Dec. 01--NEW HAVEN -- In this season of giving, Matt White can't help but think of Jua Kali.
Jua Kali is both a place and a type of freelance worker in Nairobi, Kenya, where White devoted a year of his life. It's where hundreds of poor metalworkers are helping White find out if new economics can solve some age-old problems.
"People are living in destitute poverty. You're stepping over streams of sewage, and kids are just running around," says White, data coordinator for Innovations for Poverty Action, a New Haven-based nonprofit. "Jua Kali is where they work. Always in the background there, you can hear the sound of hammers."
White spent parts of 2010 and 2011 in Kenya to test one of the hottest topics in global economics: micro health insurance. This is the idea of providing very cheap health insurance to poor workers who have little or no access to basic health care.
"Micro health insurance has become increasingly popular," White, 23, explains. "Money is being spent on it. But does it work? Is it worth investing in?"
That's where White's group enters.
Innovations for Poverty Action steps in, develops a randomized control study of the situation, conducts the study and determines whether or not an anti-poverty program is having the desired effect. The subjects range from school attendance and agriculture to clean water and mosquito nets.
IPA has completed more than 80 such studies since 2002 and has more than 300 ongoing projects in dozens of countries, including the U.S.
"There are things you can't know by just guessing," White says. "You can either just go along thinking that something that seems like a good idea is a good idea, or you can do a scientific evaluation."
So just what is a randomized control study? It's where half the people in the study get the anti-poverty assistance and the other half don't. In this case, 300 Kenyan metalworkers are being given micro health insurance. The effect on their lives over the next year will be compared against hundreds of other metalworkers in the same community who don't have insurance.
The documented results might well have a dramatic impact on money spent by charities, philanthropic foundations and individual donations in the future.
White knows firsthand that people in Kenya will benefit from the most efficient anti-poverty programs possible.
"Poverty is part of the everyday experience there," he says. "You see so much ill health. Street families with naked children. You learn about troubles in education, in just getting food. And Nairobi is relatively OK compared with other areas.
"We have a sister project in rural Kenya. One question we asked there was, 'Raise your hand if you've gone hungry within the last 30 days.' There was just laughter. It was a silly question. Everyone in the room had experienced that."
White, a kid from Virginia who earned a degree in philosophy at Yale University, says his year in Africa convinced him that people of means have a moral obligation to help the poor, both near and far.
"You might not see the difference, but it's there," he says.
Call Jim Shelton at 203-789-5664.
(c)2011 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.)
Visit the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.) at www.nhregister.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services