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Conversations with the Kenya team

As a way of building connections among our teams in the US and Africa, GiveDirectly has set up regular international one-on-one chats between team members in Uganda, Kenya and the US. Of course a call or online chat isn’t as good as meeting with coworkers in person, but these short conversations are teaching me a lot, and teammates in Kenya are answering some questions that I would never have thought to ask. For the benefit of those, who, like me, have not met our Africa-based teams in person, I would like to share a few things that I learned.

First, here’s something I hadn’t thought much about but that surprised and impressed me: in Kenya, the GiveDirectly field officers who register recipients and conduct follow-up interviews all speak at least two languages–usually three. This came up in a conversation with a coworker, who didn’t seem to think it was a big deal at all. She told me that in school she had taken classes conducted in both Swahili and English, and she also spoke a third language, Luo, at home. Another coworker explained to me that as GiveDirectly expands into new areas of Kenya, it is necessary to find field workers who speak a variety of different regional languages, because languages can vary from one county to the next.

A second thing I hadn’t considered: though I know that GiveDirectly targets some of the poorest people in the world, I hadn’t thought much about those in Kenya who are NOT living in extreme poverty, but are facing economic stress nonetheless. The unemployment rate in Kenya is high, especially among young people. A few members of our Kenyan team had worked at NGOs before; one explained to me that he had spent a few years working as a volunteer at an NGO because no other jobs were available and volunteering was his best way to get a foot in the door to a paying job. Hearing this made me think a bit differently about GiveDirectly’s efficiency metrics; though we often focus on keeping operating costs low as a percentage of cash transferred, I am glad to know that GiveDirectly does create paying jobs, and that the majority of our employees are locally hired in the places where we operate.

The third and biggest takeaway from my conversations is this: this job is rewarding, but it’s not easy. From thousands of miles away, I tend to focus on the positive feelings that come from helping to deliver cash to people in need, but for GiveDirectly’s field teams, the job is much more complicated than that. It includes amazing high points like helping an elderly woman provide herself with food and a comfortable home, or seeing a family suddenly able to send their child to school, but there are also low points, like having to explain to someone in need that they are not quite poor enough to qualify for a cash transfer. In spite of all of the technology GiveDirectly uses to monitor performance and securely deliver cash, the success or failure of our programs still depends on the personal connections made by these teams on the ground. They carry the weight of great responsibility and trust, invested in them by both recipients and donors.

I wish that all of GiveDirectly’s supporters could have an opportunity to speak directly to our field teams, but that would not be very efficient–they have work to do. Though I have not met most of them in person, I am proud that they are ambassadors on the ground for GiveDirectly, and for the concept of cash transfers to the poor.

Thanks especially to Witness, Andrew, Caroline, Lawrence, Lydia, and Michael.