In February, Jacob Kushner, a journalist living in Kenya, contacted us. We have long been interested in seeing more substantive coverage of philanthropy, so we were excited to talk to him.
As a pilot project, Mr. Kushner decided to visit villages in which GiveDirectly had distributed some of its earliest cash transfers. We spoke with Mr. Kushner several times to offer thoughts and feedback, but we encouraged him to write about whatever he found (positive or negative about GiveDirectly). We also put him in touch with GiveDirectly to confirm that staff there were amenable to this project.
Mr. Kushner completed his trip in April, and his full article follows. He also shared his full interview notes with us which we’ve posted here.
When giving out cash to the poor, what happens when some are left behind?
A closer look at whether GiveDirectly’s cash transfers stoke community tension in Western Kenya
By Jacob Kushner
For several years now, the charity GiveDirectly has experimented with different ways of deciding who among Western Kenya’s rural poor should receive cash transfers. It’s an important consideration, because $1,000 means a lot to the families that receive it—and it can mean a lot of disappointment to the families that don’t. Last month I traveled to Western Kenya to speak with both lots, and I found that the discrepancy did not go unnoticed in their communities.
To date, GiveDirectly has undergone five different transfer programs in Siaya over the past three years, with different metrics for selecting recipients. I interviewed recipients from three of those cohorts:
- The Google Cohort (approximately 850 ‘thatch-roof only’ recipients whose transfers were completed in October 2013)
- The 200k Cohort (approximately 200 ‘thatch-roof only’ recipients whose transfers were completed in January 2013)
- The 2M cohort (approximately 2,000 recipients divided into ‘thatch-roof only’ villages and ‘saturation’ villages (in which nearly everyone is eligible) who have received one major transfer and will receive the second and final one in July 2014).
In a follow-up to a randomized controlled trial, GiveDirectly asked residents if they’d heard any complaints about GiveDirectly in their community. Sixty-four percent of respondents in Siaya County answered “yes,” as did 48 percent of those in the “Google” cohort (in Rareida it was 28 percent).
Fewer than 6 percent of respondents in all four groups said shouting or angry arguments had ensued because of the transfers, and fewer than 4 percent said they’d experienced crime, theft or violence or felt threatened as a result. Virtually no one said they’d argued with family members over how to spend the money, and no more than 7 percent in any group said their village elder had approached them asking for money.
Carolina Toth, Kenya Field Director for GiveDirectly, explained the results of a series of informal community group meetings in which GiveDirectly led residents in a discussion of who should be eligible for transfers.
Sixty-two percent of respondents in thatch-only villages said they’d heard complaints relating to ineligible households, compared with 46 percent in saturation villages. Thirty percent of those in thatch-only villages said they’d heard complaints about different criteria being used across different villages, compared with only 4 percent in saturation villages.
GiveDirectly concluded that the strongest takeaway from the discussions is that poorer ‘thatched’ households are more deserving but also that certain households that have mabati or permanent houses are deserving of the transfers as well. When asked about their own villages, residents preferred the saturation method. When asked about other villages, they preferred thatch-only. No one thought it would be “bad” if cash were given to some wealthier households.
Because recipients in saturation villages have yet to receive their second transfer (due in July), it’s too early to draw definite conclusions. But this and other previous reports leave several question unanswered:
To the extent that community tension may result in the wake of cash disbursements, how does that tension actually unfold? Who are the parties and what are some examples? Most importantly, what do non-recipients in those communities think about the fairness of the selection process? Do they feel stigmatized for not having received the money, and how does their perception of whether animosity resulted from the cash transfers compare with those of the recipients’ themselves?
In April I made a reporting trip to Siaya County to interview recipient and non-recipients in the communities where GiveDirectly has made those disbursements. Over three days I interviewed 15 people, asking whether they were happy with GiveDirectly’s selection process and whether any tension arose in their communities as a result of it.
I interviewed some recipients from each of the three cohorts and also interviewed recipients and in both the ‘saturation’ and ‘thatch’ divisions of the 2M cohort. I interviewed four non-recipients, at least one in each of the three cohorts.
My interviews seemed to reflect many of the conclusions of the RCT and subsequent follow up interviews and meetings. No one reported intra-family arguments about how to spend the money or being coerced by a spouse or family member to spend it in a particular way. Only one recipient said he’d originally disagreed with his spouse but that they eventually came to a mutual agreement. No one reported theft or that their own money had gone to waste in any way.
But 12 of the 15 respondents did indicate that some amount of tension had fostered in their community as a factor of some people having received money while others did not. By far the most tangible conflict mentioned to me occurred in the 200k cohort in the village of Koga.
There, the village elder did not receive a cash transfer. He was, however, consulted by GiveDirectly staff to assist in a tour of the boundaries of the village so GiveDirectly could identify eligible households, for which he was given a small token payment as compensation for his time. But in the words of one recipient there, “there was a scandal.” The elder “had conspired (to enlist) some households that were outside the area and had better houses, with the understanding that they would give him some money.”
GiveDirectly staff say the elder seems to have directed residents who lived in tin-roof houses to “squat” in vacant thatch roofed houses in order to receive the money. Subsequently, the assistant chief, with the support of the other village council members, dismissed the elder from his position.
