Thursday, October 31, 2013

No Strings Attached

I'm beginning to suspect that giving money away is harder than it sounds.

It all started with this NPR piece in August on an organization called Give Directly. This organization has the sexy premise of giving money to Poor People in Africa. That's it. Just giving money away. Gifts range on average around $300, although NPR's piece focuses on $1000.

A few days ago, I came across this article in the Economist, which evaluated the program. I don't have time to recap the whole thing in detail, but in a nutshell - the design of the study was done well (those of my evaluator friends will find that most interesting) and the findings were that - guess what? Poor people in Africa don't all immediately run out and spend their money on banana wine and hookers.

In development speak, we call these Unconditional Cash Tranfers (UCT). A few years ago, Conditional Cash Tranfers (CCTs) were really popular. That is, you give someone money but they have to do something, such as agree to send their girls to school, etc. These are widely popular as incentive programs (and also popular with economists).

Unconditional Cash Transfers kind of go against the grain of development work because most of us are beholden to donors (and taxpayers) that want Accountability, and to some extent, the Good Glow effect. That is, they want to know how and where their money was used so they can  justify to Congress where the money went; or as individuals, feel good about doing something nice for someone.

Makes sense, right? Why would you give something away without knowing how it is used? I mean, what if those resources get misused? (Like spend on - gasp - Overhead? Or banana wine and hookers?)

All of this talk of 'Unconditional Cash Transfers" got me thinking about giving away money, why and how we do it. The more I think about it, the more caught up I am in the term "unconditional". Is anything really unconditional? Think about it, even when you give money to a charitable organization in the United States, aren't you expecting something back (say, at the very minimum, a tax break)?

Giving something away unconditionally (otherwise known as "giving something for nothing") is harder than it sounds. No expectations. No returns on investment. No judgement. And, if you don't know how they spent or used it, then there's not even the warm fuzzy of knowing unequivocally that you did a Good Thing. Looking more closely, being able to give something unconditionally means you set aside your expectations and even your own Good Glow. Giving unconditionally means that you give simply because it is right, or because you are able, because you feel compelled.

And for no other reason.

I'm not arguing against accountability. Far from it. What I'm saying is that when you do something nice for someone - you want that little ego boost of seeing it be used - and used in a manner that falls in line with your values. But it's human nature to want to tie strings to something we give - whether it be operational or emotional. So, while I'm not against Unconditional Cash Transfers, I'm asking: does that really exist?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Big Move

I've moved to Malawi.

This happened about four months ago, and every once and while the enormity of what I've done sinks in. It was a move I contemplated for many, many months, and one that actually took more than a few years to hatch. It was well thought-out, planned. It was the right move.

I'm one of two Deputies, with a triple role of heading up Administrative, Evaluation and Grants components of the project here. It's a big job, but doable. I'm here for two years, but to be honest with you, every day I think about quitting. I liken it to when you start a really good, tough workout. You know you'll like it, once you get into it. But man, those first 20 minutes are hell.

The move itself went pretty smoothly. I still marvel that I was able to sell my house (in one day), inclusive of my cat. I was homeless up until about a months; couch surfing, living out of a hotel, then staying with new friends. The good thing about having a long run up to a big change is that you have time to think you're ready. That I chose to do this, and had thought out all the options, has made the move slightly easier.

I love it here. I love my job, my life. I'm incredibly happy, but it's hard. I'm committed to living in Malawi, in approaching it the only way I know how to tackle challenging things - with my whole self: authentic, clumsy, big-mouthed, frustrated, joyful, curious, messy, hilarious and yes sometimes a bit drunken.

I've also decided to become a writer. After too many years of wanting to do things, I finally see the that isn't enough. My job has taught me that you can be Conflict Expert just by calling yourself the Conflict Expert, so I've decided to call myself a Writer.  As I chronicle my life here, I'm simultaneously (hopefully) evolving into another.

It's nice to have found my voice again.

A Year and Half Later...And Still Malawi

No, I wasn't here the whole time, but it felt like it.

What a year! After losing my literary voice (who was listening? what makes me and what I have to say so important?), seriously considering a move to Peru, choosing Malawi instead, selling my home and moving to Africa - I'm back. 

I'm back to writing, blogging. Back to Malawi.