October 2017 Update on Protect the People Grant

Published: October 2017
Protect the People staff reviewed this page prior to publication.

This page gives an update on the grant we made to Protect the People (PTP) to support its program to help Haitian farmers access seasonal work in the United States.

We had previously funded a similar pilot program led by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and at the end of the pilot we decided not to renew the grant due to the low numbers of people able to participate in the program (14, relative to a goal of 100).

PTP approached us about continuing the project at a lower funding level, setting a goal of facilitating seasonal work in the U.S. for 150 Haitian farmers in 2016, and we decided to contribute $550,000 to support the project. Unfortunately, because of challenges in securing work visas, only 58 Haitians ended up being able participate in the program in 2016.

This outcome was not a major surprise: at the time of making the grant, we estimated that there was a 50% chance that PTP’s program would be able to facilitate fewer than 75 visas in 2016. But after having supported two iterations of the program with a different combination of partners and still not reaching the point where the program would be clearly more cost-effective than direct cash transfers to potential participants (which we sometimes use as a cost-effectiveness benchmark), we decided not to renew funding. We made an exit grant of $50,000 to enable PTP to ensure a safe return to Haiti for the workers whose travel they had facilitated, and to continue pursuing funding from other sources. We greatly appreciate PTP’s willingness to take on this project at a considerably lower level of funding, and do not think the 2016 outcomes reflect any lack of diligence or effort on their part.

In fact, since we decided not to renew funding, we learned that 59 Haitians have received visas to work (in 2017) with American farmers who had been recruited by PTP in 2016, so it may turn out to be the case that the program was able to inaugurate a small sustainable flow; future years will yield additional information about the level of sustainability.

Below we go into more detail and outline lessons learned.

Grant background

Pilot project led by the IOM

In 2014, we granted $1,490,505 in two tranches to a pilot project led by the IOM to give 100 Haitian farmers access to seasonal farm work in the United States, aiming for the project to result in a total of roughly $1,000,000 in additional income for participants in the first year, as well as potentially laying the groundwork for larger numbers of Haitians to use H-2A visas in the future. However, a variety of regulatory barriers in the U.S. and visa rejections by the U.S. Embassy in Haiti led to only 14 people being able to participate in the program, for a shorter duration than planned, reducing our estimate of gross income for the participants to only about $53,000. Although we believed that there was a decent chance that this was partially due to bad luck and that a similar program may fare better in the future, we decided not to renew the IOM grant because our best guess of the number of Haitians able to participate in a future program, and therefore the associated income gains, was significantly reduced. In May 2016, $180,022 of unspent project funds were returned to us. (More on our initial thinking about this project and the decision not to renew here).

PTP grant

PTP was a subcontractor for the IOM during the initial pilot project and, at the end of the pilot, expressed interest in continuing to run a program to secure seasonal work in the U.S. for Haitian farmers at a substantially lower funding level. We decided to recommend a $550,000 grant for this project and to structure it conditionally so that more funding, up to an additional $450,000, would be available if more than 75 workers were able to obtain H-2A visas. Our full writeup, which explains our thinking in more detail, is available here. At a high level, we decided to make this grant for two reasons:

  1. we believed that there could be substantial income gains for the 2016 program participants (though we thought that these income gains alone were likely to be insufficient justification for the grant)
  2. we believed that there was some plausible but relatively unlikely chance that PTP could successfully initiate a long-term flow of Haitians significantly increasing their incomes through seasonal farm work in the U.S.

Pre-specified plans for renewal decision

When we recommended the grant to PTP, we anticipated that we would decide whether to renew the grant largely based on the number of 2016 program participants and the income they earned as a result. PTP projected that around 150 Haitian workers would be able to participate in the program in 2016, though we guessed in our writeup of the grant that “the total is likely to be lower (because we anticipate that some of the problems previously encountered in the visa process may recur)”. More specifically, we stated that:

  • If fewer than 75 workers are able to participate in the project in 2016, we are unlikely to recommend further support. We currently assign around 50% probability to this possibility.
  • If between 75 and 150 workers are able to participate in 2016, we are uncertain about whether we would recommend further support.
  • If more than 150 workers are able to participate, we anticipate that we would likely recommend further support for the project after 2016, with a goal of transitioning it towards sustainability without further philanthropic support.

