Facemasks for medical workers and dignity for the poor; yes it is possible

Thursday May 21 2020



How do you feed 1.5 million people spread out over a 20-kilometre radius? The hard way, which we chose, involves getting into a fist-fight with suppliers, setting up those who stand in the way of wheeler-dealing, trying to sniff out rotten or adulterated supplies of beans and flour, then weeks spent going door-to-door to hand over packages of food, potentially exposing the givers and receivers to disease. If your objective is making enjawulo (profiteering), it is a good pipeline.

It is also a useful way to gather intelligence about the urban poor in the ghetto where most of the political headaches over the coming years will come from – and people in the know say the ongoing exercise has already thrown up some interesting intel, but that is a story for another day. However, if you want to be efficient and effective, the best way to feed people is, in fact, not to give them food at all, but to give them the cash, and to do it digitally.

There are many ways why this is better. Logistically, instead of ferrying around truckloads of food, all you need is to identify those in need and their telephone numbers. And send the money. Sending cash also does at least two other important things. First, it maintains the dignity of the recipients. Some of the people receiving this aid are lazy and wouldn’t lift a finger if it fell on a hot ember, but most are hardworking folk who just ran into the mother of all thunderstorms.

We can help them without diminishing them in the eyes of their kids and other dependents. It also allows them to make the kind of informed choices that strangers, however well intentioned, can never make. Mister Opigo might have only recently harvested enough beans and maize to last him and his family a few months; giving him cash allows him to buy the salt or cooking oil he desperately needs, settle the rent, or pay an outstanding medical bill at the neighbourhood clinic.

These trickle-down grassroots transactions are a more democratic injection of cash into the economy. Rather than a handful of beneficiaries who just happened to have warehouses brimming with beans, they create revenue for millions of small shop and business owners. The government would also collect much better intelligence.

Apart from knowing who lives where in the ghetto (sufficiently anonymised), mobile money transaction data can show where folks spend their money, when, and in what amounts, to inform future interventions. It is data analytics, not rocket science. None of this is new. The government already runs a donor-funded project for direct cash payments to elderly and vulnerable persons.


It is, of course, not without problems, including corruption and men diverting it all to Maama Small at the local drinking joint, but the money that gets through makes a big difference. In fact, it is now clear that direct cash payments, whether from the government or from individuals sending money home from abroad or the cities, is one of the most powerful antipoverty tools – particularly because it often bypasses the red claws and sloth-like incompetence of the state.

Donors have been lining up to give or lend money to the government to provide a lift out of the economic slump. If they really want to help, they should insist on a large chunk of this money going straight into the pockets of the people, not politricksters.

The government, too, could learn a few things. Rather than go through the rigmarole of trying to single-source facemasks and then distribute more than 30 million door-to-door, they should find a way to give us rebates instead.

Many employers will happily buy masks for their employees, as will many individuals; all the government needs to do is to tell them which suppliers or manufacturers make the right types that offer sufficient protection.

If the government has learnt something from the food fiasco, it will by now know that it does not have to spend billions trying to buy millions of facemasks at probably inflated prices, then spend three months trying to distribute them across the country.

Instead of buying for us ordinary citizens masks, might that money not be better spent on buying personal protective equipment – masks, gloves, gowns, et cetera – for medical workers who have been crying out for them for years, and especially since this pandemic broke out? Do we always have to do things the hard way?

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter.