Livestock gifts to poor households improve incomes, diets

Livestock gifts to poor households improve incomes, diets

Poor households in developing countries that receive donated livestock see higher incomes and improved diets.

Some humanitarian organizations facilitate livestock donations to poor households in developing countries, but does giving a cow, a pair of oxen or a herd of goats to a poor household really benefit the recipients? According to a recent University of Illinois study, it does.

"Our findings show that livestock transfers significantly increase people's incomes. We saw a large, rapid, sustained increase in consumption expenditures," said Alex Winter-Nelson, agricultural economist and director of the Office of International Programs in the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer & Environmental Sciences.

A Zambian family is shown with gift cow. Credit: University of Illinois.

"For poor households in Zambia, it means spending $1.25 per day rather than just $1 per day. That's enough to change the quality of what they are able to consume," Winter-Nelson said. "Their household budget increases about 25%, which is a remarkable boost in income."

The study also found that people who receive animals change their diet in favor of higher-nutrition foods — mostly milk.

"Dietary diversity is a pretty good indicator of general nutritional intake," Winter-Nelson said. "We don't know the quantity of foods eaten, just the number of foods that are present in the diet. People tend to add new food groups as their income increases and they are getting enough of one food group."

For the study, 300 households in five communities in Zambia's Copperbelt province were interviewed five times over a three-year period. Three of the communities received livestock from Heifer International, and two other communities for comparison were eligible but had not yet received animals. Households in each of the three communities received a different type of livestock — dairy cows, draft cattle or goats — depending on the local conditions.

"What's significant is that animal products become available to everyone in the community, when they were previously absent," he said. "Even the families who didn't receive an animal suddenly have access to milk that can improve their diet and their children's diet."

Winter-Nelson said the increased income and improved diet were similar across the three different types of livestock. The difference was in the timing.

"Households that receive a dairy animal begin benefitting almost immediately because of the milk," he said. "Those who receive draft animals take longer to see the benefit because the need for plowing fields is seasonal, but because they are also female cows, those households have milk available to them. Goats provide the slowest effect. (Those households) receive seven female goats and one male but cannot sell them for meat right away."

Winter-Nelson added that the delayed benefit shouldn't dissuade people from donating goats because it's the poorer households that typically qualify for only smaller animals, and the goats do provide some milk.

Winter-Nelson acknowledged that introducing livestock is controversial because corn must be fed to the animals rather than going to feed people, and there are environmental concerns about large amounts of manure near open water systems. He added that Heifer International, which did not fund this research, is sometimes criticized for its high overhead costs.

"Heifer is a very high-touch program, which is why the costs may be fairly high, but it's extremely effective, in large part because they give communities the knowledge and skills they need to succeed on their own," Winter-Nelson said, explaining that there is at least a year of preparation from the time a community is accepted into the program until they receive animals. In that time, Heifer International provides entrepreneurship training, community development, veterinary services and marketing — all with group accountability.

Heifer International also requires a commitment to pass on the firstborn female offspring. "The group has to have a degree of cohesiveness so the process won't become conflict-ridden," he said. "There has to be an agreement about who receives animals in the first, second or later distribution, for example.

"The bottom line is that income significantly increases and diets improve when livestock are introduced to a community in the context of a well-developed support system, like the one Heifer establishes. If you give poor families an animal without this kind of support, the outcome is less certain," Winter-Nelson said.

The study, "Milk in the Data: Food Security Impacts from a Livestock Field Experiment in Zambia," was published in World Development.

Funding for the research was provided by Elanco Animal Health, which includes two more surveys of the same 300 households.

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