Will cash replace staff?

Should field staff in implementing organisations be made redundant? Do communities not need technical guidance and hand-holding? They also perhaps do not need support from external resource persons in solving collective action problems.

As a corollary to the push for ‘cash transfers’, the role of development workers has come under scrutiny. Last year, evidence from a couple of projects made this point quite strongly.

First, Chris Blattman, who based his argument on a review of the ultra-poor evaluations as well as his own research on ‘cash plus training’ intervention in Uganda:

The biggest expense across all the programs was staff time. Especially for supervision. Delivering training and cows takes skilled labor, and it’s hard to cut this back. But supervision? … should it cost 50 or 60 percent of the program? Is it more valuable than the cow or the grant itself? It’s hard to believe.

We tried to test this with cash-plus program in Uganda. Supervising the women cost about $377, about half the cost of the program and 2.5 times as much as the grant itself…

…and found that the supervision helped the women maintain the new businesses they started, but there was virtually no effect on consumption. We have no idea whether the supervision helps another year down the road. Maybe, eventually, it pays for itself. But the simple fact is this: taking away the most expensive part of the program had little effect on benefits after a whole year

And Howard White made a similar point, reflecting on the evidence from Community Driven Development (CDD) projects

In many CDD projects, the decision-making and application process is facilitated by outsiders. A chunk of project resources are used not for funding things communities want, but paying NGOs to train communities in how to hold meetings and help communities decide on what they want.

Now, facilitation may be useful. It can help ensure that the voices of the marginalised are heard, that poorer communities without the skills and connections get to apply and develop skills in project management. But I do wonder if communities that already have community-level decision-making bodies need outsiders to help them hold meetings and to decide their priority needs.

On one hand, Chris is saying supervision and monitoring isn’t worth the money, and on the other, Howard is saying the same might not even be good development strategy.

So what does this mean for the wider sector? First of all is the need to acknowledge that there is no excuse for poor facilitation. For instance, in the CDD projects that Howard examines, it sounds really like a push-back against non-participatory and technocratic modes of facilitation that obstruct rather than allowing communities to organically evolve decision-making structures and determine collective action. That kind of poor facilitation is paternalism – an idea that outsiders know better and have to drag communities towards enlightened decision-making. There is no excuse to perpetuate this practice.

But not all supervision/facilitation is paternalism. Yes, the Uganda study showed that stripping out supervision and monitoring doesn’t have an effect on individual benefits, but terming all of it paternalism or even compassion doesn’t quite convince me. Implementing agencies on the ground are delivering a mix of social and technical interventions. The power relations between communities implementing agencies is complex, with the balance of power shifting from one side to the other depending on specific circumstances. There are also some other drivers of these costs. Implementers are often stuck in a donor-mandated system of financial controls and audits – which mean greater on-ground supervision. Not all of this may be productive from an outcomes perspective, but are nevertheless costs that implementers will find hard to cut out.

There is no denying that the current models of aid delivery need not just a rethink, but an overhaul. The changing nature of crises, and the scarcity of funds, have brought with them, a justifiable demand for efficiency. So are there ways in which agencies that deliver aid can analyse their specific contexts? Here are some considerations:

  • Some projects need facilitation/supervision: Delivering livestock or capital drops is a very small slice in the universe of aid interventions – and of a very specific nature. It might be possible to minimise monitoring for these projects, but not so for others. For instance, a behaviour-change communication campaign on water and sanitation, or a pedagogical improvement intervention involving public school teachers may need more regular monitoring. There is no denying though that implementers should constantly try to figure out the most efficient monitoring mix, with a judicious use of technology where possible.
  • Cost-effectiveness of supervision: There is a difference between programmes that target individuals as opposed to those that target communities. Of particular relevance to the kinds of project that Chris describes is the question regarding the size of the cash/capital/asset provided. Would supervision costs grow in proportion to the size of the transfer? I think, not. Would benefits have gone up in proportion to the size of the transfer? I can’t tell. An important follow-up to the ultra-poor pilots may be seeking a better understanding of thresholds at which supervision is cost-effective.
  • The challenge donors face in making cross-country comparisons: Issues around cost of living and wages in developing countries is often baffling. Field staff in Indian NGOs are paid very little when compared to their counterparts in Sub-Saharan Africa. The differences cannot be explained just by US$ PPP adjustments – it has also to do with the size of the labour market, skills available, etc. So as almost anyone who has worked in India has experienced, every $ goes much further in India than anywhere else. That partly explains the more promising cost-benefit ratios coming out of India in the graduation pilots.
  • Is cash the answer? Then there is the ‘give them cash’ brigade which is stacking up evidence in favour of literally air-dropping cash to people. Cash is an important part of the solution in humanitarian contexts. As I have written elsewhere, I think there are all sorts of collective action problems and systems improvements that will not be resolved by cash transfers. Also, neither are many poor country governments capable of administering these transfers, nor should they be withdrawing from public services and focusing on individual-targeted cash transfers.

It would be unfair to say that field organisations do not grapple with questions of value for money in their operations. These considerations go beyond mere cost and force agencies to think about ‘value’ added to the programmes they deliver. They should be part of an effort to make such decisions evidence-based, with periodic reviews of operations and management systems.

Finally, a note of caution to donors driving change within delivery agencies. Comparisons between locations may be inevitable, but need to be approached carefully. In a perfectly comparable world, we could test the impact of providing exactly the same input, in exactly the same way, for exactly the same time-period across locations. But that is neither possible nor desirable, since…duh, “context matters!”.

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One thought on “Will cash replace staff?

  1. i have a basic question/proposition to begin with — what is the role of staff? for example, when cblatts notes “the supervision helped the women maintain the new businesses they started, but there was virtually no effect on consumption,” did we actually expect the staff to help a woman translate her business income into consumption? or was the role to help to woman maintain her business and let her choose what to do with any additional gains earned? were the staff responsible for profits realized?

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