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Instead Of Traditional Aid, This Nonprofit Argues That We Should Give Work To The Developing World

Direct cash transfers are a popular new form of giving aid to the poor in developing countries. In her new book, “Give Work,” Leila Janah of Samasource argues that giving cash is better than traditional aid–but jobs are even better than cash.

Instead Of Traditional Aid, This Nonprofit Argues That We Should Give Work To The Developing World
“It’s not just a paycheck that matters, it’s not just a living wage, but it’s being in community with others.” [Photo: Samasource]

When Ken Kihara graduated from high school in Nairobi and couldn’t find a job, he started scavenging for scraps of metal in a local slum and brewing moonshine, barely earning enough to survive. But he happened to learn about a computer training program nearby and signed up, despite never having used a computer before.

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“We now know, through a lot of scientific study, that the only thing that really works long term to reduce extreme poverty directly is by giving poor people cash.” [Photo: Samasource]
Roughly two weeks later, he was tagging images for Getty Images, making them more easy for users to search by topic. Samasource, a nonprofit that helps provide digital literacy training to people living in poverty in countries like Kenya–and then connects them with corporations that need help with digital projects–hired him through a partner organization called Techno Brain Kenya, and paid him three times the local wage. A year later, he moved his family out of the slum. Three years after that, he was earning $16 a day, a middle-class wage in Kenya.

Give Work is available now. [Photo: Penguin Random House]
In a new book called Give Work, Samasource’s founder, Leila Janah, talks about the growth of her decade-old nonprofit–and why she thinks that the model of bringing work to people living in extreme poverty is more effective than traditional aid that typically flows from one government or agency to another government or bureaucratic organization.

Over the last six decades, tens of billions of dollars of international aid has been sent to Africa. While the extreme poverty rate in sub-Saharan Africa has dropped, 41% of people in the region still live on less than $1.25 a day. In Liberia, for example, where nearly two-thirds of the country’s gross national income in 2015 came from aid–$1.1 billion–more than half of the population lives below the poverty line.

“We now know, through a lot of scientific study, that the only thing that really works long term to reduce extreme poverty directly is by giving poor people cash,” says Janah.

“The best people to make decisions about how to spend limited capital when they’re living at the margins are those who are affected by poverty themselves.” [Photo: Samasource]
In some cases, organizations have started giving the world’s poorest people direct handouts of money. When the recipients can make their own choices to invest in their homes, or savings, or buy food, studies have found that their incomes increase and their children are less likely to go hungry, and those effects can last.

“The best people to make decisions about how to spend limited capital when they’re living at the margins are those who are affected by poverty themselves,” Janah says. “The most effective way to ensure that they have the basic benefits of a livelihood in today’s world–which is healthcare, education, safe housing, clean drinking water, and sanitation–is not for us to provide those things for them, but for them to provide those things for themselves if they have the income to do it.”

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While “cash transfers” or direct donations to poor people have been successful, Janah takes a different view: that having a job is better than having cash. Rather than relying purely on donations, an organization like Samasource can use a model that is economically self-sustaining. When corporations like Getty Images pay for digital work, workers can get paid fair wages, and Samasource can also make enough to fund its training programs.

The organization says it has helped roughly 35,000 people triple their family incomes from $2 a day to $8 a day or more. In many cases, people who begin working with Samasource soon move to other jobs, but the benefits last; in long-term studies, the organization has seen sustained benefits three years after participants worked for Samasource.

“We should be addressing why people are so poor in the first place that they can’t build their own wells or schools.” [Photo: Samasource]
A job can also have more psychological benefits than a donation. “It’s not just a paycheck that matters, it’s not just a living wage, but it’s being in community with others and it’s feeling that you’re valuable in the global economy,” Janah says.

Traditional aid has several inherent challenges, including the fact that in many countries, aid makes up a large portion of the national budget. “If you are a government elected by the people, getting most of its revenue from international sources, who are you ultimately accountable to? Not the people who elected you, because those people aren’t writing your paycheck, but the people who are funding your activities. I don’t even think that this means that the governments are corrupt, but it’s a naturally corrupting force.”

If citizens have cash–either from direct cash transfers or from a job–they’ll pay taxes, and, in theory, governments will become more accountable. Local communities, she argues, should be planning and paying for wells or schools, rather than outside organizations. “We shouldn’t be doing those things,” she says. “We should be addressing why people are so poor in the first place that they can’t build their own wells or schools.”

It’s not that Janah thinks that aid is never useful, but that aid dollars should be directed toward programs run by social entrepreneurs, rather than the government. Since Samasource launched, she says that she has seen an increasing interest in this market-based type of solution from donors, and an increasing number of new organizations focused on a similar approach. A new website, called the Give Work Guide, lists companies with a similar philosophy, aimed not just at consumers who want to support responsibly-made products, but at corporations who want to do a better job of procurement.

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The companies on this Forbes Global 2000 list spend around $12 trillion annually on procurement, greater than the combined GDP of sub-Saharan Africa. “There’s so much opportunity to direct some of that $12 trillion expenditure to ‘give work’ enterprises, as we call them,” says Janah. “People just don’t know that these enterprises exist.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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