23 August 2013

What's Better: Teach a man to fish or just give him bread?

There’s the saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” But what if you just give him cold hard cash, instead? 

That’s what a charity called GiveDirectly is doing. My friend and fellow writer Steve Hochman sent me an NPR story today, based on a larger New York Times story, about a non-profit that is distributing money to poverty-stricken people in Kenya. 

They get up to $1,000, the equivalent of one year’s wages, in two installments over the course of a year and they can do whatever they like with it. There are no strings, no directives, no follow-up. They don’t have to plan to start a business with the money.The one-time gift is theirs to do with what that will.

My friend wanted to know what I thought about it since I’ve spent the better part of the year giving money to charities that have a  much more clearly defined mission. I likened it to how I feel when I give the daily $10 away to a homeless person. After that money leaves my hand, I don’t consider it mine anymore. Therefore, it’s none of my business if the person uses it for food or shelter or for drugs or liquor. It’s none of my concern and I don’t want to place any judgment on whatever decision the person may make. 

GiveDirectly takes the same approach, but in following up, the NPR reporter found that most people used the money for essentials, such as replacing their thatched roof with a metal one that would last for 10 years. They could find no one who squandered it away. Apparently, there’s an economic theory that poor people know what they need, so the point is to give the money so they can purchase it. I took Econ 101 in college, but I don’t remember anything other than guns, widgets and butter. 

The “teach a man to fish” tactic certainly seems to have more merit when it comes to sustainability. There does not seem to be any indication that any of the people who have received funds from GiveDirectly have used the money to train themselves in a new field or better themselves in some long-term way (although a new roof that you don’t have to replace every few months sounds pretty good to me). Many of them live in areas to poor that there isn’t a way out of the poverty. It isn’t as if the ground is fertile and they aren’t planting or there is work to be found and they are lazy. They’re just trapped. 

Here’s how it works, according to GiveDirectly’s website: 1) you donate through our webpage; 2) We locate poor households in Kenya; 3) We transfer your donation electronically to a recipient’s cell phone 4) The recipient uses the transfer to pursue his or her own goals. 

According to a May report on by GiveWell, GiveDirectly has distributed $616,000 in 2013. It now plans to expand into another country, as well as begin to distribute funds to all residents of a village instead of only selected ones (we could see how that could be an issue). 

It’s a fascinating theory. It seems to be there’s room for both models. But if someone is poor, it’s clear to me that he or she needs help and “help” can come in many different forms. It can come in sustainable assistance or it can come via ways that alleviate the suffering momentarily. Both seem like fine goals to me. 

Aug. 23: GiveDirectly.org

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