What happened

In 2016, 58 Haitian farmers obtained seasonal work in the United States as part of PTP’s program. PTP estimated to us that the workers would receive approximately $667,880 in total wages during their work in the U.S. in 2016, which is more than the cost of the program. However, this number doesn’t take into account several factors we consider important in assessing the costs and benefits of the program compared to a direct cash transfer benchmark, including that the farmers would have counterfactually earned wages in Haiti had they not come to the U.S., that workers from a different low-income country may have taken the seasonal jobs if the Haitian workers had not, and that there are declining marginal returns for each dollar earned.

As in the previous year, initial interest from potential employers in the U.S. was greater than the number of Haitian workers who were ultimately able to come to the U.S. to work. In 2016, 112 additional workers were selected for the program and slated to work for two different employers, but both employers ran into regulatory issues with the H-2A program which prevented the workers from coming to the U.S.1 Additionally, one employer tentatively requested 50 workers for later in the year, but this request was later withdrawn.

PTP’s lessons learned

In a September 2016 conversation with Sarah Williamson, Executive Director of PTP, we discussed lessons from the 2016 program that PTP or organizations with similar aims may find useful for future planning.2 On a high level, these include:

  • Navigating the H-2A visa regulations and process can be complex for employers. There may be a need for an organization capable of providing more employer assistance, particularly early on in the process.
  • PTP staff were needed to accompany workers from Haiti to the U.S. to ensure the workers navigated the trip successfully, which was an unexpected expense. Anticipating the need for accompaniment and assisting employers in booking less complex travel itineraries could mitigate this expense in the future.
  • Because many participants in the agriculture industry appear to have a preference for conducting business locally, it may be advantageous to hire staff in key states, which would enable them to build closer relationships with employers.
  • While it has been challenging for PTP to identify viable partnerships with Haitian-American business owners, Ms. Williamson believes there is an opportunity for deeper collaboration with this community.

Lessons learned and exit grant

The outcome of this grant was generally in line with our expectations: when we recommended the grant, we thought that there was a 50% chance that fewer than 75 Haitian farmers would be able to participate in 2016, which is what happened. We continue to think that making the grant was a reasonable decision at the time and are not surprised by the results, though we had, of course, hoped that more Haitian farmers would be able to participate in the program.

Since we have now seen two versions of this program attempted, we have more information available than when we previously decided to fund it. As described above, our expected value estimate was previously based in part on the small chance of PTP being able to successfully initiate a long-term flow of Haitian farmers seasonally working in the U.S., thereby significantly increasing the incomes of those workers. We now think that the chance of this potential upside is smaller than we had initially thought. Fewer businesses were interested in hiring Haitian farmers and there were more bureaucratic issues with the visa process than we think would likely need to be the case in order to create a sustainable long-term flow. Given this updated information, we now think it is unlikely that continued support for this program is as good in expectation as giving to GiveDirectly (a GiveWell top charity that makes direct cash transfers), which we often use as a cost-effectiveness benchmark for programs that aim to increase incomes.

Largely on this basis, we decided not to renew the grant. We made an exit grant of $50,000 to PTP in October 2016 to help PTP fulfill existing commitments to workers and employers, while simultaneously exploring alternative funding sources.

Updates since deciding not to renew

There was coverage of the program in The Economist in January 2017.3

During the summer of 2017, we heard that two of the farms that had participated in the PTP program in 2016 had secured 59 H-2A visas for Haitian farmers, which we see as a positive indication that the increase in Haitian access to seasonal farm work in the U.S. may outlive our support for the program. At the time the renewal decision was made (September 2016), we did not expect to see consistency in 2017 in the number of Haitians coming to work on U.S. farms that had participated in the program previously, and we are curious to see how those numbers evolve in future years. We aren’t sure how to interpret those numbers in retrospect: on the one hand, they suggest that we may have been premature in winding down funding for a program that just needed more time to find its stride; on the other hand, they may indicate that the key work of getting the initial farms to engage with the program was already complete and further funding was not necessary to ensure their continued participation. At the time the decision was made, our thinking was dominated by the fact that the immediate goal had not been met and the pipeline of potential H-2A jobs for the following year was not much larger than it had been the previous year.

We hope to monitor the flow of Haitian workers to U.S. farms in future years, and we acknowledge that we may turn out to have been mistaken in withdrawing funding at the point when we did.

Sources

Document Source
Our non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Sarah Williamson, September 9, 2016 Source
The Economist article about PTP, January 26, 2017 Source