For four years, the villagers of Magawa in rural western Kenya have all received £17 every month as part of a long-term study of universal basic income. With eight years left to run on the trial, the scheme is already showing signs that it could transform aidby Tristan McConnell / June 11, 2020 / Leave a comment
The seventh of every month is a joyful date for the people of Magawa, a diffuse village lost in the lushness of rural western Kenya, which lacks electricity, paved roads and mains water. The villagers’ phones ping in unison telling them that another instalment of £17 has been transferred to their accounts. It’s been this way for four years and will continue for another eight because the villagers are participants in the world’s largest-scale, longest-term study of universal basic income (UBI).
UBI has been an increasingly fashionable dream across the west since the financial crisis, especially as austerity and anxieties about the automation of jobs have intensified. And recently the idea of “money for nothing” has taken a temporary step towards reality, through schemes such as furloughing in the UK, which compensates workers who have been forced to down tools by Covid-19. But the huge debts that saddle western treasuries after even a few months of such arrangements underline how considerable the financial obstacles in the developed world remain.
This essay featured in Prospect’s July 2020 “The future of aid” supplement. Read the full report here _______________________________________________________________________
By contrast, in poorer parts of the world, such as Magawa, unconditional payments are not only affordable for aid agencies, but also attenuate even more urgent needs.
The great experiment is to work out whether providing every member of a community with an unconditional baseline income, irrespective of their personal financial situation, will more effectively alleviate poverty than traditional aid. The answer could upend the entire development industry, challenging high operation costs and removing the need for armies of often western experts with their salaries and allowances.
The idea of universal basic income—everyone getting the same amount of money, to do with as they will—long predates the recent fashion. It has made periodic intellectual resurfacings through the centuries, from Thomas More and Thomas Paine to JS Mill and Bertrand Russell, Milton Friedman and JK Galbraith. Experiments with forms of basic income have been conducted in Canada, Finland, Namibia, Spain and the US. In 2016, Switzerland held a national vote on whether to give every citizen…