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The challenge with direct cash payments, says Owen Barder, the director of Europe for the Center for Global Development, is getting them to all of the people who need them. The places where this strategy has worked well already had functioning banking sectors and national identification systems in place before a disaster struck. In Pakistan, humanitarian agencies used government data to identify the areas with the worst damage, then checked IDs to make sure the debit cards got to the people living there.
Most poor countries, though, don't have these pipes laid down. Kenya's Hunger Safety Nets program, which gives cash to people at risk of starvation, took months to establish because payouts were distributed through local agents, whom people didn't trust, or ATMs, which people had never used before.
Barder describes a scenario where, 10 minutes after an earthquake hits Nepal, all the people within five miles of the epicenter get $500 on their cell phones. That's a great idea. But it is, he says, a lot harder than it sounds. After the 2005 tsunami, low-caste populations in India were almost entirely excluded from cash transfers because they weren't registered in the national welfare system. In Indonesia, cash transfers were distributed through community leaders who had to come to a central planning center, then travel back to their constituencies with an envelope full of cash. In at least one case, bandits were waiting for them on the bus.
The need for modernizing these systems is obvious. In 2009, India launched an ambitious—and largely unheralded—project to issue a 12-digit identification number to all 1.3 billion of its citizens. So far, it has spent around $880 million and registered 970 million people. The numbers are already being used to distribute unemployment checks and disaster relief. But as this effort moves to more remote populations, registering them gets harder. Some farmers have hands so worn the scanners can’t read their fingerprints.
Laying down the pipes to get cash transfers to the first 75 percent of a population, the people who have birth certificates and cell phones, is relatively easy. Getting to the last 25 percent, the people one charity could never reach, is technical, slow, expensive and absolutely critical—a perfect project for Zuckerberg.
These aren't, of course, the only ideas I heard for how Zuckerberg should give away his money. Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development says Zuckerberg should invest in global public goods, things no single government wants to pay for but the world needs nonetheless—like a vaccine for malaria, or making renewables cheaper than fossil fuels.