Disasters can push the world’s poorest deeper into poverty. Now aid agencies are trying something new. They give people a little money right before a disaster, instead of waiting until after.
While these experiments are in the early stages and there is little research on their effectiveness, there are signs that they can help people protect themselves and their possessions in ways they might not otherwise be able to.
The approach has been tried in several different circumstances: before a cyclone was supposed to hit Mozambique last March, before a hurricane brought torrential rains to Central America last October, and now to help people move away from landslide-prone slopes. Mount Elgon in Uganda.
The reason these one-off payments, known as advance cash relief, matter now is that disasters are outnumbered by human-made climate change and often inflict the greatest pain on the world’s poorest people. When crops or property are not insured, suddenly disasters like floodsor slow like drought, can be devastating. People can they are losing their only means of livelihoodtheir land and their only possession, livestock.
Consider what happened when the World Food Program sent between 50 and 23,000 families living along the Yamuna River in Bangladesh just days before extreme flooding was expected to hit the area in July 2020. The people who got the money , were “less likely to go a day without food‘ during these floods compared to those who did not receive payments, according to an independent assessment by researchers at the University of Oxford and the UK aid agency-funded Center for Disaster Risk Reduction.
Three months later, the researchers surprisingly found that those who received cash ate better and were less likely to sell their animals or take out high-interest loans.
Cash relief as a general anti-poverty tool has also produced surprising gains. A recent global study of seven million people in 37 countries found that giving cash directly to poor people led to fewer deaths among women and children. Another study found that financial aid averted food shortages in some places of southern Africa almost 20 years agothough not in others where food prices have soared.
In the United States, cash assistance to mothers for the first year of their children’s lives boosted their children’s brain development. Dozens of American cities have pilot projects give poor residents cash with no strings attached.
Now comes another push of extreme weather, both slow and fast, exacerbated by the burning of coal, oil and gas. Proponents of cash relief argue that it is a more efficient way to use financial aid because cash incurs fewer logistical costs and brings money directly into the local economy.
“Cash transfers help families survive climate disasters,” said Miriam Laker-Oketta, director of research at GiveDirectly, an aid group that does just that. “Cash provides choice and is readily available.”
Skeptics say it’s a band-aid solution that falls short of the range of dangers facing poor people in the Global South: deadly heat, rising sea levels, erratic rains. Not everyone who needs it gets cash. “It’s not sustainable. There will always be constraints on where that money comes from,” said Wanjira Mathai, executive director of the World Resources Institute, an advocacy group.
Cash payments are increasingly being tried in various places. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies gave Mongolian shepherds cash during the run severe chills and to families in Guatemala and Honduras just before Hurricane Julia brought catastrophic flooding last October.
The World Food Program offers cash not only before a sudden disaster, but also in Ethiopia before a long period of drought. People used the money to buy food, pay off loans and if they were also given drought forecasts to buy food and medicine for their animals, the agency concluded in its own analysis.
Group Dr. Laker-Oketty focused on villages in Malawi, which have also been hit hard by drought in recent years. Last year, she sent families two installments of $400 each.
In one southern village of Chipyali, chief Khadijah William bought a small solar panel that allowed her to set up a light and fan at home. Suwema Gray bought five goats.
And Margaret Daiton built a brick and tin house to replace her old house, which was made of mud and thatch and leaked every year when it rained. But she ran out of money to buy wood for the door. She spent the last bits of her financial aid on food.
Even without a door, she was relieved to have finished her house before the torrential rains came on the back of Cyclone Freddy this year. “The old house,” she said, “would be completely destroyed.”
Cash relief limits were also in full display in Chipyali. Those who spent it on expensive hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers, as advised, lost everything. The rain washed away everything they had planted.