Forbes’ Kerry Dolan has a write up about GiveDirectly, a new highly-backed start-up working to change the rules on how aid is administered, by giving the money to the poor directly. At face value, I have to applaud GiveDirectly’s efforts to cut out the middle man (or should I say the traditional middle man. Because in essence, if you are giving money to the poor through an organization, then said organization still plays the role of intermediary between you and the poor.) On second thought, maybe this is just a twist of the same idea.

Dolan’s piece, like many she writes, is about how the rich make and spend their money. In this case, how and why Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes and others are supporting GiveDirectly.

While I have no qualms with American philanthropy, I am left a bit uneasy with the below quote from one of GiveDirectly’s board members, Paul Niehaus, about why people in Africa are poor (emphasis mine).

GiveDirectly’s giving has had “big impacts on nutrition, education, land and livestock” and “hasn’t been shown to increase how much people drink,” Niehaus emphasized. “A typical poor person is poor not because he is irresponsible, but because he was born in Africa.”

First I am not quite sure what drinking habits of the poor have to do with GiveDiretly’s strategy. Secondly, when did being born in Africa become synonymous with being poor? When persons of privilege write off an entire continent like Africa with sweeping generalities to justify their personal entitlement, I can’t help but feel a little disrespected. As an African (Diaspora as I may be), even if I didn’t have a lot of money (and I don’t), I would take offense to this broad characterization that I am poor (because I was born African) and therefore deserving of charity.

The continued insistence that the solution to Africa’s development challenges is charitable donations is a bit lazy and misguided. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for charity in all societies, but a heavy insistence on it will never be the platform upon which Africa builds wealth and modernizes. Instead, what it will do is continue to enslave our minds into believing that we are not the key to our own salvation. To continue to believe that we must not hold our governments to account for lack of basic civil services, but instead learn to write a fundable project proposal for Western development agencies.

While many parts of Africa are not swimming in Silicon Valley excess and rightly qualify as ‘poor,’ there are equally as many parts that are doing quite well or improving. That Niehaus chose to use a 1980’s Sir Bob Geldorf definition of Africa is disappointing. That GiveDirectly chose a charity model rather than an investment model is perplexing but not all that surprising.

It is interesting that the divide between rich and poor in the United States is at it’s widest point, yet GiveDirectly chose to work in Kenya, instead of helping the poor directly in their backyard. Isn’t it fascinating, the power of perception?

  1. Dear TMS,

    A friend just pointed me to your recent post discussing Kerry Dolan’s piece, GiveDirectly, and some of my own remarks. I wanted to thank you for taking time to write and hope we can use your comments as the starting point for a conversation, particularly as I don’t think you’ve fully understood much of what I said. I’ve put some initial reactions below and would be happy to find time to talk on the phone.

    warm regards,
    ~ Paul

    “If you are giving money to the poor through an organization, then said organization still plays the role of intermediary between you and the poor.” –> Of course — most Americans don’t have the ability to locate poor families on another continent themselves, so they need someone to do this for them. This isn’t the key issue — the key thing is who gets to decide how philanthropic dollars are used. Currently it’s technocrats working in intermediaries; we created GiveDirectly to bypass them and let the recipients make their own choices.

    “First I am not quite sure what drinking habits of the poor have to do with GiveDiretly’s strategy” –> Sadly, one of the most common criticisms of direct giving is that the poor can’t be trusted to use money responsibly. In particular, many American donors believe that the poor will simply drink away any money they are given. Much of what we do at GiveDirectly is simply talking with donors about the research on cash transfers to help dispel these kinds of derogatory stereotypes.

    “Secondly, when did being born in Africa become synonymous with being poor?” –> This is obviously false and no one is suggesting it. My quote, which Kerry abbreviated, runs: “The typical poor person in Africa is poor not because they are irresponsible, but because they were born in Africa.” The point we are making is that being poor in Africa is not synonymous with being irresponsible, which sadly is a widely held stereotype.

    “The continued insistence that the solution to Africa’s development challenges is charitable donations is a bit lazy and misguided.” –> We’re very far from insisting that charitable giving is the solution to Africa’s development challenges — I’ve never made such a statement and am puzzled what gave you this impression. Our goal is to make sure that charitable dollars are used as efficiently and effectively as possible, but we’re very explicit that they are not a panacea. Kerry notes this towards the end of her article.

    “That GiveDirectly chose a charity model rather than an investment model is perplexing but not all that surprising.” –> This seems to endorse the common misperception that poor people are irresponsible and don’t plan for the future. In fact, the evidence tells us that the poor use cash to make a mix of short and long term investments, including in tangible assets that generate high rates of return in the short term (e.g., farm equipment, livestock, housing), and in schooling and nutrition for children which which pay off over many years.

    “It is interesting that the divide between rich and poor in the United States is at it’s widest point, yet GiveDirectly chose to work in Kenya, instead of helping the poor directly in their backyard.” –> Cash transfers is an innovation from the developing world, not the US – they are the result of groundbreaking work by the governments of Mexico, Brazil and other Latin American countries which has been extensively replicated and researched in other settings across Africa and Asia. Although the US has recently begun to follow on a small scale (e.g., New York City), there is not robust evidence yet. Given our commitment to implementing based on evidence, we are focused on where the evidence is strongest.

    • Paul, thanks for taking the time to read and pen a response to my criticism. I am always welcome the opportunity for dialog.

      The topic of my post was [mainly] about how we are characterized and represented. Not the mechanical nuance of direct cash transfers. As such I’ll reserve my comments to your defense of your quote. I see no difference in your full comment, versus what Kerry abbreviated. Kerry’s abbreviation says exactly the same thing you do in fewer words.

      I also disagree that it is a widely held belief that the poor drink away their money, and as such are poor because of irresponsible behavior. That perhaps could be true in some corner of the land of opportunity that is America, but isn’t the case for most of Africa. Poverty is a global phenomenon. We’ll never truly get rid of it, because to do so is to claim that there’s a cure for reckless human behavior.

      If Americans have this “widely held belief” that the African poor will drink away the money they are given then by all means, let them keep their money. Both the rich and the poor enjoy vices, some more than others. Both rich and poor can make irresponsible decisions about their money.

      I applaud your efforts in dispelling the notion that the Africa’s poor can’t handle their affairs if given a leg up the prosperity ladder. This false notion that Africa’s poor lack agency and thus justification for intrusive Western help is what I fight against all the time. It is a dangerous, dehumanizing characterization and only serves those with privilege (consciously or unconsciously).

      The majority of people who earn a living, spend their money wisely and plan for the future. A vibrant job market and sustainable economies do more to cast the net of opportunity to more people than the stop-gap solution like GiveDirectly. The creation of such an environment is solely the responsibility of our respective governments. So long as institutions like yours give them a reason not to do their jobs, we will always suffer with short-term, experimental Western intervention.

      For Africa to take care of it’s own, we need our governments to “GiveDirectly” to us the citizens, opportunities that can allow us to exercise our agency. Good intentions Mr. Niehaus, will do little to build an economic base upon which we can stake our futures.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>