Blattman and cash transfers and libraries and reading

Chris Blattman defends and promotes cash transfers.  It’s a good, compelling oped piece. But I worry that as the juggernaut of “just give cash” gains steam, people will give less to support public goods. As you know, dear reader, I have devoted a big chunk of last ten years to helping establish a network of thirteen rural community libraries in Burkina Faso and three in Ghana, and my colleague Kate Parry has been promoting the dozens of community libraries in Uganda.

Maybe the cash transfer movement will not undermine the little current support for public libraries and reading.  There are lots of randomized experiments being done on charitable giving, and how framing and information influence people’s giving patterns, so it is certainly possible that a healthy cash giving sector crowds-in more public goods funding.

But I worry that promoting reading is viewed as passé, especially for rural African villagers. I worry that people will say this is just not a priority. And when Blattman writes that large-size cash transfers raise incomes by substantial amounts four years later, I worry that maybe he is right: maybe public community libraries are not a priority, any more than distributing hair ribbons and barrettes are a priority.

But another voice inside of me says, “My activism is not directed at raising the incomes of people in rural Africa, so no need to be concerned.” Why is that not the object of my activism? Because, well, we already know how to raise the incomes of the poor in rural Africa. The secret of rising incomes is not well-hidden. Adam Smith published it in 1776: “Peace, easy taxes, and respect for property and contract.” Pretty much a guarantee for income growth. Sure, cash transfers hasten that growth, once peace, easy taxes and respect for contracts is well-established.

But maybe I care more about the quality and character of that growth…. is it going to be one where homosexuals are judged with a life-in-prison penalty (current law in the Uganda of peace, easy taxes and respect for contract) or one where 58% of the population, including Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, believe that something called “the devil” is among us humans (current state of United States of peace, easy taxes and respect for contract)?

Humans need a lot more reading to realize our aspirations and potential, in rural Africa and across our own beautiful country.

A taste of Blattman’s oped in NY Times:

Globally, cash is a major tool to fight extreme poverty. The United Nations is handing out ATM cards to Syrian refugees alongside sacks of grain. The evidence suggests these cash programs work. There have been randomized trials of cash grants to poor Mexican families, Kenyan villagers, Malawian schoolgirls and many others. The results show that sometimes people just eat better or live in better homes. Often, though, they start businesses and earn more. In Uganda, my colleagues and I worked with a nonprofit that offered $150 and five days of business planning to 900 of the poorest women in the world. After 18 months, the women had twice the incomes of a random control group. I also worked with the Ugandan government to study what happened when it gave groups of 20 poor people $8,000 in return for a business proposal. My colleagues and I followed hundreds of groups that did and did not get grants. Those who did mostly invested in trades like carpentry. Four years later, their earnings were about 40 percent higher than those of a random control group. The poor do not waste grants. Recently, two World Bank economists looked at 19 cash transfer studies in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Almost all showed alcohol and tobacco spending fell or stayed the same. Only two showed any significant increase, and even there the evidence was mixed. You might worry handouts encourage idleness. But in most experiments, people worked more after they received grants.

Also, cannot resist. I’m in favor of more idleness… spent reading and talking about good fiction!

Addition: Let me summarize: Library and reading advocates are of course in favor of environmentally sustainable income growth, but they (we!?) are also in favor of open, tolerant societies full of inquisitive learners… and so far we have no randomized control trials (RCTs) that tell us that income growth alone is enough to foster that sort of society.

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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