08/13/2013 11:30 am ET

Is It Nuts To Give To The Poor Without Strings Attached?


Bernard Omondi lives in a small Kenyan village in a rural district called Siaya that sits right on the Equator and is almost impossible to get to. He has spent years working on and off as a day laborer, moving stones on construction sites, and commuting long distances over rough dirt roads. When he could find work, he made about $2 a day. When he couldn’t, his two sons sometimes went hungry. Then one morning last year, Omondi woke up to an unusual text message. “When I saw the message, I jumped up,” he recalled. “My wife said, ‘Bernard, what is it?’ ” He told her he had just been given $500 with no strings attached. “ It’s here! ” he said.

A month earlier, Omondi told me, a couple of strangers showed up in his village, and explained that they worked for a charity, GiveDirectly, that gave money to poor people without any preconditions. They had chosen this area, they said, because it was among the most impoverished they could find -- most people grew vegetables on small plots, lived in dirt-floored houses and worked sporadically at informal jobs. The poorest people in the village, the strangers explained, would be eligible to receive $1,000, about a year’s income for a family, spread over two payments.