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Reflections from a trip to Kenya


One of our donors recently spent five days with our team in Kenya and shared his reflections. We found them thoughtful, candid, and insightful, and asked to republish them here.

Carlos Dominguez

Context note: I work at a financial firm in NYC. This firm has an “employee philanthropy bulletin board” where people discuss their giving strategies. I mentioned that I was planning a trip to Kenya to shadow GiveDirectly and learn more about poverty up close. Several people asked me to write about the experience, and I obliged. I also shared my write-up with the GiveDirectly staff, who are flattering me by posting it here. The text is reproduced below with a few minor edits.

I was in Kenya for five days. The first day I was a tourist in Nairobi. The second day I was in the Nairobi GiveDirectly (hereafter “GD”) office, meeting the team and learning in depth about how the operation works. That evening I flew to Kisumu. The remaining three days I spent with two GD employees (Caroline Teti and Erick Oyier) “in the field.”

We visited lump-sum villages, UBI villages, soon-to-be-recipient villages, a village made up entirely of refugees, and even a village that had rejected GD. I conducted over a dozen one-on-one interviews with villagers (and one ex-villager who moved to an urban area), observed enrollment processes, and sat in on a village meeting.

Needless to say, I met a wide range of people with different experiences and heard a lot of stories. Where do I even begin?

Yes, we saw a lot of very poor people. One woman had seven children, lived in a tiny house with leaking walls and no furniture, slept on a pile of dirty clothes, did backbreaking farm labor, and got her water from a stream that sometimes ran dry, forcing her to choose between buying food and buying water. But surely you already know these people exist; you don’t need to fly to East Africa to convince yourself.

And yes, recipients told me about the myriad ways they were using their transfers to better their lives – building livable housing, investing in their businesses, sending their children to school, and so on. But this is not new information either; you can read about this all day on GDLive.

And would those anecdotes convince you that cash transfers “work,” anyway? They shouldn’t; GD lives and dies by its research and RCTs, and it’s those that contain the proof that you ought to demand.

No, I felt compelled to visit these villages in person because even though I could rattle off some facts above poverty, I knew them only abstractly. Even though I had decided for a variety of reasons that giving to GD was a Good Thing To Do, reading about positive outcomes from transfer recipients made me feel a strange nothing. It’s not that I couldn’t tell you that it’s good for a person to go fewer days in a year without food. But when I read about such an outcome, I couldn’t conjure up a person in my head to whom to say “I’m happy for you.” Such people were just too distant from my experience to regard in any way whatsoever.  So, in a sense, my hope was that meeting some of those people could improve my intuitions about giving by taking things I *knew* were real and making them *feel* real.

It was an overwhelming experience. Situations I once found impossible to imagine were suddenly impossible to escape. If I had wanted to turn my eyes away from the overcrowded, caving-in house, I couldn’t just close the browser tab; my eyes would have had to rest on the laundry soaking in filthy water, or the sick children sulking around without shoes, or a woman clearly too old to be working literally doubled over in a field. And you could feel the difference in recipient villages: Fewer children were running around during school hours. Houses were bigger and cleaner. People smiled.

Now I read GDLive differently. Now I see the photo and read the questionnaire and think, “I’ve met someone like you with problems like yours. We sat in your house and you told me about them. I wish you the best of luck.”

And so this essay must disappoint, because I cannot recreate this experience for you merely by writing about it. Instead all I can offer is a list of assorted observations. Here they are anyway.

Assorted observations from the field

1. Recipients were universally warm, welcoming, and thankful. One household, who spent their transfers mostly on livestock for breeding, gave us a chicken as a thank-you. (I assumed the GD people would always turn stuff like that down, but they actually took it. It rode around with us for the rest of the day in the back seat of the car, making chicken noises. It was kind of adorable.)

2. Pretty much everybody mentioned some kind of spending on education. Sure, everyone was paying school fees for their children, but even some adults were investing in non-university job-specific training. One recipient in a UBI village was using part of his transfers to take an 8-hour (!) bus to Nairobi at least once a month to apprentice at some kind of auto repair shop.

As an American, I’m used to a public discourse about education that focuses on its expense, its inaccessibility, its inequality, and its often lower-than-expected ROI, so it was heartening to hear the variety of creative ways in which people were getting different kinds of educations and turning them into economic opportunities.

3. You quickly realize that your conception of a “good” or “prestigious” job is completely irrelevant here. One recipient moved from the village to Kisumu to open up a haircutting shop. (We talked to her mother in the village.) This gave her enough income to move into a larger space where she could rent out a room, bringing in even more income, some of which she sent back to her mother in the village to help care for the other children. This seems like a huge success, but before I heard the story I never would have thought of haircutting as being a business that could lift a family out of poverty over the long-term.

