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Joy Sun: Should you donate differently?

July 8, 2014

Technology allows us to give cash directly to the poorest people on the planet. Should we do it? In this thought-provoking talk, veteran aid worker Joy Sun explores two ways to help the poor.

Joy Sun - veteran aid worker
TED Fellow Joy Sun helped to launch a rare type of charity. GiveDirectly lets donors transfer money directly into the hands of impoverished people — empowering them to set their own goals and priorities. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I suspect that
00:12
every aid worker in Africa
00:14
comes to a time in her career
00:16
when she wants to take all
the money for her project —
00:17
maybe it's a school or a training program —
00:20
pack it in a suitcase,
00:24
get on a plane flying over the
poorest villages in the country,
00:25
and start throwing that money out the window.
00:29
Because to a veteran aid worker,
00:33
the idea of putting cold, hard cash
00:35
into the hands of the poorest people on Earth
00:38
doesn't sound crazy,
00:41
it sounds really satisfying.
00:42
I had that moment right about the 10-year mark,
00:46
and luckily, that's also when I learned
00:49
that this idea actually exists,
00:52
and it might be just what the aid system needs.
00:55
Economists call it an unconditional cash transfer,
00:59
and it's exactly that: It's cash given
01:02
with no strings attached.
01:04
Governments in developing countries
01:06
have been doing this for decades,
01:08
and it's only now, with more evidence
01:10
and new technology that it's possible
01:12
to make this a model for delivering aid.
01:15
It's a pretty simple idea, right?
01:20
Well, why did I spend a decade doing other stuff
01:23
for the poor?
01:27
Honestly, I believed that I could do more good
01:29
with money for the poor
01:32
than the poor could do for themselves.
01:34
I held two assumptions:
01:37
One, that poor people are poor in part
01:38
because they're uneducated and
01:41
don't make good choices;
01:43
two is that we then need people like me
01:45
to figure out what they need and get it to them.
01:47
It turns out, the evidence says otherwise.
01:51
In recent years, researchers have been studying
01:55
what happens when we give poor people cash.
01:58
Dozens of studies show across the board
02:02
that people use cash transfers
02:04
to improve their own lives.
02:07
Pregnant women in Uruguay buy better food
02:09
and give birth to healthier babies.
02:12
Sri Lankan men invest in their businesses.
02:14
Researchers who studied our work in Kenya
02:17
found that people invested in a range of assets,
02:20
from livestock to equipment
to home improvements,
02:23
and they saw increases in income
02:27
from business and farming
02:30
one year after the cash was sent.
02:32
None of these studies found that people
02:36
spend more on drinking or smoking
02:38
or that people work less.
02:41
In fact, they work more.
02:43
Now, these are all material needs.
02:47
In Vietnam, elderly recipients used
02:50
their cash transfers to pay for coffins.
02:54
As someone who wonders if Maslow got it wrong,
02:58
I find this choice to prioritize spiritual needs
03:02
deeply humbling.
03:07
I don't know if I would have chosen to give food
03:09
or equipment or coffins,
03:11
which begs the question:
03:15
How good are we at allocating resources
03:17
on behalf of the poor?
03:20
Are we worth the cost?
03:22
Again, we can look at empirical evidence
03:25
on what happens when we give people stuff
03:27
of our choosing.
03:30
One very telling study looked at a program in India
03:32
that gives livestock to the so-called ultra-poor,
03:35
and they found that 30 percent of recipients
03:39
had turned around and sold the
livestock they had been given
03:43
for cash.
03:47
The real irony is,
03:50
for every 100 dollars worth of assets
03:52
this program gave someone,
03:54
they spent another 99 dollars to do it.
03:56
What if, instead, we use technology to put cash,
04:01
whether from aid agencies or from any one of us
04:05
directly into a poor person's hands.
04:09
Today, three in four Kenyans use mobile money,
04:13
which is basically a bank account that can run
04:16
on any cell phone.
04:19
A sender can pay a 1.6 percent fee
04:20
and with the click of a button
04:24
send money directly to a recipient's account
04:26
with no intermediaries.
04:29
Like the technologies that are disrupting industries
04:31
in our own lives,
04:34
payments technology in poor countries
04:36
could disrupt aid.
04:39
It's spreading so quickly that it's possible
04:42
to imagine reaching billions
04:44
of the world's poor this way.
04:47
That's what we've started to do at GiveDirectly.
04:49
We're the first organization
04:52
dedicated to providing cash transfers to the poor.
04:54
We've sent cash to 35,000
people across rural Kenya
04:57
and Uganda
05:01
in one-time payments of 1,000 dollars
05:03
per family.
05:06
So far, we've looked for the poorest people
05:08
in the poorest villages, and in this part of the world,
05:11
they're the ones living in homes
05:14
made of mud and thatch,
05:15
not cement and iron.
05:17
So let's say that's your family.
05:19
We show up at your door with an Android phone.
05:21
We'll get your name, take your photo
05:24
and a photo of your hut
05:26
and grab the GPS coordinates.
05:27
That night, we send all the data to the cloud,
05:30
and each piece gets checked
05:32
by an independent team
05:34
using, for one example, satellite images.
05:36
Then, we'll come back,
05:40
we'll sell you a basic cell phone
05:42
if you don't have one already,
05:44
and a few weeks later,
05:46
we send money to it.
05:49
Something that five years ago
05:51
would have seemed impossible
05:52
we can now do efficiently
05:54
and free of corruption.
05:57
The more cash we give to the poor,
05:59
and the more evidence we have that it works,
06:01
the more we have to reconsider
06:05
everything else we give.
06:07
Today, the logic behind aid is too often,
06:10
well, we do at least some good.
06:13
When we're complacent
06:17
with that as our bar,
06:18
when we tell ourselves that giving aid
06:20
is better than no aid at all,
06:23
we tend to invest inefficiently,
06:26
in our own ideas that strike us as innovative,
06:28
on writing reports,
06:32
on plane tickets and SUVs.
06:34
What if the logic was,
06:38
will we do better than cash given directly?
06:40
Organizations would have to prove
06:46
that they're doing more good for the poor
06:47
than the poor can do for themselves.
06:49
Of course, giving cash won't create public goods
06:52
like eradicating disease or
building strong institutions,
06:55
but it could set a higher bar
07:00
for how we help individual families
07:03
improve their lives.
07:06
I believe in aid.
07:09
I believe most aid is better than just
07:10
throwing money out of a plane.
07:13
I am also absolutely certain
07:15
that a lot of aid today
07:18
isn't better than giving directly to the poor.
07:20
I hope that one day, it will be.
07:24
Thank you.
07:27
(Applause)
07:29

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Joy Sun - veteran aid worker
TED Fellow Joy Sun helped to launch a rare type of charity. GiveDirectly lets donors transfer money directly into the hands of impoverished people — empowering them to set their own goals and priorities.

Why you should listen

The idea of using mobile technology to put cash directly into the hands of the poorest people on earth doesn’t sound crazy to veteran aid worker Joy Sun — it sounds deeply satisfying. In this talk, she talks about what happens when we use technology to give cash instead of services to the poor.

The original video is available on TED.com
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