Inspired Alum Seeks to Change the Industry of Giving

February 15, 2013
By Doug Gavel, Harvard Kennedy School Communications

When Rohit Wanchoo MPA/ID 2008 and a group of fellow Harvard and MIT students sought out an organization to help facilitate cash payments directly to poor households in Kenya, they couldn't find one. So they were inspired to create GiveDirectly, an online charity that connects needy Kenyans with interested donors.

"As a co-founder, I was the first to go to Kenya and make our first transfers," Wanchoo said. "We initially went to households that were displaced into camps because of election violence and were living in tents. What was most striking was there were markets for food right outside these camps, and there were very poor people inside the camps. The farmers growing crops were too poor to give away their produce, and the households were too poor to buy the produce. What was needed wasn’t more food, but cash to get the system working again."

With assistance from M-Pesa, the African-based mobile money provider, GiveDirectly ramped up quickly, and to date has facilitated more than $1.6 million dollars in direct cash transfers to more than 1600 families, with another $700,000 in the pipeline.

"What’s really compelling is how the poor use donated money," Wanchoo explained. "We knew that there were plenty of programs around the world that all showed that cash transfers had positive impacts. There were increases in nutrition, child school, investment earnings and decreases in HIV rates and low birth-weight incidence. In our recipients, there has been a 115 percent increase in monthly household investment in land, livestock, housing and a 33 percent reduction in share of households in which kids went for at least a day without food, versus those that do not receive cash."

With a background in both finance and development at the United Nations Millennium Project, Wanchoo credits his Harvard Kennedy School education with providing him with the specialized knowledge and skills necessary to embark upon his latest venture.

"The MPA/ID program taught me about all the work and research conducted on cash transfers in Brazil and Mexico," he reflected. "The Kennedy School taught me how to think critically about the evidence surrounding the efficacy of poverty-alleviation programs to ensure they not only mean well but have demonstrable impact. Most importantly, the Kennedy School and the Harvard community connected me to a community that was thinking hard about international development and with the will and the know-how to change the world."

Wanchoo and his co-founders, Paul Niehaus, Michael Faye, and Jeremy Shapiro, have high hopes for their organization, which was recently named a Global Impact Award winner by Google.

"Our vision for GiveDirectly is industry changing," he said. "We want to make cash transfers the benchmark against which all poverty-alleviation interventions are measured."

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Rohit Wanchoo MPA/ID 2008

Rohit Wanchoo MPA/ID 2008, GiveDirectly co-founder

"The Kennedy School taught me how to think critically about the evidence surrounding the efficacy of poverty-alleviation programs to ensure they not only mean well but have demonstrable impact," said Wanchoo.

givedirectly screen grab