Joice says she will never forget the number 6875.
Two years ago, Joice was living in rural Kenya. Poverty was constant. She wore old clothes, lived in a run-down house, and often skipped meals because she couldn’t afford food.
Then she attended a meeting, or baraza, at a local school. She learned the gathering was hosted by a non-governmental organisation called GiveDirectly.
“They took us through what they do, where the donors come from, and that their main aim was to eradicate poverty at the household level through unconditional cash transfers directly from donors to recipients,” Joice recently wrote on GiveDirectly’s blog.
As part of GiveDirectly’s census, each person got a number. Joice’s was 6875. The fact she was receiving a number meant her entire life would change: She’d receive free sums of money and would be required to do nothing in exchange. She could use the money however she wanted; all GiveDirectly wanted was to help people become less impoverished.
Over one year, Joice received three transfers totaling 87,000KSE, or roughly $1,000. (By today’s exchange rates, the total would be closer to $850). The three transfers came in different amounts: one for $80 and two for $460 each.
“What surprised me most was the unconditionality of the money,” she told Business Insider via email. “I felt so dignified to be recognised as capable of setting my own priorities in addressing my own needs.”
Joice and her husband used about half of the first sum to buy a goat. The rest they spent on food. As this was happening, Joice was going to school, but knew she couldn’t pay for the education. The fees were mounting. When her larger transfer came through, those debts quickly disappeared.
“In our country it is very difficult to be recognised as qualified without evidence of education,” Joice says. “This was an opportunity that allowed me to clear the fee arrears from my University and allowed me to be free to compete in the job market.”
As it happened, Joice chose to seek employment with the very organisation that helped her get on her feet. Today, she works as a GiveDirectly field officer in her home country, where she’s helping to launch a massive cash transfer experiment that will include more than 6,000 people and last over a decade.
The goal of the experiment is the same as it was when Joice received her census number: to see how cash transfers help people escape poverty. Given her own experiences, she expects the experiment to prove successful.
“I believe that poverty would be reduced, nutrition would be improved, there would be improved shelter, businesses, education, health, higher self-esteem, and reduced stress,” she says. “Many people seek refuge in bad behaviour due to poverty and frustration, and with this I think that will be properly addressed.”
The research on cash transfers supports those predictions. Studies have found that when people are given additional funds, their stress levels go down and their quality of life tends to go up. They don’t spend the money on booze or drugs, and some research even finds spending on those vices goes down.
There’s no data to show whether richer countries see the same effects of cash transfers, but at least for the extremely poor — some 750 million people worldwide — the approach seems to pay off. That $850 not only lifted Joice above the poverty line during the year she received the funds — it has also helped to keep her above the line since the payments stopped. The added money allowed her to invest in herself and her family, and possibly escape poverty for good.
Now, a year and a half since Joice got her last transfer, she says she still shares her story every day.
“It elevated my self-esteem as an individual,” she says. She now sees herself as someone “who could bring about change in the way I wanted and decide on my own desired destiny.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly used 2016 exchange rates to calculate Joice’s transfers, not 2014 rates, which yield greater amounts.
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