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First Impressions from the Field

“We target the poorest people in the region and try to get the cash to them as efficiently as possible.”

“Okay…” I responded. There was a five-second pause before Joy clarified:

“And that, in it its simplest form, is it.”

“Oh, ok…. You don’t give them advice on how to spend it?”

“No. We believe individuals know best what they need.”

That was my first introduction to the GiveDirectly model of unconditional cash transfers. I was speaking to Joy in May of last year, having heard about the organization through mutual friends. As you can probably guess from that conversation, I was skeptical at first.

Fast forward seven months from that initial conversation and I feel very privileged to have been appointed the new Field Director in Uganda. I spent the time after our initial conversation working in Ethiopia on the topic of climate change. While hugely important and one of the biggest global challenges today, I knew that I wanted an opportunity to deliver more immediate impact and make a material difference to those most in need. My instincts told me that I would get that chance at GiveDirectly.

I have now spent one week on the ground in Kenya, meeting the current team and visiting some of our initial recipients. Whilst watching and learning I observed a few aspects of GiveDirectly’s operations that surprised me and noted a couple of things to look forward to in the future.

Observations on our model

Firstly, the model features multiple checks and balances, with recipients having up to five touch-points with GiveDirectly staff before receiving their first transfer. This is to overcome any village-level data issues, ensuring that we are living up to our mission of identifying and reaching those that are most in need. It isn’t as simple as turning up at the home of someone with a thatched roof (one of our identified targeting criteria); all information — including names, house location, pictures and mobile numbers — must match before that first transfer is submitted.

Second, each step requires substantial staff effort on the ground. Currently, we have over 30 staff members in Kenya alone, all of whom work long, grueling hours walking through the rain, talking to our recipients and investigating suspicious cases. The quality of the individuals that I met was energizing — they are well-educated, communicate very eloquently (“we speak the Queen’s English”, as Andrew, one of our Senior Field Officers put it) and, above all are extremely passionate about GiveDirectly and the work we do.

Finally, communities’ support for our values I have found particularly striking. All members of a community in which we work are given a GiveDirectly hotline number to call if they feel there is anything suspicious, or there are rumors relating to GiveDirectly in the local community. This has been an important avenue of information for us and illustrates the fantastic work our Field Officers are doing in transmitting our values to recipients and communities.

Looking to the future

After an inspiring week understanding the work that we are currently doing today, I look forward to tackling a big question as I begin my work on the ground in Uganda: what could we improve in the model?

Efficiency is obviously one — David Brailsford, head of Great Britain cycling (my British bias coming in), attributes the large success of his organization to the “sum of marginal improvements”. That is what we need to continue to strive for, trialing and scrutinizing anything that we implement. While we may not need to go to the extreme of teaching Field Officers how to wash their hands to reduce sick days (which they actually do!), we should frequently evaluate how much benefit we are seeing from each step of our approach and continue to trial new ideas to improve the model.

Another question I’m excited to pursue and that I think our work in Uganda can help answer is how we work in areas where financial inclusion and mobile connectivity are poor. Understanding what it takes to deliver under these circumstances will be important as we look towards the future.