Thousands of spectators rippled to their feet while millions of others around the world joyfully watched live images on TV as the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) marched in Brazil’s Maracanã Stadium for the Opening Ceremony. Comprised of five South Sudanese runners, two Congolese judokas, two swimmers from Syria and a marathoner from Ethiopia, the six male and four female athletes were selected from a pool of 43 possible candidates. Their inclusion was one of the top feel-good moments of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio because the 10-athlete-team not only carried the Olympic flag, but also a message of hope for millions of young people that have been driven from their homes.
However, while there is much to celebrate and many to praise for this unprecedented and historical initiative in the world of sports, in an ideal world such a team should not exist at all. The few joyful moments - compounded with our cheers - should not obscure the realities of unmatched human suffering in refugee camps worldwide. The very existence of such a team reminds us that the world has collectively failed over 65 million displaced people in helping them return home or find a new place to call their permanent home. These athletes represent a community that is running away from regional conflicts, civil wars, aggressions, genocides, famines, poverty, and diseases— some of which are so deep-rooted that finding viable solutions seems elusive.
Every now and then an email stops me in my tracks, reminding me that Oxfam is stuffed full of bright, motivated, altruistic people. Here’s one I got a few weeks ago from Debbie Hillier, one of our Humanitarian Policy Advisers, in response to my request for thoughts on the state of the aid business. Her views are fleshed out in ‘A Preventable Crisis’, a new report published this week:
Here is a current example of how the aid system doesn’t work.
El Niño events and other droughts are forecast months in advance. There is of course some uncertainty in the forecasts, but nonetheless, there is often a high probability of a natural hazard. And with major droughts/El Niño/La Niña, these can affect many millions of people.
So there are situations of high probability and high impact – like the current El Niño. And these are situations where we know what the solutions are. There are far fewer complicating political factors than in conflict – we know what to do.
If this was the private sector, there would be a significant response at this point. However the aid system does not work like this.
In the context of the subsidies regime in India, there is an ongoing debate on the suitability of cash transfers. With the much talked about JAM trinity – the Jan Dhan zero-balance bank accounts, Aadhar and mobile phones, it certainly appears that the state-sponsored welfare system is set to see a significant shift. While this shift may well fall short of being transformative, we could still expect an improvement in how benefits are delivered with reduced leakages to recipients. The use of the JAM model to extend the welfare net and to improve its efficiency implies a decisive move towards cash transfers, and therefore, one may be closer to settling the debate, at least in terms of favoured government policy.
But the argument in favour of cash is not new. I recently came across a 1986 United Nations University WIDER paper by Amartya Sen where he elegantly outlines five arguments in favour of direct distribution of cash in times of food crises. In this paper Food, Economics and Entitlements, Sen tackles this question in the context of a famine. First, Sen demonstrates how even in contexts where aggregate food output is plentiful, the ability of the poor to acquire this food is a whole different matter. Localised food shortages and famine-like situations can arise due to various reasons – at times when the prices of staples rise sharply, or when the prices of products the poor sell fall sharply. However, this isn’t obvious to policymakers as long as they view food sufficiency through the lens of per-capita food production alone.
When famines manifest themselves, there could be multiple policy response options. Sen talks of direct food distribution as the favoured method in those times. Three decades down the line, food relief continues to be popular in times of distress, even as direct cash transfers (as described above) are gaining ground as a favoured instrument of social welfare policy. Policy responses in these times is meant to enhance the ability of those affected, to ‘acquire’ more food. Both market-based solutions that begin with greater availability of cash, and direct distribution are potential paths to this end.