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As life under climate change grows more difficult, one group says cash aid can help

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Climate change poses a particular threat to many of the world's poorest communities, where it's fueling an upswing in deadly flooding and mudslides. Governments have been trying to move people out of harm's way, but an aid group in Uganda is testing whether it's more effective to just give people a sizable cash grant with no strings attached. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Mount Elgon is an extinct volcano in eastern Uganda whose slopes are home to hundreds of thousands of people who eke out a living growing vegetables on small plots cleared from the forest. But as they've cut down ever more trees, and as climate change has made annual rains ever more intense, the mountain has become increasingly prone to mudslides. Wasika Mubarak, a young father, recalls a devastating one in October of 2018.

WASIKA MUBARAK: (Speaking Lumasaba).

AIZENMAN: "I saw a great wave of water rushing down the mountain," he says, in the local language, Lumasaba. "It was picking up giant boulders, swallowing houses."

MUBARAK: (Speaking Lumasaba).

AIZENMAN: Mubarak says he ran home screaming to his wife, who was cooking in the kitchen with their two little boys, aged 6 and 5. She grabbed the oldest and raced outside. Before she or Mubarak could go back for the youngest, the water surged past them, blocking the way.

MUBARAK: (Speaking Lumasaba).

AIZENMAN: "It took us two hours to reach my son," says Mubarak. "He'd been hit with a rock and was bleeding from the head." But the boy recovered. And for Mubarak, what happened in the years that followed has felt almost as scary. With their home destroyed, the only new place they could afford to move to seemed just as dangerous.

MUBARAK: (Speaking Lumasaba).

AIZENMAN: "It's also right on the mountain," says Mubarak. "And there are cracks in the ground around it. So we've been living in fear that at any time a landslide could kill us."

A recent survey by GiveDirectly, an American aid nonprofit that's known for its research-driven approach, suggests many of Mount Elgon's residents share Mubarak's desperation to find a home off of the mountain. And GiveDirectly's global research director, Miriam Laker-Oketta, who's based in Uganda, notes that after a mudslide in 2010, Uganda's government tried to solve the problem by buying land in another region and resettling thousands of Mount Elgon's residents there.

MIRIAM LAKER-OKETTA: Looks like a really great idea. Let's move these people to this place that is not yet overpopulated. Give them larger pieces of land than they have currently.

AIZENMAN: But Laker-Oketta says before long, many people returned to Mount Elgon. The government was slow to build the new housing. But also, the new land was hundreds of miles east.

LAKER-OKETTA: The fact is that people did not want to move to those places.

AIZENMAN: With a different language, different traditions, no connections. Most significantly, says Laker-Oketta, the effort was plagued by a problem that's also undermined other attempts to help people in Mount Elgon. It was a top-down solution.

LAKER-OKETTA: As human beings, we all want agency, the ability to make decisions based on what we believe is important for us. And I think that the big gap was going to the people and trying to understand from them, what do you want to do?

AIZENMAN: One way to do that, says Laker-Oketta - give people aid in the form of cash grants that they can use however they see fit. For decades, her nonprofit, GiveDirectly, has been using cash to lift people out of extreme poverty. And so GiveDirectly has launched a study to see if this approach can also help people on Mount Elgon protect themselves from climate change. Earlier this year, they surveyed them to find out, how much money would you need to relocate to a new setup of your choice?

LAKER-OKETTA: We got an approximate figure of $1,800.

AIZENMAN: Then GiveDirectly started handing out no-strings grants in exactly that amount to about 4,000 households on the mountain. Charles Kenny is a senior fellow at the think tank Center for Global Development.

CHARLES KENNY: I think it's a great idea.

AIZENMAN: Right now, he says, too much of climate aid is spent on projects aimed at preventing further climate change.

KENNY: The thing about climate change is it's having an impact now, and where it's having an impact is in the world's poorest countries.

AIZENMAN: Kenny also notes that prior studies have already shown that poor people tend to use no-strings cash aid pretty effectively.

KENNY: I think it makes particular sense when it comes to the climate crisis. Giving people cash allows them to respond in the ways that they know best.

AIZENMAN: For Mubarak, the benefit is already clear.

MUBARAK: (Speaking Lumasaba).

AIZENMAN: "I immediately bought land in a nearby district out of the dangerous area," he says, "along with metal sheets, to build a house." He's still working on it, but he's already been able to move in. I'm finally going to save my family, he says. Then there's Jane Florence Kaldenda, a 56-year-old widow with four kids.

JANE FLORENCE KALDENDA: (Speaking Lumasaba).

AIZENMAN: She says she, too, has used her grant to buy new land, but she also decided to spend it on school fees, even though that's left her a few hundred dollars short of what she'll need to complete a new house.

KALDENDA: (Speaking Lumasaba).

AIZENMAN: She's hoping to raise the money in a few months by growing some onions from seeds she also bought with the grant. Laker-Oketta, the GiveDirectly head of research, says as much as she wants people to move off the mountain quickly, it's important to respect decisions like that. We're dealing with human beings, she says, not lab rats.

Nurith Aizenman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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