Global Cash-Transfer Fund Could End Extreme Poverty

Mar 1 , 2024
By Cina Lawson , Rory Stewart

As the world wrestles with ending extreme poverty, direct cash transfers emerged as a powerful tool. With 700 million people living on less than 2.15 dollars a day, the need for scalable solutions has never been more urgent, argued Cina Lawson, minister of Digital Economy & Digital Transformation of Togo, and Rory Stewart, a former foreign aid minister of the United Kingdom (UK) and is a senior adviser at GiveDirectly, in this commentary provided by Project Syndicate (PS).

For decades, the international community has grappled with ending extreme poverty, the leading Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) for 2030. Despite some progress, we remain far off track, with an estimated 700 million people struggling to survive on less than 2.15 dollars daily. Unlike in previous decades, however, we now have a solution that can be scaled up rapidly to accelerate the end of extreme poverty: direct cash transfers to the poorest households.

The concept itself is not new. Cash aid has proven effective, especially in the face of emergencies. During the COVID-19 pandemic, one in every six people worldwide received some cash assistance. Direct transfers are powerful tools for helping individuals to take control of their lives and invest in their families' well-being. That is why high- and middle-income countries increasingly incorporate cash aid as central to their social safety nets. Still, it is estimated that less than five percent of the 200 billion dollars spent annually on international development is allocated to cash transfers.

The positive impact of cash transfers is well-documented and undeniable.

The upshot from more than 300 randomised control trials is that transfers can boost incomes more than twofold; increase school enrollment and entrepreneurship; decrease skipped meals, illness, and depression; and reduce domestic violence. Importantly, they neither reduce hours worked nor increase spending on tempting goods like tobacco and alcohol. Better still, every one dollar transfer has a spillover effect of around 2.50 dollars in the local economy.

Three years after the transfer, recipients still earn more and are better educated. Recent research from Kenya showed that a 500-dollar lump-sum cash transfer was particularly effective in empowering families to make income-generating investments.

Equally important, we have the technology to reach the world's poorest people en masse with direct transfers. New digital technologies have dramatically lowered the cost and expanded our capacity to deliver money safely to the poorest parts of the world. During the pandemic, Togo used mobile phone data and satellite imagery to identify and target people needing relief. Its NOVISSI program leveraged the basic USSD technology on all mobile devices (similar to SMS text messaging) to reach and validate recipients, distributing 34 million dollars to 920,000 beneficiaries.

Having been carefully studied, Togo's successful pilot is now scaled to a 100-million-dollar program with World Bank support. Similarly, India enrolled 1.3 billion people in its digital ID system in six years, facilitating rapid growth in digital payments and enabling seamless cash transfers to the country's remotest areas.

Now that these and many other programs have demonstrated the effectiveness of cash transfers, the question is how to globalise this solution.

Building on the insights of an international working group we recently co-chaired, we propose establishing a new global fund to eradicate extreme poverty through lump-sum direct cash transfers. This solution would help countries expand their use of digital cash transfers by expanding existing social protection programs or starting new ones. The money required would come from a mix of philanthropists, institutions, and governments, similar to how the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria raises its funds. Crucially, these transfers would be offered not as a substitute for other interventions but rather as a complement.

After all, if families still lack access to healthcare, education, and employment opportunities, additional cash will not help as much as it could. As a complementary measure, however, the benefits of that cash would extend beyond the initial payment.

Individuals and families equipped with mobile money accounts would gain access to a financial lifeline, enabling them to save, start businesses, or receive remittances from abroad. At scale, this infrastructure accelerates underserved communities' financial inclusion, and empowers national governments to provide emergency cash support during disasters and to offer long-term benefits to vulnerable populations.

While direct transfers alone will not end extreme poverty, they represent a concrete first step toward catalysing wider action. As with the strategy for tackling HIV – whereby an agreement to distribute anti-retroviral treatment preceded larger reforms to health systems and measures to encourage behavioural changes – a swift, unified initial step can make a daunting problem more manageable than we thought.

It should be unacceptable in today's world that hundreds of millions of families still struggle for food and adequate shelter. Children should not face stunted growth and development, or be unable to complete their education. This type of poverty is not just painful; it is a tragic waste of human potential.

By improving dozens of outcomes simultaneously, cash transfers offer a transformative solution to multidimensional poverty. They have already proven effective, adaptable, and replicable, and now they are becoming more attainable every year with growing mobile coverage and improved digital infrastructure. This technological diffusion offers a historic opportunity to break the cycle of extreme poverty and desperation.

For the first time, the world has the money and the methods to succeed. What are we waiting for?

PUBLISHED ON Mar 01,2024 [ VOL 24 , NO 1244]

By Cina Lawson ( Cina Lawson, Minister of Posts, Digital Economy and Technological Innovation of the Republic of Togo. ) , Rory Stewart ( Rory Stewart, a former foreign aid minister of the United Kingdom (UK) and is a senior adviser at GiveDirectly )

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