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Should I Give a Cow or Cash for Christmas?

A few weeks ago the Heifer Project animal gift catalog made its annual pilgrimage through our mail slot, landing on our entryway floor right on time for the holidays. Donating a farm animal to a family in a developing country as a Christmas gift to another has become a tradition in our own family. Over the years, I have been the patron donor of chickens, a goat, rabbits, frankly, enough farm animals to make Old McDonald jealous. One year I gave (part) of a water buffalo to my younger brother.

This is an increasingly common Christmas present—to make a donation to a poor family in a developing country in the name of a loved one. Increasingly, organizations such as the Heifer Project, World Vision, Samaritan's Purse, Kiva, and other charitable organizations send out gift catalogs and online promotions with a bounty of attractive Christmas gifts to choose from: a pig for a family in Nepal, a microfinance gift certificate for a budding entrepreneur in El Salvador, a freshwater well in Ethiopia.

With so many options available, the obvious question is: Which gifts have the biggest positive impact for the poor? This is a question that interests me not just as a Christian but as a development economist. Do these donations really make a difference, and if so what kind of difference?

Do Heifers Help?

Let's start by looking at farm animal donations. The specific question here is whether this cute farm animal donation idea is just an ingenious way to make rich Americans feel less guilty about their holiday excesses, or whether it really helps poor people overseas. Cornell agricultural economics professor Chris Barrett and I worked with three of our eager graduate students to find out. We used a statistical matching method that paired recipient households with similar households who were next in the pipeline to receive an animal.

Is this cute farm animal donation idea just an ingenious way to make rich Americans feel less guilty about their holiday excesses, or does it really helps poor people overseas?

Our study, forthcoming in 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).

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Should I Give a Cow or Cash for Christmas?