When I spoke with the elder, he confirmed that he had misrepresented certain households in the village so they would be enrolled in the program. He justified that decision saying, “I was the village elder and I was working for the (entire) community.”
He said tension resulted when the initial disbursements were made and some families, including his own, were left out.
“I felt degraded by my community members. They were laughing at me that I didn’t receive any help even though I was the leader of the community. I was so humiliated.” He said the incident led him to ‘resign’ after more than 35 years of serving as an elder in Koga (he is 62 years old).
The second most tangible takeaway was the resentment and frustration expressed by the four non-recipients I interviewed. One woman in a “saturation” village was visibly angry as she described how she was not selected because the living room in her tin roof house is cemented, even though her other rooms are not. Another Koga man said he was cheated out of a transfer:
￼￼“The time the GiveDirectly team was working in the village, they came to my home ￼but at that time I was grazing cattle outside the compound and I saw them in my ￼sister-in-law’s house. I was curious. But due to how relations within households go ￼sour, my sister told the GiveDirectly team that I had left and was never around.”
￼Despite an appeal he said he made to GiveDirectly field staff, this man did not ￼receive a transfer. He says his economic situation is similar to that of the other recipients:
￼“I live in a house like this—(a) grass thatch house. I have children in school and I struggle to pay their fees. Some of my children for lack of funds have to be supported by my relatives in other areas, in Nairobi. I have only two cattle.”
GiveDirectly staff pointed out that “targeting” is a universal problem in development aid. Other methods used to select recipients—such as letting communities vote on who should receive, or requiring people to go to some lengths to prove they are indeed quite economically poor-off—have major drawbacks: Cronyism, and excessive bureaucracy and burdens, respectively. As an alternative, GiveDirectly employs another common method that uses easy-to-observe characteristics such as roof style to judge how wealthy or poor a household is. According to GiveDirectly’s own research, less than 5 percent of people in the 2M cohort villages complained, legitimately or otherwise, of being unfairly excluded. (￼In comparison, a recent study ￼￼of the Kenya Hunger Safety Net Program found an exclusion error rate of 46 ￼percent).
￼The man in Koga who says he was unfairly excluded also expressed sympathy for ￼the Koga village elder. “I would not be happy with what has happened to him, ￼because the feeling he has now at losing his job is the same feeling I have at not ￼getting the money. I feel bad for him because I am also going through some pain.”
￼The man also aired some critiques as to how some people in the community spent their money.
￼“I saw some beneficiaries, the way they misbehaved when they got the money, and ￼that made me feel it is important that recipients receive training on how to spend it. For example there are people who wasted it on drinking sprees, and others bought ￼items that they didn’t understand how they would maintain. For example, one bought a motorbike and used it for a few months, but now it is unused and has not ￼really helped him.”
￼Indeed, several interviewees mentioned the need for training to accompany the transfer process. GiveDirectly currently does not provide training or advise ￼recipients as to how they should spend their money. GiveDirectly does, however, provide a brochure that lists different possible categories of expenditure such as home construction, business, and farming. GiveDirectly is considering experiments ￼in which brochures also list the average returns that previous beneficiaries earned on each category of investment.
After completing the interviews, I asked Carolina Toth, the GiveDirectly field director, what she made of it all. I asked Toth what she thought about the village elder scandal in Koga—that a man who had served as elder for 35 years lost that position not because he violated a community custom, but simply a rule imposed by GiveDirectly.
“The village elder more often than not is one of the richer members of the community,” Toth said. As to his “previous feelings of entitlement to benefit from whatever is happening … I don’t think that’s an expectation we want to uphold.”
Toth and I also discussed the consequences for individuals who are excluded in a community where most residents receive the cash.
“It’s definitely a psychological event in their live,” Toth said. “But we know from the (randomized controlled trial) that there are huge spillover effects to the people who didn’t receive.”
When I asked Toth about the man who says he missed out on the transfer because his sister-in-law misinformed the GiveDirectly staff that he was not living in the village, Toth said it’s certainly true that some people get left out by mistake. But she said such cases are rare. As to the woman with the cemented living room who didn’t receive cash even though the rest of her home is not yet cemented, Toth said the GiveDirectly field staff can only make decisions based upon what they see—and that the distinction between a cemented house and a non-cemented house is not always entirely clear under such circumstances.
The vast majority of people who aren’t selected, said Toth, are skipped because they come from a marginally higher socioeconomic standing to whom the money would be less useful.
“What is the value of $250 given to a family that’s richer? Wouldn’t that be more valuable in the hands of people who are really poor?” Toth asked. “We have a mission of giving to the extreme poor, so by excluding some people who are not in the extreme poor, you are able to reach more extreme poor.”
Ultimately, the question any cash transfer implementer must decide is, “Is the possibility that community tension may result from a non-universal disbursement so great or concerning that transfers should be made to all residents in a village despite the opportunity cost that fewer, even poorer people in other villages will not receive any cash?”
Thus far GiveDirectly has answered that question in the negative. With certain exceptions (such as allowing communities to nominate a pre-determined number of otherwise unqualified people for the disbursements) and with increased nuance (by considering more advanced criteria than simply thatch versus tin roofs and indoor plastering), GiveDirectly intends to continue excluding those residents who do not qualify as the poorest of the poor.
Jacob Kushner is a journalist based in Nairobi. He reports on foreign aid and investment in Africa, human rights and the extractives sector.