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Microfinance to cash transfers: The evolution of a Millennial do-gooder

One of Lumana's micro finance success stories: Ghanaian Sena Ahiabor, a tomato canner and owner of a grocery store whose business and livelihood was boosted by some creative do-gooders from Seattle.

For today’s Humanosphere podcast, we’re talking to Sammie Rayner, someone we think represents two fascinating phenomena within the humanitarian sector. Rayner, to characterize her very (too) simply, is a young woman with a business-like dedication to fighting poverty and inequity.

In that sense, Rayner could be said to represent the Millennial generation’s enthusiasm for championing new solutions to the world’s chronic problems. Rayner’s story, her learning experience as she has shifted her social enterprise approach, also illustrates a learning experience of sorts for the entire aid and development community – away from what may have been an over-emphasis on helping the poor by giving them small business-building loans (microfinance) to exploring how simply giving them money (so-called ‘cash transfers’) may even be better.

Sammie Rayner checking out the tomatoes in Ghana with colleague Christopher Washington.

Sammie Rayner checking out the tomatoes in Ghana with colleague Christopher Washington.

Rayner, who grew up on a farm in Spokane and then studied business at the University of Washington, began her journey by launching, with colleague Cole Hoover, a microfinance organization called Lumana that was focused on helping subsistence farmers in Ghana. It was highly successful, which – as we will explore – led them to shut it down. After all, the goal of fighting poverty is not to create anti-poverty projects that persist. If they work, sometimes they should go away. Now, Rayner and others are working at an organization, HandUp, based in San Francisco that aids homeless people in America by coordinating donations of cash to individuals.

Rayner’s experience makes for an interesting and perhaps informative trajectory. She may not prefer to think of herself as a Millennial, since nobody really likes to be compartmentalized, but Humanosphere’s Tom Paulson thinks her generation is different in a number of ways worth looking at categorically. The Millennials are non-dogmatic, skeptical of the dominant traditional or institutional ways of doing things, fairly globally minded and a weird combo of optimism for the future so long as they think they can help determine its course.

We explore with Rayner her humanitarian trajectory and how this one Millennial’s experience may serve as a proxy for how our approach to fighting poverty and inequity is rapidly evolving.

And, as always, Tom and I discuss some of the more interesting news items of the week including the strained relationship between the media and the humanitarian sector, the increasing and disturbing use of child soldiers in South Sudan and perhaps a bit more nuanced take on the media’s overly simplistic trashing of microfinance – which makes for a nice segue into our chat with Sammie.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.