Extract from ABC NewsMatt Brown
Updated yesterday at 12:28pm
By the shores of Lake Victoria in eastern Africa, a young woman waits anxiously for a text message that will change her life.
Mercy Origa is a widow and mother of four daughters. Their home is a leaky mud hut so small that the girls must sleep at their grandpa's.
When the text arrives on the dot of 5:00pm, Mercy bursts into song and dance. The message is a $US400 cash transfer with no strings attached, and she'll use it to build a modest new house for her family.
"I feel like I'm sitting next to God — it's like a dream. Now we will all eat, sleep and wake up as a family," she says.
Cash to be handed out over the next 12 years
Photo: 'It's like a dream,' Mercy Origa says of being able to live with her family. (Supplied: GiveDirectly/Caroline Teti)
Mercy and her family are part of a radical experiment in Kenya that could up-end foreign aid and charity as we know it. It's all about donating cold, hard cash with no strings attached, rather than goods or services, straight to the recipients.
US-based aid group GiveDirectly is about to study what happens when it distributes cash to some of Kenya's poorest people for 12 years.
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Every adult in 40 villages will get about $1 a day (75 US cents) for 12 years. That's a subsistence wage, below the poverty line, but enough to ensure there is food on the table.
Residents of another 80 villages will receive that amount over just two years and residents of yet another 80 villages will receive that amount straight up, as a lump sum.
They will receive the cash regardless of how much they already earn or what assets they own. It's a form of the universal basic income being trialled in Canada, the Netherlands and Finland.
"We want to give people a safety net. So we want to guarantee that whatever happens in their lives, they're going to be able to rely on this payment to get by," says Mitch Riley, an Australian who left his high-powered job as a New York lawyer to become GiveDirectly's regional director.
The group says so far it has raised 81 per cent of the money needed to fund the study.
It is working with academics from American universities Princeton and MIT, who will conduct independent studies on everything from whether cash gives a long-term boost to the recipient's wealth, to the effect it has on the work ethic and gender relations.
Payments free people to make their own decisionsThe early signs are that people are so poor that they don't slack off and instead keep trying to boost their income. Nor do they waste the money on alcohol or tobacco. But these are key aspects of the long-term study.
Gathering solid evidence is a cornerstone of the project.
Photo: Denis Anam is thankful that GiveDirectly allows him to make his own decisions. (ABC News: Cathy Scott)
"For a lot of [aid projects] we really haven't tested whether those interventions work, or in some cases we do have some evidence and the evidence isn't positive," Mr Riley says.
"[Aid] organisations should have to prove that their interventions are effective in the same way that, before we let drug companies put drugs on the market, they have to demonstrate the effectiveness of those products.
"For a lot of interventions in the development space, the evidence just isn't there."One of those who's been receiving the payments for eight months as part of a pilot program, Denis Anam, says they have changed his life.
"I have bought goats, and sand which I am going to use to improve my house," he says.
"My neighbours are also planning to improve their houses. Some have now gotten into groups and pooled their savings to buy domestic animals.
"Unlike other NGOs that come and buy books, clothes uniforms for our children [they] let us make our own decisions.
Slashing red tape and sidelining bureaucrats
Non-Government Organisations, or NGOs, are a part of life in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, which is headquarters for most NGOs working in east Africa.
So much so, they've become the subject of Kenya's first "mockumentary" about the aid world. Co-producer of The Samaritans, Salim Keshavjee, says the series pokes fun at the foibles and inefficiencies of the aid sector.
"These characters have the best of intentions, want to save Africa, and then they are working for a bureaucracy that has a big intention but maybe they haven't asked fundamental questions like, 'What do you want?'," he says.
When Keshavjee and his team opened up a web forum for script suggestions, he says NGO workers were among their greatest fans — and the source of outrageous stories.
"We got bombarded with thousands of stories. They were so absurd that even our fictional comedic environment couldn't handle it."
A major Africa-based entertainment channel is looking at picking up the series for wide distribution.
While the world of comedy parodies foreign aid groups, the sector is going through a little-noticed revolution. Organisations concerned about costly logistics, bureaucracies and corruption are moving slowly but increasingly to cash hand-outs.
Cash is still a relatively small amount of the overall aid budget but big players as diverse as the Kenyan Government and the World Food Program are handing out cash instead of traditional aid.
Photo: Fish trading by Lake Victoria in Kenya brings sellers around $US1 a day. (ABC News: Christian Omondi Onyando)
WFP's spokesperson in East Africa, Challiss McDonough, says aid agencies are mixing their spending, sometimes providing cash with no strings attached or providing staples as well as cash credits to be used only for food, but allowing recipients to decide which food to buy.
She cautions that traditional aid will always have a place.
"In South Sudan for example, there are areas that have been affected by famine. I have been to villages where there's literally nothing for sale in the markets. There's no food at all ... if we didn't bring those foods to people in those areas ... then cash isn't going to do any good, because there's nothing for people to buy," she says.
Ms McDonough says there's intense interest in the GiveDirectly study. "I think people are really excited about it. They're watching it very keenly to see what the results are ... to learn from them about what works best and what the impact of these different kinds of assistance are."
But there's debate about how far down the emergency spectrum cash can take the place of delivering food or building toilets and digging wells.
GiveDirectly's Mitch Riley argues cash could be used much more.
"We're hearing a lot of rhetoric ... but unfortunately cash still only makes up around 6 per cent of international aid," he says.
"So really the challenge now is getting the sector to move away from its traditional programming and put its money where its mouth is."
Watch Foreign Correspondent's Not Everybody Wants a Goat at 9:20pm on ABC.