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This Christmas, Should You Give Cash or Cows?

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cow-faceDuring the Spanish Civil War, an American farmer named Dan West served as an aid worker on the front lines. His mission was to provide relief to weary soldiers, but all he was allotted to give them was a single cup of milk.

This meager ration led West to wonder if more could be done. “What if they had not a cup,” thought West, “but a cow?”

The “teach a man to fish” philosophy behind that question inspired West to found Heifer International, an organization that provides farm animals to needy families and communities in developing countries. It’s an appealing model (like many Americans, my family has made donating a farm animal a holiday tradition) but does it work? Is giving an animal an effective option for helping the poor?

Developmental economist Bruce Wydick agricultural economics professor Chris Barrett studied the impact of farm animal donations:

Our study, [in a 2013 edition of] the journal Food Policy, found significant impacts on nutritional outcomes from Heifer’s animal donations. We found that households receiving meat goats for breeding almost doubled monthly meat consumption. Households who received a dairy cow nearly tripled their monthly consumption of dairy products. (It is worth mentioning that the donated dairy cows were a foreign breed with super-charged udders that produce about 10 times the milk as domestic breeds.) The students carried out a survey in Rwanda with the Heifer Project, sampling over 400 families who applied to receive a pregnant heifer dairy cow or a meat goat. About half of these families had received one of the two animals. The remaining families were not approved to receive an animal at that time, or they were in the pipeline to receive one.

Moreover, we even found some evidence that the added dairy consumption reduced stunting (low height for age) in the small children of beneficiary households. Adding a measure of confidence to our results, Chris discovered a new study at a conference last summer that showed similar stunting-reversal impacts on children from dairy cow ownership in Ethiopia, especially when families were prevented from selling much of the milk because of logistics or lack of refrigeration. In short, it appears that when families can’t market all the milk, they drink the rest of it up (or turn it into yoghurt).

In an article for Christianity Today in 2013, Wydick also discusses the benefits of giving cash directly to the needy:

Researchers at MIT recently carried out a randomized controlled trial to test the impacts of Give Directly. Released in October, the MIT study found that just over a year after receiving their first cash transfer,

Researchers at MIT recently carried out a randomized controlled trial to test the impacts of Give Directly. Released in October, the MIT study found that just over a year after receiving their first cash transfer, household assets were 58 percent higher (mainly in herd animals), enterprise revenues were 48 percent higher from new livestock and expanded small businesses, family food consumption had increased so much that there was a 42 percent reduction in the number of days children went without food.

Moreover, the researchers found no increases in the consumption of what even economists call “sin goods”: alcohol, cigarettes, or gambling.

Whether we cash or cows, the evidence shows that we can have a significant impact on those in need this Christmas. All we have to do is give.

Learn more about how you can help the needy in developing countries by visiting Heifer International and Give Directly.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).