An experiment in giving: Part II

“If enough people are willing to give a modest amount without worrying too much about the guarantees most charities think they need and want, how much more good can be done? How many more people might give? What might this mean for the future of personal, charitable giving?”

From ‘An experiment in giving‘. September 2017

Three months ago, a group of 35 of us committed to giving £10/$15 a month to ten Nigerian families in need for a period of twelve months. You can read more on how it all came about here. It was an unashamedly unscientific approach to giving, focusing more on providing the recipients some hope as much as a clearly definable, measurable opportunity. None of us had met the families, and none of us knew of their aspirations or ambitions. What we did know – all that we did know – was that they were all experiencing hardship to varying degrees and that they needed a break in life.

A long-time, trusted Nigerian friend – who also happened to be behind this – did the ground work for us and helped identify the ten families. He also helped them open bank accounts so they could receive the funds (for most this was the first time they had ever had a bank account). He also provided some training in basic financial literacy. The families received their first payment – a double payment to help get them off to the best possible start – in October.

As we approached the three month mark in early December, all ten beneficiaries received visits to see how they were doing. They were all in high spirits and thankful for the financial support that the project was giving (which, in most cases, represented a 50% increase in monthly income). Initial feedback and assessments indicate a significant improvement in their lives, with the funds helping with everything from daily subsistence needs, school fees, the purchase of work tools, finance for their trade, clearing debts, healthcare and house building.

From the outset we promised to be open and transparent about what we were doing, and each of the recipients gave us permission to use their names and photos publicly. Indeed, they have been actively encouraging us to share their stories so that we may extend the reach of the programme (we have no plans to do this at the moment). Before we go much further, though, we recognise the need to carry out more robust research into the impact of the project, and whether small contributions such as these (small from the donors perspective, at least) over a period of time (12 months) have the potential to set the ground for lasting change at the family level.

Arit is a widow in her sixties. She had seven children when she was younger, but only four survived into adulthood – one of whom lives with her in her dilapidated hut. Unfortunately her other children had to move 30 kilometres away to the nearest city to find work.

Arit has used part of her first payment to restart her local snacks business. Shelter is her major challenge and she is saving her monthly income towards building a small concrete house for herself.

Mary has just turned 45, and is a mother of five children. Her husband abandoned her seven years ago when he couldn’t provide for the family, so she now lives with her entire family in a single rented room.

Mary’s financial status has greatly improved in the last three months. She has moved from just hawking sachet water to owning a cooler and securing her own location where she sells her products. She is now able to make more income because her cooler keeps her water cold and people buy more when they are thirsty in the hot and humid weather. The funds have also helped with her children’s school fees. She’s also  happy to have a bank account – which has helped her develop a culture of saving.

Emem is a 44 year old widow with six children. She has managed to send four of these children to school through her own hard work, but her daily work is arduous and she is struggling to keep up with the school fees. She lives 45 km from the state capital.

Since receiving her funds, Emem has expanded her vegetable farming. She has been able to lease about an acre of land beside the village stream to grow more vegetables (waterleaf, pumpkin leaf and sweet corn) for the nearby town food market and is confident she can now make more money to improve the livelihood of her family.

Nsikan is a widow in her fifties. She lives 65 km away from the state capital. This area, which can only be accessed on two wheels or by foot, has seen a lot of hardship. Her husband passed away seven years ago so Nsikan now must provide for five children. When she told her new husband that he couldn’t marry a second wife, he abandoned her.

Since Nsikan started receiving her monthly payment her palm processing business has started to grow. She is able to support her family better than before and has been able to restart a building project which she previously had to put on hold.

Ema is a 39 year old widow with four children. She lives about 25 km from the nearest city. Her eldest child has finished secondary school and is learning a vocation, but the training has been cut short for the time being. Ema has outstanding fees to pay, and her other three children are in primary school.

Thanks to her additional income Ema now buys the food items she trades with her own money, not on credit, and as a result makes a better profit. She also used to suffer from severe pains from a botched surgery but could not afford to go back to the hospital for further treatment. The first thing that she did when she collected her first payment was to seek medical attention and she is now feeling better and fitter than she has for a long time.

Ottobong is 36 years old and married with six children. He lives about 57 km from the nearest city. He is trained as a welder, but he can’t find enough money to invest in the tools he needs.

