Atani Bamaze was working his small plot of land, scything weeds down to the rust-colored soil, when he received a lifeline in the form of a text message.
It was late 2020, and though Bamaze still didn’t know anyone sickened by Covid-19, the pandemic had disrupted his life all the same. The village in Togo where he lives with his wife and infant daughter relied on trade and travelers from nearby Benin. When the border closed after the first recorded infection that spring, prices of basic foodstuffs began climbing precipitously. The 31-year-old typically earned money tutoring, but then local schools shuttered, depriving him of his main source of income. To make matters worse, the seeds he’d sown had baked in the sun instead of taking root, because there’s been too little rainfall.
Now, reading from his handset, he learned the Togolese government would be sending him a cash stipend for the next five months. The first payment from the program, called Novissi, was instantly available via his mobile phone.
The eldest of eight children, Bamaze says his parents expected him to stay in the village and care for them in their old age, but he yearned to break away. Although this windfall wasn’t enough to make that possible, he would use it to pay rent as well as the fees for his wife’s secretarial course, saving the rest to buy maize for the coming year’s planting. “If you don’t have anything and then somebody gives you a little,” he says, “you have to be grateful for the little that you receive.”
The pandemic has been a catastrophe in just about every sense, claiming more than 5 million lives and plunging more than 100 million people into extreme poverty. It also traced a new high-water mark in terms of government spending on social assistance —a large share of which arrived in the form of cash payments. According to a running tally from the World Bank, 186 countries have sent a combined $1.25 trillion directly to their citizens. About 1 in 6 human beings worldwide has been a recipient.
Wealthy countries relied on tax data and unemployment rolls to identify and pay people in need and were able to offer more generous benefits. The first round of stimulus payments the U.S. made as part of the Cares Act was the largest such distribution in absolute terms and kept almost 12 million people from falling into poverty, according to the Census Bureau. Empowered with a growing array of digital technologies, poorer countries were able to set up payment systems that overcame daunting obstacles and surpassed, in some ways, those of their wealthier counterparts.
In Togo, a nation of about 8 million people where the average income is below $2 a day, it took the government less than two weeks to design and start an all-digital system for delivering monthly payments to about a quarter of the adult population. People such as Bamaze, with no tax or payroll records, were identified as in need, enrolled in the program, and paid without any in-person contact. According to Anit Mukherjee, a policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, “the U.S. program looks like a dinosaur” in comparison.
Novissi, which means “solidarity” in the local Ewe language, is the brainchild of Cina Lawson, who heads the Ministry of Digital Economy and Digital Transformation. Lawson was born in Togo but didn’t grow up there. Her father, the scion of a wealthy family, was forced into exile in 1979 by Gnassingbé Eyadéma, the country’s longtime president, who regarded him as a political rival. Lawson, just a child at the time, has trouble distinguishing her own memories of the family’s midnight flight from those recounted by relatives. “For a long time, I said that my life started at 6 or 7,” she says.
Lawson grew up in Paris and went on to earn degrees at the Institut d’Études Politiques and Harvard. After her studies, she worked in telecommunications in New York. Her feelings toward Togo were mixed, but she had a growing desire to be of service to the greater African continent. An opportunity presented itself unexpectedly when Eyadéma died in 2005 and his son Faure claimed the presidency. Togo’s new leader set out to make peace with his father’s opponents and, after meeting Lawson on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in 2009, invited her to take charge of the country’s postal and telecommunications systems, a domain that would eventually encompass all things digital. At 37, she would be among his cabinet’s youngest members.
Fresh to her post, Lawson struggled to learn local codes of conduct while applying a perspective shaped largely abroad. “Not growing up in Togo, you’re an insider and an outsider,” she says. Many of the young Togolese staffshe hired were part of the same global diaspora, having been born or lived outside the country. Over the coming years, the nation —one of the poorest on the planet—made strides on some important metrics. From 2018 to 2020, the ease of doing business in Togo, as measured by the World Bank, rose faster than in any other country. The poverty rate, 62% in 2006, fell to 46% by 2019.
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