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

Saving Africa from us

There are often times when things I feel particularly strong about are better put in words by other people. This article, by Uzodinma Iweala (author of Beasts of No Nation, a novel about child soldiers), is no exception. Originally published in The Washington Post a few weeks ago, it’s particularly poignant coming at a time when more and more celebrity attention and more and more glossy magazine centre-spreads are focussing on the ‘dark continent’. I regularly struggle with my own involvement on the continent, particularly when I’m out in the field (as I am now, helping with a Grameen project in Uganda).

Uzodinma believes that most Africans don’t want saving. Instead they’d rather just be given a fair chance. Since my first visit – to northern Zambia way back in 1993 – I’ve been intrigued by how you create an environment where ordinary, everyday Africans are able to make the most of that chance, assuming one ever comes their way. The more work I do, the more countries I visit and the more people I meet, the more I believe that creating this environment is morally and practically the right thing to do. It would be hard, if not impossible, to argue otherwise. Yet the Western model of development prevails, built on the view of Africa as a hopeless and impoverished place in desperate need of ‘our’ help. Help is delivered in the form of money and sympathy. Forty years of handouts has failed to change that view, just like it has largely failed to make a significant positive impact on the root cause of the problem.

Whatever we say or do, whatever message we choose to convey through the glossy innards of top-notch magazines or the clever visuals of a website, it will be Africans who will ‘save Africa’. Let’s stop pretending it will be anybody else.

“Stop Trying to ‘Save’ Africa”

Last fall, shortly after I returned from Nigeria, I was accosted by a perky blond college student whose blue eyes seemed to match the ‘African’ beads around her wrists.

“Save Darfur!” she shouted from behind a table covered with pamphlets urging students to “TAKE ACTION NOW! STOP GENOCIDE IN DARFUR!

My aversion to college kids jumping onto fashionable social causes nearly caused me to walk on, but her next shout stopped me.

“Don’t you want to help us save Africa?” she yelled.

It seems that these days, wracked by guilt at the humanitarian crisis it has created in the Middle East, the West has turned to Africa for redemption. Idealistic college students, celebrities such as Bob Geldof and politicians such as Tony Blair have all made bringing light to the dark continent their mission. They fly in for internships and fact-finding missions or to pick out children to adopt in much the same way my friends and I in New York take the subway to take adopted stray dogs to the pound.

This is the West’s new image of itself: a sexy, politically active generation whose preferred means of spreading the word are magazine spreads with celebrities pictured in the foreground, forlorn Africans in the back. Never mind that the stars sent to bring succour to the natives often are, willingly, as emaciated as those they want to help.

Perhaps most interesting is the language used to describe the Africa being saved. For example, the Keep a Child Alive/”I am African” ad campaign features portraits of primarily white, Western celebrities with painted “tribal markings” on their faces above “I AM AFRICAN” in bold letters. Below, smaller print says, “help us stop the dying”. Such campaigns, however well intentioned, promote the stereotype of Africa as a black hole of disease and death. News reports constantly focus on the continents corrupt leaders, warlords, “tribal” conflicts, child labourers, and women disfigured by abuse and genital mutilation. These descriptions run under headlines like “Can Bono Save Africa?” or “Will Brangelina Save Africa?”. The relationship between the West and Africa is no longer based on openly racist beliefs, but such articles are reminiscent of reports from the heyday of European colonialism, when missionaries were sent to Africa to introduce us to education, Jesus Christ and “civilization”.

There is no African, myself included, who does not appreciate the help of the wider world, but we do question whether aid is genuine or given in the spirit of affirming one’s cultural superiority. My mood is dampened every time I attend a benefit whose host runs through a litany of African disasters before presenting a (usually) wealthy, white person, who often proceeds to list the things he or she has done for the poor, starving Africans. Every time a well-meaning college student speaks of villagers dancing because they were so grateful for her help, I cringe. Every time a Hollywood director shoots a film about Africa that features a Western protagonist, I shake my head – because Africans, real people though we may be, are used as props in the West’s fantasy of itself. And not only do such depictions tend to ignore the West’s prominent role in creating many of the unfortunate situations on the continent, they also ignore the incredible work Africans have done and continue to do to fix those problems.

Why do the media frequently refer to African countries as having been “granted independence from their colonial masters” as opposed to having fought and shed blood for their freedom? Why do Angelina Jolie and Bono receive overwhelming attention for their work in Africa while Nwankwo Kanu or Dikembe Mutombo, Africans both, are hardly ever mentioned? How is it that a former mid-level U.S. diplomat receives more attention for his cowboy antics in Sudan than do the numerous African Union countries that have sent food and troops and spent countless hours trying to negotiate a settlement among all parties in that crisis?

Two years ago I worked in a camp for internally displaced people in Nigeria, survivors of an uprising that killed about 1,000 people and displaced 200,000. True to form, the Western media reported on the violence but not on the humanitarian work the state and local governments – without much international help – did for the survivors. Social workers spent their time and in many cases their own salaries to care for their compatriots. These are the people saving Africa, and others like them across the continent get no credit for their work.

Last month the G8 industrialized nations and a host of celebrities met in Germany to discuss, among other things, how to save Africa. Before the next such summit, I hope people will realize Africa doesn’t want to be saved. Africa wants the world to acknowledge that through fair partnerships with other members of the global community, we ourselves are capable of unprecedented growth.

Courtesy of The Washington Post