No Strings Attached

GiveDirectly3

I’m considering entering a no-strings-attached relationship with strangers. I’m not talking about sexual promiscuity. I’m talking about charity. For all of my adult life I’ve had a rule against giving money directly to the poor, because I feared they would use it buy drugs, alcohol, or other unhealthy things. I’d rather give to my church or an established charity such as the local food pantry, which hands out groceries, not cash. However, over the years I’ve become frustrated by the amount of money most charities spend on infrastructure, staff salaries, and even investments and cash reserves. Because of overhead costs only a portion of what one gives goes directly to the poor. I’m also realizing that it’s arrogant, judgmental, and paternalistic of me to assume that the poor would squander the money, and therefore, I must create safeguards to prevent my donations from being misused.  

Recently I read about an innovative charity called GiveDirectly. It’s the first charity dedicated exclusively to cash transfers. They identify people in extreme poverty in the African countries of Kenya and Uganda, then transfer money to them via mobile phone. Crazy, huh? Maybe not.

This radical method of charitable giving not only preserves the dignity of the recipient, but there’s also good evidence that it’s working. According to a January 2014 article published by The Independent, “An evaluation by Innovations for Poverty Action found that a group of the charity’s recipients in Kenya – who received about $500 over up to 12 months – increased their asset holdings by almost 60 per cent, compared with those without. Recipients saw a 42 per cent reduction in the number of days their children went without food and lower stress levels, among other things.” In this case a handout is actually a hand up.

Some may object to cash transfers on the grounds that they discourage individual initiative and encourage laziness. However, given in the right amounts and over a limited period of time they do neither. The money simply raises recipients above starvation levels of poverty, so they can begin to focus on more than getting enough calories to eat.  

Unconditional cash transfers aren’t a panacea for the poor. People also need health, safety, education, justice, and economic opportunity to break the cycle of extreme poverty. But it’s one tool that seems to be helping raise the standard of living for some very disadvantaged people in Africa.

The idea also makes me think that with a little creativity and courage we could accomplish the goals of our local charities in the US more efficiently and effectively. Traditional brick-and-mortar approaches are expensive and labor intensive. We need creative solutions using available, lower-cost means. For example, instead of staffing and operating food pantries, we could give grocery store gift cards to those who need food. Rather than maintaining soup kitchens we might provide restaurant gift certificates to the hungry. We could pay rent to provide housing for the homeless rather than spending wads of money building and staffing shelters. Following the GiveDirectly model, we could even use cash transfers to get money to the needy quickly and inexpensively. What would lose? In a word, control.

One reason we hang onto labor-intensive and expensive-to-run models is that we want to control the means of our charity and feel good about ourselves in the process. Handing a bag of groceries to a poor person brings a sense of satisfaction while giving us power over the recipient of our generosity. I remember volunteering at a faith-based food pantry where patrons were subjected to a DMV-like waiting room experience, then when their number was finally called, they were required to listen to an evangelistic appeal before they could receive their food. Families in homeless shelters often live under rules we wouldn’t put up with. Unconditional giving might make us uncomfortable, but it restores the dignity and freedom of those we’re seeking to help.

The idea of giving with no strings attached sounds radical, I know. But it’s not nearly as radical as what Jesus said to the rich man: “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”

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