Foreign aid donors are ever creative and peaceful Ghana is an ideal place to run social “experiements.” The latest in this West African country involves paying the parents of children — at-risk of being forced into labor away from home — to keep their kids, at home if not also in school.
The basic idea is beguiling in its simplicity. Use a market incentive to reward parents, for whom children can be an economic burden, to “benefit” by doing the right thing — and thus prevent an awful result: the sale of hundreds of kids annually into forced labor “by parents desperate to raise money for their own upkeep,” says the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Yet the program raises an immediate problems, and reflects a wider crisis in the performance of humanitarian aid around the world.
First, the very incentives that might motivate the parents of at-risk children will also attract parents who are already doing the right thing. Now they need only to pretend to be ready to give away their children in order to get a benefit that they would otherwise not receive. The aid donor, in this case the migration agency IOM, has a perverse incentive not to check the veracity of these parental claims, because accepting the claims on face value enables the donor to say, “See, I saved this many children from trafficking!”
Second, for parents who intend to do the wrong thing — that is, they need to enlist their children in an economic project, whether fishing or serving as a market porter or household domestic in a faraway place — the program essentially removes the issue of personal morality or responsibility from the social equation. Embedded in the program is the belief that Africans are not free and that they will not act responsibly in the absence of immediate material rewards. Poverty so constrains them that they cannot act in a decent manner. Of course, the assumption is true in many cases; even in rich countries, people want rewards for doing the right thing. In Germany, for instance, the government directly pays parents a stipend for every child they raise, in part to stimulate more births in the country.In the U.S., parents receive tax reductions for caring for their children.
In Ghana, extended families and communities often assume the roles played by government in rich countries. By intervening, donors such as IOM risk weakening these indigenous structures. Relatives who might once have helped a needy cousin or sibling now may insist that they try harder to persuade a foreign donor, usually white, to bail them out. The impulse towards self-reliance is weakened.
The question is always empirical in part: are the results of the intervention worth it? Given the first problem — that cash incentives promote dishonest or bogus claims of need — identifying the actual size of the problem becomes, if not impossible, difficult to define. The self-reinforcing logic of aid thus renders evaluation irrelevant.