This week's Sunday Times' article New Ideas for the 21st Century column entitled (misleadingly) "Stop the aid -- it's cash that ends poverty" is a good example of the dumbing down of international development that I am seeing more and more of during these austere times. The column argues that giving cash to the poor is one of the most effective things that donors and governments can do to reduce poverty (I just realised I can't link you to it because the Times is now charging for online content).
Of course cash transfers to poor households have positive impacts on a whole range of things that we all care about such as hunger, nutrition, schooling and child labour. Why would we expect anything else? Do we seriously expect households living at the edge of survival to fritter the cash away on non-essentials? No surprises there.
The real policy issues are much more nuanced. Could this money be used more effectively for something else (e.g. strengthening the services that can be purchased)? When should co-responsibilities (see a nice series of short articles edited by Stephen Devereux on this) be attached to receipt of the money (e.g. parents seeking preventative health care for infants)? How do households graduate from such programmes without bankrupting the state? How can the cash transfers increase the household's contact points with other services ("cash plus") such as agricultural extension workers or health workers?
But the main problem with the article is that it implies that much of this can be led by the donors. It can't. There have been too many donor driven pilot schemes in sub-Saharan Africa that have not taken off due to lack of political support. The successes cited in the article have been home grown: Mexico, Brazil, South Africa. What donors can do best is to be nimble, nurturing and flexible enough to support home grown political energy for cash transfers when and where it exists. This is what donor support for cash transfers should prioritize and it is what aid more generally should seek to do.