A U.S.-based non-profit called Give Directly is taking a very simple approach to helping the poor in Africa – it's giving them the equivalent of a year's income, with no strings attached.

Started at Harvard and MIT by students studying the economics of development, Give Directly sends money to poor people in Kenya using a mobile phone payment system.

'I think that's one of the really important points about this because it resets the theory that we have about poor folks and about the effects of giving money to poor people and the track record of how they use it to improve their lives in a sustainable way.' — Paul Niehaus, director of Give Directly

"Our folks are on the ground in Africa right now as we speak going door to door, and what they're doing is finding folks who live in homes that are built out of thatch," said Give Directly director Paul Niehaus in an interview with CBC's The Lang & O'Leary Exchange.

"It turns out that's a really good indicator of poverty in these communities."

The non-profit doesn't do any kind of assessment of the poor or provide any direction on what they must do with the money. It just sends it — about $500 US to $1,000 US per family, Niehaus said.

"There is no determination of who is good and who is bad. These are people who are on the eligible list simply because they're poor," he said.

Money used for taxi business, cows, roofs

The unorthodox approach seems to work. One man bought a used motorbike with the money and used it to make money giving rides and transporting goods. One woman bought a cow, another continuing source of income. Several families bought tin roofs, replacing the thatch that had to be repaired frequently, at great expense.

Give Directly follows up with everyone who got money to ask what they did with it and also asks whether they had problems, like being forced to pay a bribe. It also has asked an independent auditor to conduct an external assessment of the impact on recipients' lives, with the results due later this fall.

Unlike traditional charities that select villages for projects and are directly involved on the ground, GiveDirectly has few overhead costs. Its unorthodox approach is based on the idea that people are poor in Africa because they are born in Africa and, given money, will find an effective way of using it to improve their lives.

"There is this concern that the poor are prone to drinking away their money, that they're irresponsible," Niehaus said.

"I think that's one of the really important points about this, because it resets the theory that we have about poor folks and about the effects of giving money to poor people and the track record of how they use it to improve their lives in a sustainable way."

Give Directly gets money from individual donations and private foundations.