Innovative solutions to long-standing social problems connected with poverty increasingly come from a new generation of entrepreneurs that is both socially conscious and technically savvy. Svetha Janumpalli, recently honored as one of Forbes’ “30 under 30” social entrepreneurs, is bringing web technology to bear on the problems of education and mother/child health in some of the poorest areas of the world.
As an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, majoring in Economics and Global Studies, Janumpalli, 25, became interested in the possibilities of conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs as an approach to sustainable improvement in the lives of the very poor. Her research, along with field work in India, convinced her that CCT was more successful than other approaches, such as micro lending, for the populations and problems in which she was most interested. However, despite a significant body of research suggesting its efficacy, CCT, which provides cash directly to recipients who meet certain conditions, has been criticized for being paternalistic in seeking to impose particular behaviors and values on recipients. Janumpalli’s response to this criticism has been to develop a service model that involves potential recipients as partners in developing and defining the conditions they will be required to meet. In this way, recipients have a voice in identifying behaviors that are both desired by the recipients and achievable in the recipients’ own cultural contexts.
CCT has also been criticized for being a short-term solution without lasting impact. In response to this second criticism, Janumpalli maintains that the cash assistance, which provides tangible and immediate relief, both permits and incentivizes recipients’ longer-term investment in the health and education of the next generation. For example, cash transfers conditioned on school attendance provide replacement of income that would otherwise be obtained through the child’s labor; such transfers thus allow the family to invest in the child’s education.
In order to put her ideas into practice, Janumpalli founded New Incentives (while simultaneously working as a Research Assistant at Berkeley Policy Associates, a social policy research firm located in Oakland, CA). She began developing a web platform for receiving and processing direct donations, recruiting online partnerships (donation credits may be earned through purchasing from participating vendors), and searching for nonprofits with whom to partner in her target regions. The complicated funding mechanisms of many nonprofits made this last task more difficult than anticipated; however, Janumpalli eventually implemented pilots in several regions. A grant from the Lampert Family Foundation, in 2011, enabled Janumpalli to leave her “day job” and dedicate herself full-time to New Incentives.
One of New Incentives’ active projects is located in Maharashtra, India, and provides incentives for teens disadvantaged through caste, tribal, or migrant status to attend and complete secondary school. Another current project is designed to reduce mother-child HIV transmission and maternal mortality in Southern Nigeria, through incentives to promote women’s utilization of pre-natal care. Both programs are predicated on the availability of community resources (hospitals, clinics, schools, doctors, teachers) that meet certain quality standards. The cash transfers replace earnings that might be lost through school attendance in Maharashtra, and through prenatal medical and educational appointments in the Nigerian program. The cash transfers provide economic “breathing room” that allows the parents of teens (Maharashtra) and pregnant women (Nigeria) to “invest” in their children’s health and educational futures. New Incentives is also partnering with programs in Cambodia, Kenya, Malawi, Bangladesh, Honduras, and Jamaica. The web platform is designed to allow donors to direct funds to participating individuals rather than to programs, so that none of the aid is diverted to pay for program administrative costs.
The difficulty that Janumpalli encountered in finding local partners prompted her to add an important and innovative facet to New Incentives. In addition to being a funding conduit for CCTs, it will also serve as a forum for recruiting and connecting other entities interested in participating in CCT programs with qualified local partner programs.