The question of how best to deliver food aid is a controversial one. In recent years, economists like Dean Karlan and Ed Glaeser have suggested that direct cash transfers are the most direct, efficient means of delivering aid to struggling families in the U.S. and elsewhere. In response to the debate, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) collaborated with the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) on several studies. Here's the Ecuador study comparing the effects of aid in the form of cash, food baskets, or supermarket vouchers. And here's a summary of their findings in Ecuador, Niger, Uganda, and Yemen, which were also discussed at a recent IFPRI seminar:
Findings revealed that there is no one “right” transfer modality. The relative effectiveness of different modalities depends heavily on contextual factors such as the severity of food insecurity and the thickness of markets for grains and other foods. In three countries (Ecuador, Uganda, Yemen), cash had a relatively larger impact on improving dietary diversity as did vouchers in Ecuador, but in the fourth country (Niger), food had a larger impact on dietary diversity. Cash assistance was always significantly more cost-effective to deliver. In fact, researchers determined that if they repeated the study, but only distributed cash, they could feed an additional 32,800 people with the same project budget.