Rory Stewart (former Secretary of State for International Development) and Alistair Campbell (formerly Tony Blair's Communications Director) have a podcast together on politics. Rory Stewart over the last two episodes has been discussing GiveDirectly


16:20 - "Tribal politics, anonymous sources, and Malcolm Tucker"

RS: "What am I doing in Rwanda? I am in Rwanda because I am with a charity called GiveDirectly, and GiveDirectly is a really radical idea. They are essentially giving $1000 of cash to very, very poor families and trusting them to spend the money well. And as you can imagine - you tell people this and people's jaws drop - they're like, 'how do you know they're not going to spend the money on alcohol, how do you know they're not going to be cheated out of it' - but they are incredibly rigorous. They do these amazing tests where they will study very carefully the effect on a hundred villages and they will compare it to the impact of much better known charities who are going in doing training programs or doing health programs or education programs and the truth is, time and time again, and there have been 230 studies of this, giving people cash is probably the most effective single intervention that you can do for a very poor family, because the truth is in almost every case they know how to spend the money much better than a foreigner does and there's an element of dignity here".


AC: "Are you just going around giving people money then. Are you just going around Rwanda giving people money?"

RS: "That is exactly right, and then seeing what happened with the programs over the last two years. And it's incredible. People are, you suddenly see transformation in their children's health, stunting, nutrition, roofs going up on houses, people investing in goats and livestock, to create an income, it's really incredible. And it's such a reminder because of course you are talking about people here in Rwanda living on $1/day, so they are earning $300/year, so if you give a family like that $1000 that would be like giving someone in Britain something like 3x their annual income, but what is so striking because this is like discussions of social welfare in britain where people say if you give poor people money they're going to misuse it or they are going to spend it on drink or they are going to spend it on drugs, but in almost every case people are spending it responsibly and their lives are being transformed. And the best thing is all the money is going to them, it's not going to foreigners who are going around driving in fancy white landcruisers with their kids in fancy accommodation. It's hitting the ground, and it's about dignity and I've become really excited about it, and I've become an apostle for cash transfer."

22:55 - "Globalism, Scottish Nationalism, and Rory's new job"

"So as you know, I was in Rwanda and I went to see these programs giving cash to people and even though I sounded really positive when I spoke to you last time I hadn't really seen the programs and I can tell you it's unbelievable, I've never seen anything like it in 30 years working in international development, literally you see villages which a year ago were some of the poorest communities in the world and a year later they've gone from a quarter of people owning a cow to nearly 3 quarters of them. Everybody fixing their roofs, to everybody signing up to the government health insurance, to every single house having it's own lavatory which improves sanitation, to people buying bicycles, shops poping up, and how have they done it? complete transformation, they've done it just by giving $800 to each household."

"It's gone down, it was $1000 last week"

"Yeah, this is $800, unconditional, do whatever you like with it, and it was so interesting, because I went to see government ministers later and they were so against it, they kept saying this is crazy, you've got to make it conditional, these people will just waste the money on beer, you've got to buy a bicycle for them or whatever. It was extrodinary. Literally, you will, and they've done it across 850,000 people. If you were to go to an NGO and say can you transform the lives of 850k people in a year"

"Rory, where is the money coming from?"

"The money is mostly coming from philanthropists in the united states. so these are people who've been convinced of this very difficult thing which is hard to convince people of and I've been having difficulty even explaining to my friends and family. Come back and say I've found this miracle, everything we've been doing in international developement for the last 30years has been nonsense"

"Rory, don't say that because that will justify them saying that, even Rory Stewart recognises we should have got rid of DfID"

"We should have kept DfID, but we should have spent the money on cash transfers"

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13 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:41 PM

To be clear - I think that this is on net a good thing. This podcast will probably introduce both GiveDirectly and EA ideas to a wider audience. Having written up this transcript, I am also less disappointed about how this came across than I was when I first heard this at 2x-speed. That said, I still find two things fairly depressing:

  1. Someone who has worked in international development for 30 years and headed DfID(!) is only just now finding out about cash transfers, and thinks it's the most effective intervention you can do. (Although perhaps with his caveat about "for a single poor family" makes it true?
  2. That the head of DfID thinks that it would have been better off spending the money on cash transfers. I had gotten the impression (mostly from posts on the EA Forum) that DfID was fairly well regarded in the space of effective giving so would have at least been aware of cash transfers. 

