In 2008, when economist Paul Niehaus came up with the idea of a charity that distributes cash directly to the world’s poorest people, the reception was not positive. Jacquelline Fuller, who formerly ran philanthropy for Google, has said that when she initially pitched the idea of funding the venture to a boss, they replied, “You must be smoking crack.”
But Google would go on to donate to GiveDirectly, the charity that Niehaus co-founded and that has to date sent over $700 million directly to people in impoverished areas, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.
Niehaus has long since left the daily operation of GiveDirectly; today, he works as a professor at the University of California San Diego and is pushing the boundaries of what social scientific experiments can discover. Some of that work comes from studies about GiveDirectly’s cash transfers. A paper on the “general equilibrium” effects of a cash drop in Kenya found incredibly intriguing results: The local economy boomed without generating inflation, suggesting that the cash served as a valuable form of economic stimulus, not just humanitarian relief. The study was a rare example of a randomized experiment offering insight on macroeconomic questions about whole economies, not individual people and small communities.
With colleagues Karthik Muralidharan and Sandip Sukhtankar, Niehaus has led evaluations into a randomized trial rolling out biometric “Smartcards” as part of India’s national job guarantee for people in rural areas, getting useful results about the effects of guaranteed jobs (positive) and biometric systems (less corruption, more satisfied users, but some legitimate beneficiaries kicked off).
But the most important role most academics play is that of a colleague, teacher, and mentor, and Niehaus stands out for having an unusually good reputation as a trainer and supporter of economists who want to use their talents for social good.
Fellow Future Perfect 50 honoree Heidi Williams, a professor of economics at Dartmouth, offered me one example: “Paul’s work has a beautifully clear focus on ending extreme poverty. Yet when I called out of the blue to ask if he would be willing to collaborate with and mentor me on trying to build out an effort aimed at accelerating scientific progress, he said yes. For someone who is one of the most brilliant, insightful, and thoughtful economists of his generation to also be so willing to mentor, support, and raise the ambitions of those around him is just amazingly unique.”