Updates from GiveDirectly


A few weeks ago, I participated in an open conference call with the staff of GiveDirectly.  They discussed their performance in 2015, and plans for future expansion.  A recording of the call and their notes on the discussion are both available.  Some of the things that stood out to me from the discussion were as follows:

  • Expanding outside of Kenya has led to new operational challenges.  For example, in Uganda, one issue has been getting people set up with national IDs in order to access mobile money.
  • They recently began operating in Rwanda, and launched their first collaboration with an institutional funder (USAID).  They’re also working with MTN and Centenary Bank, and looking for additional partners.
  • They’re looking at additional institutional partnerships with DFID and the World Bank, although it wasn’t clear which countries might be involved.  One of the goals of these partnerships is institutionalizing the idea that cash transfers are a benchmark to which other aid programs can be compared.
  • The current wave of interest in cash transfers has led to some changes in the branding (though not the implementation) of other types of humanitarian programs.  For example, some aid organizations are now describing the use of vouchers for asset transfers as “cash based.”  However, the whole point of giving people cash is that it’s fungible, and assets are often less so.
  • GiveDirectly isn’t currently planning to work with governments to implement state-run cash transfer programs.  They’ve been approached by the Kenyan government about this, but their concern is that it would undermine state capacity.  In addition, it’s difficult to start a program and then transfer it back to the state.
  • They’re driven by the idea of doing “crazy things” which initially seem impossible with cash transfers.  For example, they’re thinking of piloting a lifetime basic income guarantee project in a few towns in Kenya.  There may also be new ways for large donors to think about having an impact.  As Paul Niehaus said at one point, “With that kind of money [that places like the Gates Foundation have], you could realistically eliminate poverty in a mid-sized African country.”

If you’d like to support GiveDirectly, Rock River Inn is offering to match all donations up to US$13,000 through 31 December.

Dinner with John Githongo


John Githongo (source)

I’m quite behind the times on this, but in April, I had the chance to attend a dinner at Stanford for visiting scholar John Githongo.  It was a fascinating chance to hear from a noted anti-corruption campaigner and insightful political analyst.  His wife Mshai Mwangola also attended, and spoke about her activism with Ni Sisi! and work with the Africa Peacebuilding Network. Here are some of the main points I took away from the conversation with both of them.

On the future of the EAC:

  • Githongo originally held strongly pan-African aspirations, and was hopeful about ECOMOG’s intervention intervention in Liberia.  However, achieving the requisite level of coordination between states to make regional governance work is quite difficult
  • The EAC is different to other regional organizations in that it’s the only one with a Parliament that can pass laws
  • He’s optimistic that further economic integration between EAC countries will strengthen the alliance.  However, coordination problems remain a challenge.  At the time of his visit, the EAC wasn’t able to agree on a response to Nkurunziza’s attempts to seek a third term

On China in Africa:

  • Chinese roads are bad in Angola but good in Ethiopia.  The effects of Chinese investment depend on the relationship with the state and control of corruption
  • The US has soft (cultural) power in Africa which China can’t match at present, although they are beginning to import new TV shows and music
  • Most middle class families in Nairobi have at one member who’s spent some time in China
  • There’s speculation that the Chinese peacekeeping troops in South Sudan are really there to protect their oil investments

On corruption (of course):

  • Corruption can be a security threat — “why not steal from the road sector instead of law enforcement?”
  • The idea of embezzling millions is too abstract to provoke popular discontent, but conspicuous consumption is looked down upon
  • In Tanzania, Nyerere set an influential example of avoiding corruption
  • However, there are limits to importing anti-corruption techniques from other countries.  “If you put Kagame in the Kenyan context, it wouldn’t work — Kenyans are used to their freedoms”

On citizen activism:

  • Mwangola runs a course on citizen activism, I believe through Ni Sisi.  She pointed out that there are three main paths to change: reform (slow and incremental), transform (getting the middle class involved), or revolt (which rarely works)
  • One important function of the course has been giving people a space to vent and organize
  • As the media opens up, stand-up comedy is booming across Africa in response to continued political and economic crises

