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17 January 2018

How satellites and the British taxpayer are tackling famine in Kenya

The easiest way to tackle global poverty? Just give people money.

By Richard Darlington

There are some areas of public policy that sit firmly in that uncomfortable corner of the ‘popularity vs evidence’ matrix. That corner is the one where the ‘highest level of academic evidence of effectiveness’ and the ‘lowest level of public understanding and therefore support’ intersect. Direct cash transfers is the policy that is firmly in international development’s ‘naughty’ corner. 

We all know what Yes, Minister’s Sir Humphrey meant when he says: “that is a very brave decision, Minister.” Yet every new Secretary of State at the Department for International Development has an uncomfortable conversation early in their tenure with evidence-based officials who want to test the bravery of their new political master.

So why has Penny Mordaunt used her first interview with the Financial Times to announce an expansion of direct cash transfers?

Well partly, because wonks read the FT. Indeed, on one level, international development is extremely complex. On another, it’s relatively simple. Poor people have problems that they can’t solve themselves because – you guested it – they don’t have enough money. But just giving money away is easily portrayed as an undeserved hand out. That’s why some element of conditionality makes political sense, even if the evidence suggests that unconditional cash transfers are the most effective of all.

Getting a decent reception for this early policy move in the Telegraph has come partly as a consequence of focusing on refugees – where the need is more visible and less contestable – and party as a consequence of using the language of British ‘national interest’ in a series of articles in that same paper. The latest, describes Britain as a development superpower and when it comes to conditional cash transfer policy, it is indeed the space race that has helped us blaze the trail.

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In northern Kenya, the Hunger Safety Net Programme provides a social safety net to people living in a semi-arid region near the equator, using direct cash transfers. And emergency payments are triggered by analysis of satellite imagery of the impact of the weather on crops and vegetation because those changes preemptively mirror changes in food prices. It’s conditional not on what people do but on how the environment in which they live changes, in real time. The system preempts droughts, it prevents famines and it has been running for over a decade now.

We are rightly proud of our welfare state but perhaps sometimes take it for granted. Yet this is a policy that helps other countries to help their own citizens, in their own way.

The programme is now only part funded by the UK taxpayer, in partnership with the Kenyan taxpayer, and Dfid is transitioning to finish its support entirely. This is sustainable development in action and it couldn’t have happened without Britain’s global leadership. Andrew Mitchell, the first Conservative Secretary of State at Dfid, was fond of saying that “these are not Labour achievements or Conservative achievements, but rather they are British achievements.” When it comes to Kenya’s Hunger Safety Net Programme, he certainly has a point.

That’s because development takes time. Longer than political cycles, even in an age of five year fixed-term Parliaments and certainly in an era of Cabinet ministers who are lucky if they get two years before being reshuffled.

So one of the most important roles of the Secretary of State at Dfid is as ‘explainer in chief’. All of us working to make poverty history have a dilemma about how much of the detail of development to burden the UK public with. But at the same time, over simplification of both the challenges and the solutions has almost certainly contributed to mistrust and skepticism.

Ronald Regan famously declared “if you’re explaining, you are losing.” That might be right if you are sat in the big chair at the White House, or even No10. But when it comes to social justice in the context of global poverty, we have to keep explaining.

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