GiveDirectly’s pitch is as radical as it is simple. They argue that if you give every family in an impoverished community a no-strings-attached one-time payment of $1,000 (£865) – roughly four days’ salary for a typical UN staffer – you can transform their lives for the better in almost every way.
“Cash has this magic multiplier effect. It gets the general economy going,” says Stewart. “It allows people to buy a roof for their homes. “A cash donation lets people get a cow which produces milk and gives calcium to their kids. It lets them set up a small business or get their children through school. It improves their diets, so they’ll have fewer sick days,” he says.
There is a quiet revolution couched in his words. For half a century, the aid industry has revolved around legions of Western expatriates, with fancy master’s degrees, parachuting into far-off places to tell locals what they need to get out of poverty.
‘Now I have some dignity’
UN agencies and NGOs will sometimes play dazzling accounting tricks that give the illusion that most of their donations go directly to those in need. But ineffective projects, huge overheads for contractors and dodgy officials often suck up resources, leading to widespread disillusionment among rank and file humanitarians.
Stewart, who was Secretary of State for International Development in 2019, is damning in his criticism of patronising attitudes in the aid sector. “We dress it up in fancy words like best practice and capacity building. But basically, ‘best practice’ means we know what’s best. And ‘capacity building’ means we need to teach you what to do. And then if you fail, we say there’s a lack of ‘political will’. In other words, you’re lazy,” he says. “At some level, these are fancy jargon words for suggesting that communities in Asia or Africa are ignorant, unskilled and idle.”
By effectively cutting out the highly paid middlemen, GiveDirectly claims that its work has a better bang for its buck than almost any other intervention. But many national governments are cautious of the idea. The international community has already been sold many dud silver bullets and giving out cash to poor people is not a popular political decision. Could this really work on a grand scale?