We also visited a recipient who had moved from her village into an urban/market-center type area; she was running a fruit stand, not especially different than the mango sellers you might see in a Manhattan neighborhood. Despite the unimpressive sight, she described herself as being far better off than she was in the village. You get the impression that virtually any job you can get in an urban area is extremely preferable to any job in the village.

One recipient was saving UBI transfers to buy a car-wash machine, which seemed amazing given that we were very far from a place where anyone owned a car. (I didn’t meet this recipient in person; a GD new hire was actually doing recipient interviews at the same time I was, and she told me about him.)

In general, stories of the form “<Person X> got <small amount of job training> and <some basic equipment> and moved to <slightly more urban area> and is now (relatively) rich” were common.

4. No one explicitly pointed out “synergies” in how people used the transfers, but you could often find examples by stitching together individual recipient’s stories. For example, one recipient pointed out that the elderly sometimes use transfer money to take motorbike taxi rides to the doctor when they are too sick to walk, while a different recipient mentioned that someone in the village had purchased a motorbike with the transfers and seemed to be doing well. Or: one villager pointed out an explosion of shops within the village, making it much easier to buy goods. Part of that is, of course, the fact that villagers had the capital to start such shops, but surely part of that is also the fact that improved transportation options made it easier to get bring large amounts of goods back to the village. I guess mostly what I’m saying is that transportation improvements are transformative village-wide, which may be obvious, but it was cool to see it playing out in real-time.

5. Most people who mentioned being hungry before the transfers said that they were eating better now. That said, I did talk to one woman who was actively concerned about her farm’s yield. This made me very uncomfortable — after all, virtually all the recipients I had spoken to so far had claimed unqualified success — and I asked if she feared she might slip back to where she was before GD came. She gave me a confused look and (re-)explained that she had been able to build herself a newer, safer, non-leaky house, and that she was now much more respected in the village. I forgot that, even if you’re hungry, other things can still matter *also*, and I felt silly.

6. While many people seemed to use their newfound capital to jump into a business that’s *not farming*, some people used transfers to rent farmland in locations with more productive soil. (In general, the villages we visited were very dusty.) Anecdotally this was a successful strategy; people spoke of being able to stockpile extra food and even sell some in the market, which was nice to hear.

7. People can be—understandably!—skeptical of free cash. As I mentioned, we visited a village that had previously rejected GD. For context:
  – GD tries to start working in a bunch of villages in the same area at the same time.
  – Before GD can start enrolling people, they need to reach at least 75% of the village through a village meeting. (They won’t go house-to-house without reaching this 75% threshold because it’s just too costly to have to give the whole “what is GD?” lecture over and over again.)

This particular village quickly got swept up in all kinds of colorful rumors about GD having ties to the Illuminati or the devil, and if you took the money then your children would die, etc. So most of the villagers avoided the village meetings, and eventually GD gave up. The other villages in the sub-county, however, received transfers without issue. The leader of the sub-county (“assistant chief”) noticed that the villages that received the transfers were doing substantially better than this one that hadn’t, and so had written to GD with a list of poor people in the village and asked if at least they could receive transfers.

GD had to follow the 75% protocol, but agreed to try enrolling the village again if the assistant chief would help get the villagers on board. That’s the meeting I witnessed. The assistant chief — an imposing guy in camo with a black cane and a military mustache — gave the village a talking-to and then yielded the floor to the GD officer. It was quite a sight. The GD officer ranted and gesticulated like a TV salesman, because it turns out that even (potential) recipients needed to be sold on free money. During the Q&A period, one lady asked about an very intricate rumor she heard, where the cell phone that GD gives you would start talking to you of its own accord in the middle of the night, and that it would tell you that you would be visited by an animal, and if you struck the animal it wouldn’t fight back, and when you killed it for food it would turn into your husband. I actually didn’t get to hear the translated response – Erick had gotten up to walk around, as it was evening and it had actually gotten quite cold – but I assume GD had to explain to her that we weren’t trying to trick her with magic into killing her husband.

8. Things change. In one village I spoke with a very old woman who had lived in the same village for something like 50 years. I took the opportunity to ask how the village had changed over that time, not including GD’s arrival. Some of the things she listed were: improved farming techniques, more independence among women, better access to education, and a greater perceived value of education among the people. Not mentioned was village electrification, but this was apparently going on as evidenced by the light bulbs hanging from the ceiling in some villagers’ houses.

It can be easy to look at the tractor-less farms and the thatched roofs and see extreme poverty as a state of stasis—the extremely poor as being tragically lost to history—and you wonder whether helping someone buy a new roof or a couple of cows will really make a difference a couple generations down the line. I don’t have the data to answer that question, unfortunately. But for now I try not to hold myself to that standard; I’m satisfied to give in a way that verifiably lessens people’s burdens now, while the development world continues to learn, to innovate, and to wait.