At the end of last year an American charity called GiveDirectly made an incursion into rural Kenya that, if all goes to plan, has the potential to change the world.
GiveDirectly’s goal is to assess what affect Universal Basic Income (UBI) will have on communities that were deemed to be living in “extreme poverty”.
Universal Basic Income is a payment made to every citizen by the government that will cover their basic needs meaning, in theory, that they no longer need to work.
GiveDirectly’s experiment will cover 6,000 Kenyans across 40 villages with one set of people receiving just over $20 a month for just over 12 years and a different set of people who will receive the same amount for a period of two years.
UBI could be the promised land that the human race has been looking for. Poverty has endured for as long as the concept of ownership itself. And it is Kenya that is dispelling several of the myths and stigmas that come attached to being poor. For instance, it is often said that free money given to the poor will be squandered on non-essentials but a pair of World Bank researchers found the opposite in their report on the subject.
Crucially, in places like Kenya where one has to pay for education (something that should be free) then UBI has a multiplier-effect in terms of welfare.
And at the risk of upsetting some of my conservative readers UBI does not make you lazy. The argument goes that human beings are at their best when they are exercising productivity, staving away boredom, idleness and mental dullness and that is best achieved through work, but by removing the economic incentive you empower the individual to become productive in their own way. Painting, sport, activism: there are a plethora of ways people can employ their time and that’s what UBI does. It frees people.
The ramifications for UBI extend beyond Africa. There has been much talk in Europe, Asia and the Americas about the effect artificial intelligence (AI) will have on the labour markets as it becomes more common, and thus cheaper. It’s estimated that the AI industry will be worth $60 billion by 2025. This represents but a small chunk of the United States’ $16 trillion economy but a report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers predicts that by the early 2030s that 38% of all jobs in the U.S. will be automated.
So, understandably, certain sections of society are in hysteria about AI, predicting redundancies sweeping across entire industries. We shouldn’t take such a negative view in the first instance but even if that did happen would it be that bad? The government would be obliged to provide for people on some level (lest they wish to face the wrath of civil unrest) which would untie humans from the obligation to work that has existed for hundreds of years.
It is true that the people in this experiment are proverbial guinea pig but if they draw real-world benefit from it then all the better for it. Furthermore, if this experiment can go some way to convincing the world that the way of old may not be best way, and actually push us forward as species where everyone is free to express themselves and live their lives as they wish, then long may it continue.