Toward a science of delivering aid with dignity: Experimental evidence and local forecasts from Kenya

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PNAS – Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
[Accessed 27 June 2020]
Toward a science of delivering aid with dignity: Experimental evidence and local forecasts from Kenya
Catherine C. Thomas, Nicholas G. Otis, Justin R. Abraham, Hazel Rose Markus, and Gregory M. Walton
PNAS first published June 24, 2020.
A new era of international development aspires to increase the dignity and capabilities of people in poverty. Yet narratives accompanying aid often reinforce stigmatizing views of those in poverty as deficient in their circumstances or ability. We find that typical deficit-focused narratives risk undermining the very goals of aid—to empower recipients to pursue their goals and experience dignity rather than shame. In contrast, narratives crafted to counter stigma and leverage culturally resonant forms of agency enhance recipients’ beliefs in themselves and investment in their skills, without reducing donor support. As models of agency differ across sociocultural contexts, program designers need tools for identifying effective narratives. We present “local forecasting” as a particularly efficient methodology for this need.
How can governments and nonprofits design aid programs that afford dignity and facilitate beneficial outcomes for recipients? We conceptualize dignity as a state that manifests when the stigma associated with receiving aid is countered and recipients are empowered, both in culturally resonant ways. Yet materials from the largest cash transfer programs in Africa predominantly characterize recipients as needy and vulnerable. Three studies examined the causal effects of alternative aid narratives on cash transfer recipients and donors. In study 1, residents of low-income settlements in Nairobi, Kenya (N = 565) received cash-based aid accompanied by a randomly assigned narrative: the default deficit-focused “Poverty Alleviation” narrative, an “Individual Empowerment” narrative, or a “Community Empowerment” narrative. They then chose whether to spend time building business skills or watching leisure videos. Both empowerment narratives improved self-efficacy and anticipated social mobility, but only the “Community Empowerment” narrative significantly motivated recipients’ choice to build skills and reduced stigma. Given the diverse settings in which aid is delivered, how can organizations quickly identify effective narratives in a context? We asked recipients to predict which narrative would best motivate skill-building in their community. In study 2, this “local forecasting” methodology outperformed participant evaluations and experimental pilots in accurately ranking treatments. Finally, study 3 confirmed that the narrative most effective for recipients did not undermine donors’ willingness to contribute to the program. Together these studies show that responding to recipients’ psychological and sociocultural realities in the design of aid can afford recipients dignity and help realize aid’s potential.