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Bolivia Rejects Bill Gates’ Gift Of Chickens

Why not just give cash?

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Bill Gates has a bit of egg on his face—after the Microsoft mogul pledged 100,000 chickens to a group of impoverished countries, one of the recipients cried foul. (fowl?)

"He does not know Bolivia’s reality to think we are living 500 years ago, in the middle of the jungle not knowing how to produce," César Cocarico, Bolivia's minister of land and rural development, told the Financial Times. (subscriber link) "Respectfully, he should stop talking about Bolivia, and once he knows more, apologize to us."

Bolivia’s point is well-taken: The South American country already produces 197 million chickens per year, many of which are exported. And the IMF suggests Bolivia is about to become the strongest economy in South America. Thanks but no thanks, Bill.

Gates’ pledge was made in conjunction with Heifer International, that ubiquitous livestock gifting charity based in Little Rock, Ark. It’s a nonprofit with reach: 25 million families have received gifts since its foundation. But like that Christmas day puppy that’s a burden and a gift, Bolivia’s sharp words raise the question—is it smart to give animals no one asked for?

Sean Conley is a research analyst at GiveWell, a group that reviews charities to determine the best places for you to give. When it comes to Heifer International and groups like it, they have one simple suggestion.

“The question is whether giving people livestock beats just giving them money,” says Conley. “And from everything we’ve seen, cash is the better gift.”

GiveWell has reviewed numerous studies like this one in Kenya, demonstrating a host of benefits that come from cash donations. The reasoning is quite simple—each individual is in the best position to determine their own needs, be it food security, investments, durable goods. Might they want to buy a chicken? Sure, but let them choose.

Conley points out another glaring point when it comes to giving livestock—care and maintenance are costly. “First you have to keep the livestock healthy, get it from some place to the recipient,” says Conley. “All of these logistics are an added expense. Then when you receive the animal, who’s to say whether you have the capacity to care for it? This ‘gift’ can cost a lot to maintain.”

So why give a cow instead of money? In a sense, it’s the same reason cash seems like a cold Christmas gift. We like our donations to have some romance, a bit of a backstory. Gates is clearly smitten by poultry; in this “Coop Dreams” blog post he says, “It’s pretty clear to me that just about anyone who’s living in extreme poverty is better off if they have chickens.”

It would be pretty easy to replace “chickens” with “cash” in that sentence, but it just doesn’t have the same hook. “Maybe [livestock donations] make good imagery, or it connects us with our instinct to help people,” says Conley. “Honestly? I don’t know why it’s so appealing.”

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