Give Them The God Damn Fish, Part LI

Annie Lowrie in The New York Times writes up the beginning of a scaled up effort to help poor people in Kenya by simply giving them money, no strings attached. The passage below starts with the backstory of the charity doing the work called "GiveDirectly".

Faye and Niehaus — along with their friends Rohit Wanchoo and Jeremy Shapiro, also graduate students — thought about setting up a website to raise cash in the United States and send it directly to poor Kenyans. But they never found a nonprofit that would distribute that cash abroad. They decided to do it themselves in 2008. “Because it was a start-up, and we started in grad school,” Faye said, “we were open to the idea of it being wrong or failing.” The following year, Faye traveled to small Kenyan villages during the summer break, offering cash to whoever seemed poor and would take it. (The money, about $5,000, came out of the foursome’s own pockets.) That, surprisingly, worked well enough to give them the confidence to start a threadbare randomized control trial the year they graduated. It found that the recipients, who received an average of $500, saw excellent outcomes: Their children were 42 percent less likely to go a whole day without eating. Domestic-violence rates dropped, and mental health improved.

Giving free cash works. But that's not the way people prefer to help:

A vast majority of aid — 94 percent — is noncash. Donor resistance is one reason for this; it is not easy to persuade American oligarchs, British inheritors and Japanese industrialists to fork over their money to the extremely poor to use as they see fit. “There’s the usual worries about welfare dependency, the whole ‘Give a man a fish’ thing,” said Amanda Glassman, a public health and development expert at the Center for Global Development. “It’s so powerful. It’s really a basic psychological feature of the landscape. You’ll start drinking. You’ll start lying around at home because you’re getting paid.”

But they don't lay around and drink:

In the pilot-project village, the residents had just started to work through how transformative the program would be, what they could do with the money and how different their lives could feel in 12 years.


But here, many villagers were concerned primarily with procuring the sustenance and basic comforts that their penury had denied them. Odhiambo, the woman who had not been offered aid by the school group, planned to buy corrugated iron sheets for her roof; she considered possibly paying off her dowry. Another villager, Pamela Aooko Odero, ran a household that had been suffering from hunger, with all eight of them living on just 500 to 1,000 shillings a week. She took her money as soon as she got it and went to buy food.

Many more made plans that were entrepreneurial. Two widowed sister-wives, Margaret Aloma Abagi and Mary Abonyo Abagi, told me they planned to pool their funds together to start a small bank with some friends. Charles Omari Ager, a houseboy for the sister-wives, had his phone turned off and wrapped in a plastic bag in his pocket when the first text came in. He was driving the widows’ goats and cattle from one dried-out, bramble-filled meadow to another when he happened upon an aid worker, who prompted him to pull out his phone, turn it on and wait. The text was there. The money was there. “I’m happy! I’m happy! I’m happy!” he said. He bought himself a goat that day.

When he got his money, Erick Odhiambo Madoho walked to the cow-dotted local highway nearest the village and took a matatu, a shared minibus, overloaded with 20 passengers, down to Lake Victoria. There he found an M-Pesa stand and converted his mobile money into shillings. He used the cash to buy the first of three rounds of filament-thin fishing line that he would need to hand-knot into nets to catch tilapia in the lake.

When the nets were done, he told me, he would rent a boat and hire a day laborer to work with him. He anticipated that his income, after costs, might reach as much as 2,000 shillings on a good day. I asked him why he hadn’t saved money for nets beforehand.

He shrugged, smiled and said, “I could not.”