Last month, negotiators at the U.N.’s COP27 secured agreement from wealthier countries to create a fund to help low-income, vulnerable countries cope with climate disasters. This builds on the $100B per year pledged by wealthier countries for a similar purpose, a financial acknowledgment that those living in the poorest nations bear the brunt of but not the responsibility for the impacts of historic carbon emissions. 

As leaders continue debating the terms of this funding, the world should align on how to spend it to do the most good. Despite the U.N. call for a 50/50 split, today over 90% of money meant to address climate change goes to carbon mitigation efforts with the small remainder going to help poorer countries adapt. More money must go to adaptation, as climate disasters are inevitable and worsening.

A vital but often overlooked way to help people in poverty adapt to climate change: simply giving them this money directly. This can be done through pre- & post-disaster transfers and targeted resilience-building programs, which we outline below.

People in poverty need money to recover from climate disasters

Two cyclones struck Mozambique in 2019, causing $3.2B in damage, equal to a fifth of their GDP. The same year, Hurricane Dorian caused $3.4B in damage in the Bahamas, a quarter of their GDP. While public works are certainly impacted, much of this damage and burden is felt by individuals. Evidence shows giving them cash directly without conditions lets them both meet their immediate needs and rebuild their lives.

After disasters, dangerous conditions complicate delivering aid and force families to disperse to safety. Unlike giving items like water and tarps, cash transfers can reach them remotely and immediately, which they can spend where markets still exist. GiveDirectly has built tools to target those most in need as soon as a storm strikes, in some cases getting payments to hurricane survivors just 5 days later.  Below are stories of how flood survivors in Nigeria used $112 to stave off the worst impacts of floods this October.

In a more sustained crisis, like the drought now gripping the Horn of Africa, families need cash to address food shortfalls, urgent medical needs, or source water (a common use of funds).

In some cases, we can send them money before disasters strike

While climate disasters are difficult to forecast, we often know when they’re about to strike. Sofala, Mozambique, has suffered destructive flooding each cyclone season for the past few years. That’s why we’re launching a pilot with the Mozambique government to make “anticipatory cash transfers,” sending people ~$225 just before the next flood strikes. 

We expect this to have a significant impact. Researchers compared families in Bangladesh who received cash aid before a 2020 flood to those who did not and found:

  • less hunger: they were 36% less likely to go a day without eating during the flood.
  • better evacuation: 12% more likely to evacuate and 17% more likely to evacuate their livestock
  • more resilience: 3 months later, reported higher food consumption and well-being, lower asset loss, and were less likely to take out costly loans to recover

Next month, we’ll begin pre-enrolling large swathes of households we expect to suffer from flooding during this spring’s cyclone season. Then, days before the next storm strikes, we’ll use predictive mapping to send mobile payments to over 6,500 of these households about to be impacted so they can make the quick investments required to survive. This pilot will inform our design and implementation of future programs.

Receiving money when there isn’t a crisis lets families build resilience for when there is

How severely a climate disaster impacts a family often depends on the stability of their lives before it arrives. Improvised structures wash away before brick ones. Families with no savings go hungry before those with funds. However, sustained extreme poverty means many never get a chance to build this resilience. Here are a few of our programs addressing this: 

Basic income can ease shocks.

Research from Niger and Zambia found a multi-year basic income helps households weather climate shocks better than those who did not receive funds. That’s why, with USAID, we’re sending about 5,000 households in a flood and drought-affected region in Mozambique $40/mo. More here→

Timed transfers support farming innovations.

Many people living in poverty are subsistence farmers, growing just enough to eat. Climate change is causing crop shortfalls across Africa, Central America, and the Middle East in regions that had supported farming for centuries prior. This creates widespread famine, forcing many families to migrate. 

Yet, in many cases, there are simple innovations (crop rotation, fertilizers, and certified seed varieties) that will make farmers more resilient to climate shocks that they’re simply too poor to afford. Our program in Malawi, where over 80% of people grow what they eat, pairs two $400 unconditional payments timed around planting seasons with information on these practices. Six months later, our own surveying has found a 48% increase in families buying improved seeds and a similar spike in crop rotation/mixing.

Large transfers allow for relocation.

Some of the poorest families want to move out of harm’s way but are simply unable to afford the expenses involved. With the Ugandan government, GiveDirectly is giving $1,800 to families in the Mt. Elgon region, where landslides have worsened due to climate change. These transfers are specifically sized to help families relocate, but can be spent as they see fit. 

This shows direct cash should be part of climate change innovation

Richer countries pledging climate support to poorer ones is an overdue action, yet has still been met with resistance. Some leaders argue spending should be focused on ‘innovation’ rather than support to the poorest countries – a false distinction. The pervasiveness of this critique is a sign that if we limit our definition of ‘innovation’ we’re at risk of not funding solutions for the poorest. Innovation must mean more than just green tech; it should include improved farming in the face of drought, restarting a life away from landslides, or cash hitting a mobile money account just before a cyclone makes landfall. 

Direct cash aid gives people in poverty the ability to innovate in the face of a crisis they did not create. While low-carbon breakthroughs are still needed, if we don’t support individuals as well, we’re depriving the people bearing the brunt of climate change of the tools to survive it.