So far Ottobong has been using his new funds to buy and process palm fruit to sell. He has started purchasing work tools (including an oxygen gas cylinder and metal sheet cuttings) for his welding work and has been able to pay his children’s latest school fees more easily. He hopes to be able to purchase all the basic equipment for his welding business by the end of the program and to then start a full welding service to support his family.

Victoria is a 47 year old widow with six children who lives in a remote village. Two of her children are in primary school, but the other four dropped out of secondary school because she could not afford to pay their school fees.

Thanks to the injection of cash, Victoria’s palm processing and crayfish business is now a profitable venture. She now buys greater quantities of the goods she needs to process and sell. Because she now makes more profit she is able to better support her family. Crucially, she is now able to purchase her crayfish at a good rate because she does not require credit.

Josephine is a widow in her fifties with three surviving children. One of her daughters went missing two years ago. She now lives with her small family in a remote village a few dozen kilometres from the state capital.

Josephine is now gradually putting her life back together after the recent collapse of her house. She is back in business making her local snacks to sell. She has also started moulding concrete blocks to begin the process of rebuilding her house, and believes that with the progress she is making so far she will be able to have a roof over her head soon.

Bessie is a widow and grandmother. She lost her husband three years after she was married. Following this, three of her children passed away. She now lives with her daughter and grandchild.

In the short term, Bessie plans to use her new funds to complete concrete work on her house so that she can have a permanent and safe place for her and her family to live. So far she has used the money to mould concrete blocks for the building. In addition, the funds have helped her meet her daily needs, which she says has been a huge help and a big weight off her mind.

Imeobong is 41 years of age and is married with five children. She lives in two rooms with her children in a village located 27 km from the closest city. She faces a huge challenge to take care of her children after her husband abandoned the family.

Thanks to her increased income Imeobong has been able to put hers and her family’s lives back on track. She saved her pay-out for two months and started trading sweet potatoes. All was going well until the last week of November when her daughter was robbed and assaulted taking funds from the cash machine. It was a major setback for the family but she has been able to keep going, and used her most recent pay-out to start trading again.

Further reading on some of the thinking behind the project can be found here. If you’re interested in what we’re doing, or can help with our research needs, feel free to comment or get in touch.

An experiment in giving

Last week I popped over to Paris to take part in a short UNESCO Working Group meeting. After arriving mid-evening on the Eurostar, I decided to walk the one hour or so to my hotel. There’s no better way of seeing a city. Among the usual sites I gradually became more and more aware of the number of young families – refugees – begging on the streets. Children no older than my own sitting out in the cold and dark with nothing as their childhoods drifted away. As a father myself I find dealing with this extremely difficult, something I spoke about at TEDxMunich last year.

I doubled back and gave one family the €5 note I had in my bag. A pathetic gesture given their position. But the hopelessness of the situation did get me thinking again about random acts of kindness, and the act of ‘giving out of kindness and nothing more’. I wrote about some of this a little while ago here.

With this fresh in my mind, the day after I got back I decided to try out a little experiment. I posted a Twitter poll to see if I could get the answer to a question that had been on my mind for a while. I had no idea what to expect and, although the sample size wasn’t fantastic, I was encouraged enough by the results to work a little more on the idea.

So, over the weekend I posted up a call on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn for contributors to do just that – donate an unconditional amount to a stranger each month. I upped the monthly payment a little, asking for monthly contributions of $15/£10, and capped the commitment at 12 months. By the time the weekend was out, over 30 people had pledged to help. Pledges have continued to come in.

Through a trusted, long-time contact in Nigeria we have already identified ten women and their families as recipients of the monthly donations. Assuming everyone goes through with their pledge, every family will receive approximately $50 each month which, based on our initial conversations with them will give an average of a 50% increase in disposable income.

There are two sets of wider questions I’ve been wanting to answer by doing this.

On the contributor side

  • Would people be happy to give money without knowing how it was going to be spent?
  • Would people be happy to give money without knowing anything about the recipient?
  • Would people be happy to give money without any guarantee of impact or results?
  • Are people happy giving ‘just’ to help make someones life easier, and to give them hope?
  • At what level of giving do these things not matter?
  • At what level of giving do these things matter?
  • Do people need ‘trusted intermediaries’ (i.e. charities) in order to feel comfortable giving?
  • How important is the feeling of a direct connection with the recipient?
  • How important is full transparency and honesty/openness in a project like this?
  • Is there a future for this kind of giving?

