24 January 2013

Taking Sen Seriously

Another development report on hunger, another puzzling failure to take Amartya Sen, the power of markets, and simple cash transfers, seriously.

We have known for over 20 years, since Sen wrote the book on famine in 1981, that hunger comes not from there not being enough food being produced, but from some people not having access to that food (either through their own production or through the market).

And yet again and again we hear a weird underpants gnome-esque non-sequitur, in which

1. The problem: There is already enough food in the world to feed everyone
2. ?????
3. The solution: Produce more food!

Not that the 8 proposals are necessarily bad ideas. But the evidence supporting public investment in agriculture is decidedly mixed. We had hunger a long time before land grabs existed. And attacking tax loopholes seems a pretty indirect route to reducing hunger.

Especially when there is one very simple, scalable, cost effective policy, which has a direct impact on food consumption, can help to ensure that everyone can participate in the market and get a stake in the food that already exists (as well as create demand for new production), which has a very strong evidence base behind it, and gets no mention whatsoever.

Givewell summarise:
"Cash transfers are one of the most-studied development interventions ...  
There is very strong evidence indicating that cash transfers lead to large increases in consumption, especially of food... 
Bottom line: Cash transfers have the strongest track records we've seen for a non-health intervention ..."
Of course cash is not a silver bullet. But it is surely part of the solution, and on a much bigger scale than at present. So I'm continually mystified by how something so obvious gets so overlooked. The only conclusion I can come to is that the reason we continue to ignore all the evidence, and in fact the very reason why there has been so much research to begin with, and hence why the evidence base is so strong, is that our industry has such a deep suspicion of actually trusting poor people to make any decisions for themselves. Which is sad.


Alanna Shaikh said...

Thinking seriously about cash transfers forces us to confront issues most of us spend our whole lives trying not to think about. First the personal - the Peter Singer dilemma - if we can actually solve someone's problems by giving money directly, we're letting people drown every time we go on vacation instead of making a charitable donation. Second - the system. Considering the problems with global capitalism and rising inequality is a lot more difficult and stressful than producing a better potato.

Anonymous said...

For the record, while in the most simple sense, we might have enough food to feed the world, that it is a very misguided idea. Firstly, that is only in terms of calories which obviously is not sufficient for a nutritious diet. We certainly do not have enough nutritious, non-grain, foods to actually feed the world in any type of healthy way. Secondly, this is implying that agricultural development is a waste of time because people could just buy more if they had cash. However, the huge geographical distances between bread baskets and the food insecure make world aggregation of food supply academic at best, and misleading as well.

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