From the beginning, our goal at GiveDirectly has been to build an efficient and scalable platform to deliver cash transfers to poor people around the world.  After months of planning and execution, we are very happy to announce that we now have a program up and running in a second country: Uganda!

Cash transfer recipients in Kawo village, Uganda
Cash transfer recipients gathered for a village meeting with GiveDirectly staff in Kawo village, Uganda.

While we considered a number of countries for expansion, our decision came down to Uganda’s strong mobile banking sector and large population of people living on less than $1/ day, as well as the regional expertise we had developed in East Africa.

With support from a Google Global Impact Award, we successfully identified and enrolled nearly 1,000 extremely poor households in the Eastern Region and are in the process of delivering $1 million in direct transfers using two electronic payments providers: Ezee Money and MTN Mobile Money. Expansion into Uganda represents an exciting and critical step in our trajectory as an organization. And as the team member who was most directly involved in establishing this new program, I was thrilled to see the robustness and scalability of our model validated first-hand.

While cash transfers are simple conceptually, building a successful program involves a great deal of complexity, problem-solving, and attention to detail.  When I arrived in March, I quickly learned that despite its proximity to Kenya, Uganda would present us with many new implementation challenges. We had to learn a great deal about the environment and make a number of critical decisions: Which region, district, and villages should we start working in? How do we design the interface with a new mobile money platform? How are households and communities structured and how does that affect our targeting? How do we build our field team? Here are a few of the specific challenges we overcame:

  • Because government is more decentralized in Uganda, we had to invest a significant amount of time up-front in meeting officials at many levels to secure permission and buy-in
  • In the extremely rural areas where we chose to work, few households possessed government IDs (required to register for mobile money) so we had to find creative ways to expedite ID procurement
  • We faced a new set of last-mile payment challenges because mobile money agents in rural areas have less capacity overall than in Kenya; we had to work closely with our partners to provide customized and high-quality registration and payment services to our recipients
  • A large variety of languages are spoken in Uganda; when recruiting local staff, we had to find well-qualified candidates who spoke both English and a fairly uncommon local language, Ateso

While we had to customize our platform in various ways, the core components of our approach translated extremely well to the new setting: a multi-layered, technology-driven system of checks and audits to ensure the integrity of our processes; a focus on transparent and respectful communication with recipients and communities about our program; and a commitment to building an exemplary team of local staff to man the front line.

Perhaps most compelling for me was seeing a similar evolution of thinking among our staff and recipients as I had previously seen in Kenya: from initial skepticism about both the validity of the approach and our ability to deliver on our commitments, to tremendous excitement when cash actually reached the hands of the poor and began to have a transformative impact on households. Take a look at the video clips at the end of this post that show two of our Field Officers discussing their initial reservations and why their thinking changed.

Bringing GiveDirectly to Uganda has been a deeply rewarding experience for our team, and we look forward to applying the lessons we learned in Uganda to future expansion in East Africa and elsewhere. I look forward to sharing more about our program and recipients in Uganda in the coming months.

“The first time I heard about GiveDirectly, I couldn’t believe [an NGO could] just come in and give free money…and I thought people were going to waste it….” in this video, GiveDirectly Uganda field officers Rosemary Apolot and Charles Omoding share their initial skepticism about giving cash to the poor, and explain how their experiences with GiveDirectly recipients changed their thinking.

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