A Cost-Effective New Initiative That Puts Power in Poor People’s Hands

By Daniel Altman

One of the ideas making waves in global development has been that poor people know better than anyone else how to improve their standards of living.  Some experts have recommended replacing conditional cash transfer programs (rewarding poor people for behaviors such as vaccinating their children) with unconditional cash transfer programs (just giving money to the poor).  But to make real change happen, there is a more direct route.

The poor will only be able to raise their own standards of living if they have power.  Giving them a few dollars here and there may help them to invest in small businesses or improve their access to education, but they still won’t become powerful agents of change.  Perhaps not by coincidence, many poor people live in countries where power is centralized amongst a small elite.

Poor people will only be able to change their lives in a long-term, sustainable way if they have real power in their societies.  Clearly, no government or foreign donor is willing to give them enough money, without any conditions, for this to happen.  Yet there is another, comparatively inexpensive way to do it.

A new development initiative would just give guns to the poor.  As evidence from around the world has suggested, guns are a fast track to power.  Several developing countries have conducted randomized controlled trials of this concept by giving guns to poor villagers in a non-systematic way.  In almost every case, villagers with guns have been empowered to change their living standards much more than villagers without guns.

This kind of initiative has shown promise even in wealthy countries such as the United States.  Here, poor people with guns are disproportionately powerful in society, wielding influence at both the local and national levels.  Moreover, many gun owners have come to believe that their living standards are higher than they actually are, adding psychic benefits to the concrete benefits of gun ownership.

With funding for development programs becoming scarcer every day, the emphasis must be on cost-effectiveness and accountability.  Just giving guns to the poor scores highly on both of these criteria.  After all, what better way to guarantee accountability than at the end of the barrel of a gun?

Daniel Altman is founder and president of North Yard Economics, a non-profit consulting firm serving developing countries, and an adjunct associate professor of economics at the Stern School of Business.