When every argument begins with “is it better than cash?”

"Where the hell is the Jaeger?" "Oh the government couldn't figure out how to evaluate the anti-Kaiju programme, so they just do cash transfers now."

“Where the hell is the Jaeger?” “Oh the government couldn’t really figure out how to evaluate the giant robots-fight off giant aliens programme, so they basically just do cash transfers now.”

Kevin Grier grumbles about the IDA, arguing that its investments couldn’t possibly stack up to cash transfers:

The last 3 year replenishment of IDA was for 49.3 billion dollars. So for a decade of IDA, we can use 150 billion dollars as a cost number. People, for $150 billion dollars, you could give 75 million people each $2000 in cold hard cash. From my point of view, that sounds a lot better than giving them “access” to services. Now sure, there are aid agencies worse than the IDA (phone call for USAID), but there is nothing in Mombrial’s post that backs up his claim that the IDA is a good investment, and in my opinion, it’s actually a bad investment relative to unconditional cash transfers.

Even without the growing body of empirical evidence indicating that just giving cash is an incredibly cost-effective way to increase welfare, there is an extremely compelling theoretical case to be made for cash transfers. Poor households have preferences (replace these with `needs’ if you are so inclined, although there are important distinctions between the two), and no one will ever have better information on these preferences than these households. Transferring households cash allows them to best allocate these new resources to meet these preferences – otherwise, we run the risk of wasting resources on stuff that households just don’t want.* Combine this with the fact that cash transfers are getting quite easy to make, especially in the era of mobile money, and they appear to be a reasonable standard by which to compare all other interventions.

Yet, the most ardent supporters of cash transfer programmes often forget that many societies (read: all societies) are still struggling with pretty severe collective action problems which inhibit the provision of public goods. It’s far from clear that distributing cash will solve these problems: if a village of people haven’t banded together and produced a well-functioning school by now, although giving them cash certainly increases their purchasing power to do so, it’s unlikely to solve the basic collective action problem resulting in the failure to produce the school.

This is important, as there are a range of public goods (or semi-private goods which have substantial externalities) which we can imagine might increase welfare a great deal more than a cash transfer of equivalent cost: schools, health facilities, roads, a functioning police force. Basically, any semblance of a local or national state. How many of you would vote for your own government to transfer its entire budget evenly across the population and then shut down all its operation for good? It certainly would make it easier to pay the rent next month, if your apartment complex hadn’t been burned down by the marauding hordes yet.

Now, if the collective actions problems we care about have already been solved by the market, we should be less worried. Despite a steady flow of misinformed rhetoric from NGOs suggesting that private schools in developing countries are a distraction, there is a great deal of evidence suggesting that in settings where the state is failing to provide quality schooling, private schools present a reasonable (and probably strictly superior) alternative for poor families. In these settings, unconditional cash transfers should be enough. However, there are going to be a lot of contexts where markets are not filling these gaps. For example, rural health clinics tend to be the preserve of government or NGO work, rather than the private health sector, so the effect of income on health outcomes in these contexts is going to be more complex.

The hypothesis “is intervention X better than cash?” is relatively easy to test for a whole slew of interventions: run an RCT and see if this is the case. Yet, while development economists are getting quite good at making and replicating these comparisons for private or small-scale interventions, many of the large public-good investments that have the potential for a large payoff remain difficult to convincingly empirically evaluate (I am somewhat optimistic that we will get there, but we’re certainly not there yet). The current bias towards cash represents not only a positive assessment of the returns to these types of interventions, but also a preference for interventions that can easily be shown to work.

Yet we know that public goods matter and that cash-transfers, to the extent that they cannot be taxed by the state, are unlikely to help in this regard. Multilateral lending/aid organisations like the IDA tend to focus more on projects which have some public good element, such as infrastructure. Whether or not these organisations are any good at producing successful, cost-effective projects is certainly a question we should be asking. But the choice that Grier presents us with is a false one: that we must choose between wasteful public good spending and cash, as if the cash-only equilibrium is the only one that could ever make any sense.

I am frequently guilty of wheeling out the “but is it better than cash?” argument whenever I see an intervention which looks wasteful or too paternalistic** for my taste, but we should be cautious not to use cash transfers as the appropriate gold standard for every intervention. There are plenty of public-good-type interventions which are (currently) hard-to-measure but important. Whether or not aid donors and governments are any good at funding these interventions should be the starting point for the discussion.

*I’m ignoring a lot of potential problems here by using households instead of people, as well as ignoring issues with time-inconsistency, etc, because I want to focus on one particular argument in this post.

**There are those that doubt the efficacy of unconditional cash transfers due to concerns over the ability of households to discern what they should be spending the money on. These concerns are not entirely unfounded – we are all subject to a variety of cognitive biases which can lead to suboptimal decisions. I choose to ignore these concerns here, not because I don’t think that they apply, but because I’m pretty skeptical that aid agencies and charities would be better at determining optimal private expenditure patterns than households.

3 thoughts on “When every argument begins with “is it better than cash?”

  1. Mads Oyen

    October 9, 2013 at 11:40am

    Thanks for this well-articulated piece. Obviously cash cannot be a substitute in areas such as immunization, and in a range of other interventions, but there is a lot more room for the use of cash, especially in emergency interventions, which tend to have a huge delivery cost.

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