Winner-take-all politics in Ghana

I attended an interesting workshop last week at the Institute of Economic Affairs on the state of “winner-take-all” politics in Ghana.  Given Ghana’s 20 years of democratic alternance, I don’t tend to think of Ghanaian presidents as having nearly the power of some of Africa’s more entrenched leaders, like Kagame or Museveni.  After this workshop, though, I’ve been forced to revisit that assumption, because the Ghanaian executive has a whole range of powers that rather undermine the concept of checks and balances.  Among them:

  • The president directly appoints the attorney general, chief justice, governor of the central bank, head of the electoral commission, and speaker and majority leader of Parliament, with no parliamentary approval needed.
  • The president also appoints the chief executives of all 216 districts in the country, and 1/3 of the members of each district assembly.
  • All legislation must be introduced by the executive, rather than Parliament.
  • Parliament’s fiscal oversight capacity is further weakened by the fact that there’s no independent budget office to provide non-partisan analysis of proposed legislation.

It was an interesting presentation, and the ensuing discussion among the nearly 200 attendees (including official delegations from Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe) was quite spirited.  To take the first point, IEA’s suggestion that the president present a list of 5 possible candidates for these positions who would be reviewed by an advisory committee – barely even denting his overall power of appointment – was received as quite controversial by several speakers who thought this would unfairly limit the president’s ability to carry out his political mandate.  A rejoinder was provided by a commenter who pointed out that it’s not the role of the electoral commission to carry out a political agenda in any case.

The whole topic of electoral quotas for the district assemblies also generated a lot of debate, ranging from support for the current system of 1/3 appointed seats, to calls to abolish the appointments entirely, to demands to have these seats reserved for women and people with disablities – which immediately sparked the comment that this would lead to political parties removing all the female and disabled candidates from the seats they had to contest openly.  And so on and so forth for five hours.  For all the political challenges Ghana is seriously facing, it was impossible not to come out of this workshop feeling that at least the civil society organizations are taking their own watchdog roles quite seriously.

Human rights advocate Nicholas Opiyo at Berkeley

The Center for African Studies and the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley are sponsoring a discussion with human rights advocate Nicholas Opiyo on April 21.  Nicholas is a constitutional lawyer who led the legal challenge to Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law last year.  He’s also the founder of Chapter Four Uganda, a human rights and civil liberties advocacy organization. Please take a look at Chapter Four’s recent work on the rights of sexual minorities in Uganda, and stop by the lecture if you’re in the area!


Updates from PacDev

I had a great time at the Pacific Conference for Development Economics this weekend.  Sendhil Mullainathan really stole the show with an amazing keynote on his new book, Scarcity (which looks like essential reading for anyone interested in poverty issues), but there were also a number of fascinating studies on the political economy of conflict and post-conflict recovery.

  • Tarek Ghani presented some of his joint work with Michael Callen and Josh Blumenstock on the use of mobile money for salary payments in Afghanistan.  Given the amount of violence ongoing in the south of the country, there’s a premium on liquidity in case one has to suddenly flee, and the authors were interested in whether cash or mobile accounts better met this need.  They found that respondents who believed that higher rates of violence would occur in the future were less likely to hold a balance on their mobile accounts, preferring cash instead.  For all the potential of mobile money, there’s still a lot that implementors don’t understand about why people do (or don’t) decide to adopt it.
  • Bilal Siddiqi discussed results from a justice sector intervention in Liberia (joint with Justin Sandefur).  They framed the study with the observation that, while most Liberians prefer customary forms of dispute resolution to (expensive, inefficient) state courts, women are actually more likely to go to state courts when they’re suing men.  The implicit idea is that customary courts are less likely to rule in their favor.  The authors look at the effects of a legal aid program which made it easier for people to access state courts, and found that respondents who participated in the program were happier with their judicial outcomes and had better food security.

African events in the Bay Area

As Chad McClymonds noted in Africa is a Country a few months ago, San Francisco has an odd relationship to Africa.  There are strong African immigrant communities here, but it’s hard to find fora to connect with people with ties to the continent or simply an interest in it.

In hopes of lessening this disconnect, I’ve been compiling a list of Africa-related resources and events around the Bay Area. Check these out, and let me know if I’ve missed any (or if you’ll be attending any of the events!).

San Francisco



*With thanks to Caity Monroe for these suggestions!