Foreign aid has traditionally taken the form of in-kind assistance: sending meals or medicine, helping build houses or schools, and so on. This can lead to all kinds of unfortunate side effects, as when free food from abroad undercuts local farmers. There is also a recurring mismatch between what the planners in aid agencies think a community needs and what the people on the ground actually want. And so a small group of forward-looking aid workers has embraced a cheaper, more flexible, and less paternalistic approach: Just send people cash instead.
The leading player here is GiveDirectly, a U.S.-based charity buoyed by the rise of mobile payments, which have made it much easier to send people money without passing through political or bureaucratic middlemen. The group has been sending conditionless cash aid to East Africa for several years, with encouraging results. It is now preparing an ambitious experiment in a universal basic income—a system in which they’ll send cash to everyone in several Kenyan villages, not just the neediest citizens. (I reported on the experiment back in December, and you can read that story for an outline of the plan.)
Now The New York Times has published a dispatch from the first village to get the funds. Here’s an excerpt:
The villagers had seen Western aid groups come through before, sure, but nearly all of them brought stuff, not money. And because many of these organizations were religious, their gifts came with moral impositions; I was told that one declined to help a young mother whose child was born out of wedlock, for example. With little sense of who would get what and how and from whom and why, rumors blossomed. One villager heard that GiveDirectly would kidnap children. Some thought that the organization was aligned with the Illuminati, or that it would blight the village with giant snakes, or that it performed blood magic. Others heard that the money was coming from Obama himself.
But the confusion faded that unseasonably cool morning in October, when a GiveDirectly team returned to explain themselves during a town meeting. Nearly all of the village’s 220 people crowded into a blue-and-white tent placed near the school building, watching nervously as 13 strangers, a few of them white, sat on plastic chairs opposite them. Lydia Tala, a Kenyan GiveDirectly staff member, got up to address the group in Dholuo. She spoke at a deliberate pace, awaiting a hum and a nod from the crowd before she moved on: These visitors are from GiveDirectly. GiveDirectly is a nongovernmental organization that is not affiliated with any political party. GiveDirectly is based in the United States. GiveDirectly works with mobile phones. Each person must have his or her own mobile phone, and they must keep their PIN secret. Nobody must involve themselves in criminal activity or terrorism. This went on for nearly two hours. The children were growing restless.
Finally, Tala passed the microphone to her colleague, Brian Ouma. “People of the village,” he said, “are you happy?”
“We are!” they cried in unison.
Then he laid out the particulars. “Every registered person will receive 2,280 shillings”—about $22—”each and every month. You hear me?” The audience gasped and burst into wild applause. “Every person we register here will receive the money, I said—2,280 shillings! Every month. This money, you will get for the next 12 years. How many years?”
To read the rest, go here. To see some testimonials from the villagers, go here. And stay tuned—I’ve been writing a feature for Reason on the long, messy history of the basic-income idea. It’ll cover GiveDirectly and a great deal more.