On the receiver side

  • What difference does it make in the lives of the recipients knowing that people are willing to help them?
  • Does giving them hope and the potential to improve their lives make any difference to them and their families?
  • What do they choose to spend the money on?
  • What impact does it have that the money is unconditional?
  • Is there any long term impact of receiving this help over a 12 month period?
  • Is there a future for this kind of receiving?

Long-time friend Marieme Jamme has already raised concerns about the notion of ‘experimenting’ with a group of women, drawing parallels with the many other development efforts and pilots that treat target African populations as guinea pigs for Western ideas. I have worked hard throughout my career to work closely with grassroots organisations, and to empower local actors. Although I appreciate her concerns, I believe making the gift unconditional, and over an extended period, genuinely gives these women and their families a chance to better their lives, and everyone involved in the project is doing it for the right reasons, and out of a desire to be part of something that might make a difference.

Image via

The project also potentially answers some very interesting – and potentially disruptive – questions around the nature of personal, direct, unconditional giving. Charities spend huge amounts of time and money making the case for their projects, and collecting evidence to prove impact (which sometimes, if we’re honest, isn’t as accurate as we’d like it to be).

If enough people are willing to give a modest amount without worrying too much about the guarantees most charities think they need and want, how much more good can be done? How many more people might give? What might this mean for the future of personal, charitable giving?

The parameters of the project are still being decided with the contributors, but it is our intention to be as open and transparent as possible about what we’re doing, and how we’re doing it – so expect some kind of project website soon.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in what we’re doing feel free to comment or get in touch.

Further reading on some of the thinking behind the project can be found here. There’s also a December update on how the project is going here

Doing good? Or do-gooder?

We all like to think our work makes a difference, even if we’re not really sure if it does. I’m well known for ‘doing good in the world’ yet even I question what that really means, or who precisely where might be better off in some way because of my chosen career path. For many people, feeling like they’re doing good is likely enough. For me, it’s not.

I’ve worked hard over the years to ground everything I do in some kind of reality. All those years working with grassroots NGOs across Africa, all that time trying to understand their problems and realities – being able to see, live, taste, smell and experience them – has given me great insight, but also made me incredibly impatient for change. In the technology-for-development sector, where donors always seem hungry for the ‘next big thing’, I like to drive home the point that we need to be solving problems today, for people suffering today, with tools available today. For some people there is no tomorrow. For others, no next year. Others may be living longer, but they’re living in poverty for longer. I see little worth celebrating in that.

Anyone that knows me will know I’m always challenging and questioning global development, and always challenging my own role within it. I feel I’ve been fortunate to have spent the vast majority of my career working independently, giving me the freedom to be open and honest, and to pursue the things that I see as important, not things which suit a particular trend or political agenda. Sadly too much of the wider work that goes on suffers because of the very reason that it does.

Susan, the subject of Pete’s post (photo courtesy Pete Vowles)

Earlier this week I read a post from Pete Vowles, Head of DFID in Kenya. Pete has been instrumental in the ‘Doing Development Differently’ movement, and in his post he shares his experiences ‘living’ with a family in Kenya for 24 hours, a family living well below the poverty line. It’s a harrowing read, and something everyone working in global development should print off and stick above their desks as a reminder of what development was meant to be about.

One thing that struck me, and moved me most, was Susan’s lack of hope and how, in Pete’s words, she felt physically and mentally broken every night as she locked herself and her children in their huts. Dignity and hope, two things a healthy human spirit really can’t do without, have never appeared as key performance indicators in any development project I’ve worked on. What does it cost to give someone hope?

A photo I took in India a few years ago, and used recently in a talk about development and dignity

Pete’s post more than anything I’ve read recently has given me a real jolt, forcing me to be more critical than ever about the work I’m doing, and whether or not I’m really doing good, or just feeling good. For me, development has always been personal. It’s not about scale, metrics, KPIs or log frames, but about connecting with real people with real problems. I’m proud that I’m still in contact with, and friends with – and supporting – many FrontlineSMS users years after I stepped back from the project. Friendships outlast any development timeframe, as should our desire to be there for the people we seek to help. Perhaps this, more than anything, should be my own personal KPI, and how I judge whether my efforts have ultimately been worth it or not.