This mostly made me think (slightly) less of Rory Stewart rather than DfID because my prior for a minister not being across their breif is higher than my prior of DfID not being aware of cash transfers, although I'd be curious to know what others think. 

Thanks v much for posting this transcript! I agree this is on net good and think I took a more positive impression from Rory Stewart's points :)

Someone who has worked in international development for 30 years and headed DfID(!) is only just now finding out about cash transfers, and thinks it's the most effective intervention you can do. (Although perhaps with his caveat about "for a single poor family" makes it true?

I didn't get the impression from this transcript that Rory Stewart has just heard of cash transfers - is there any part which implied that? It felt to me more like bringing-the-listener-with-him kind of speak to convey a weird but exciting idea.

That the head of DfID thinks that it would have been better off spending the money on cash transfers. I had gotten the impression (mostly from posts on the EA Forum) that DfID was fairly well regarded in the space of effective giving so would have at least been aware of cash transfers. 

I would argue his point that 'giving people cash is probably the most effective single intervention that you can do for a very poor family'  is pretty accurate and I think it implies he understands it maybe isn't as effective as larger scale interventions (larger than 'a single intervention for one family'). But agree with you that the joke at the end "We should have kept DfID, but we should have spent the money on cash transfers" is wrong!

Anecdotally, from my experience in DfID in 2019-20, people working on cross-cutting development prioritisation often mentioned cash transfers in a way implying familiarity. The main question wasn't whether this weird idea works, but how it compares to bigger  interventions like conflict-prevention or aid-for-trade.

So I come out even more cheerful about this interview!

I didn't get the impression from this transcript that Rory Stewart has just heard of cash transfers - is there any part which implied that? It felt to me more like bringing-the-listener-with-him kind of speak to convey a weird but exciting idea.

Reading the transcript cold, maybe it doesn't give that impression. If you're willing to listen to the episodes (there's two of them and the topic comes up a few times intersperced throughout) I'd be interested if your view changes with his joke. (He certainly gives off a tone of surprise). I also think this:

 I've never seen anything like it in 30 years working in international development

Pretty strongly gives the impression that he hadn't seen it before. 

I would argue his point that 'giving people cash is probably the most effective single intervention that you can do for a very poor family'  is pretty accurate and I think it implies he understands it maybe isn't as effective as larger scale interventions (larger than 'a single intervention for one family').

Again, I think it's worth listening to the full context, the impression the listener is given is very much that this is a pancea and better than "charities who are going in doing  [..] health programs".

I'm very happy to be wrong on this so I am very keen to grab onto anything saying the opposite, I just can't shake the first impression I got from listening.

Thanks! Yes this was just my impression from reading, not listening. I'll hopefully get round to listening later and see if that updates my impression.

I listened and come away with the same feeling as I commented above- IMO Rory is being a good ambassador for GiveDirectly here!

Also, I was excited about this because I thought Rory Stewart was the new Comms Director at No. 10, which I've just realised was an April Fools prank...

Thank you - I will update accordingly.

Simon and I were discussing this offline and my model of this is that even if Stewart had believed this while he was the head of the Department for International Development he would have struggled to divert significant money to cash transfers.

I'm not an expert, but I reckon that (Let's say 50%% if we're giving numbers):
- Aid is political and backs political projects, Give Directly doesn't necessarily support UK aims in, say, Rwanda. I might be a hard sell
- Changing aid requires buy in from several government departments, their secretaries of state, the PM and the top civil servants in that department. It's not about one person's opinion.
- DfiD is well regarded in the EA community
- It would be more effective to spend all UK aid on GiveDirectly, political concerns aside. Would love to hear someone disagree or give a sense of the impact of UK aid compared to it all being spent on GD

DfiD was already funding and researching cash transfers, and seems to have been doing this for quite a while.

Any sense of what UK aid cash goes to them?

In 2015, it seems to be ~2% (£200m/£12bn).  This was general support for cash transfer schemes which included other features though, like nutritional support. Seems very high though still! Can't see anything more recent - my naive guess would be its less than this now.

Link on UK spend 2011-15 on cash transfers.

Upvote this if you are confident that Stewart is broadly correct here

I feel like I'm going to upvote both? There seem to be some significant (specific) errors, but the message is broadly correct.

Upvote this if you are confident that Stewart has made significant errors in his coverage here.