

It turns out they do want cash. If an NGO offers you a free cow shed you’ll say yes, but if you have the money yourself you might find it makes more sense to buy a water purifier. But if the purifier people are in the village next door and the cow shed people are in town, fuck it, have a cow shed. Why not?

That’s the story Give Directly tell (without the swearing, I added that, for colour) about why they’re efficient. And Give Directly are efficient, but efficiency isn’t all there is to life. Turns out its not just efficiency that the poor need. Giving them money may sound infantalising or like it would breed dependency but that is not the case. Recipients tell a totally different story.

Being given money means that goods which are bought are more valued. If you end up with a cow shed or a water purifier it is because you really wanted one. Rather than infantalising you, being given money is empowering. These aren’t lazy people, they’re often working constantly so the money gives them the power to respond to shocks and gives them the dignity to set their own standards. Rather than buying one big off the shelf NGO supplied thing recipients can shop around for the items they really want.

These people are empowered by money. Commerce and money are great liberators. Luckily a lot of evidence is building up that proves this and that also proves it is an easy gift for you, dear reader, to give. So if you are thinking about supporting a charity, and I believe lots of people are at the moment, then consider donating to Give Directly.


Photo above taken from Give Directly’s 2013 report.

One thought on “Poor people are not reality invariant, give them your money

  1. well, I think your little poke at yourself is spot on. Surely everyone’s reality invariant sometimes, but also there’s some evidence or arguments that can convince us, some other times. Not that I know what it is for the people who disagree with me…but actually I think it’s an extremely important question to ask. People do change their minds from time to time, and if you’re right (which I am) it should theoretically be possible to convince your opponents to do so your way.

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