Aid dilution, graft, or spreading the love? A study on cash transfer sharing in Malawi

Final outcomes and effectiveness of humanitarian transfers are impacted by their specific modality (i.e. cash, food, or input transfer) as well as their targeting—that is, the identification and selection of project beneficiaries. Many donors and implementers are therefore investing considerable resources in targeting. Several recent studies, including one led by IFPRI Malawi, examined the processes through which various transfers operated in order to see which modalities are most effective and to better understand the barriers preventing aid from reaching those initially targeted and those who may need it most.

(M. Mitchell & M. Maher/IFPRI Malawi, 2016)

The good news is that, despite some challenges with targeting, humanitarian food transfers do seem to have a positive immediate and short-term effect, particularly on diets and food security. Researchers from IFPRI Malawi conducted a quasi-experiment to examine the effectiveness of social programs, like food and cash transfers, on the quantity and quality of food consumed by poor households. They found evidence of improved household food security and diets, especially improved household iron availability and positive effects on children's dietary diversity scores.

The potentially bad news is that transfers are sometimes shared by the original recipients with others in the community. The sharing may be motivated by a variety of factors, including:

  1. The beneficiaries feel that others are just as needy as – or perhaps needier – than they are.
  2. The beneficiaries share the transfers out of social obligation (with family, neighbors, etc.).
  3. The beneficiaries are pressured by their village chief to share with other needy households.
  4. The beneficiaries are pressured by their village chief to share with him, his family and/or his associates.

The last possibility amounts to graft, or the misappropriation of money, or similar assets, to another as a result of one’s position or influence and such sharing should be minimized. The first three possibilities are less clear-cut. On the one hand, such sharing might rectify what the recipient communities may view as incorrect targeting. On the other, it may render the targeting itself ineffective, and the substantial resources that are often spent on it unnecessary.

We know that sharing happens, but we know little about how prevalent it is, how much of what beneficiaries receive is shared, and what their motivations to do so are. A newly begun DFID-funded study led by IFPRI Malawi aims to answer these questions within the context of cash transfers made from the 2017/18 Lean Season Food Insecurity Response Plan.

The research team is currently collecting qualitative data in Chikhwawa, Machinga, Balaka, and Ntcheu via direct interviews with a sample of beneficiaries of the Lean Season Response Plan, community members who did not receive the transfers, as well as key figures from local government and implementing organizations involved in the program.

Once completed, the results of the study should contribute to a discussion about the costs and benefits of targeting cash transfers—a process in which much time and money is spent, but which may be practically undone if sharing of transfers is widespread. The study also aims to inform changes in program design and the targeting process. Initial findings are expected by July 2018.


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