Africa should consider basic income social experiments

An interesting social experiment in poverty eradication has been underway in some countries across the world -- from the Netherlands to India and Namibia – giving universal basic income (UBI) to a section of their populations. The basic income is a regular and unconditional stipend to cover living costs, whether you are a billionaire or a pauper on the street.

An interesting social experiment in poverty eradication has been underway in some countries across the world – from the Netherlands to India and Namibia – giving universal basic income (UBI) to a section of their populations.

The basic income is a regular and unconditional stipend to cover living costs, whether you are a billionaire or a pauper on the street.

The unemployed won’t lose the UBI upon finding work. And the social experiment is simple: It aims “to test how citizens react without that sword of Damocles over their heads. Will the money encourage them to find a job or will they sit in their couches comfortably?”

Some indications are positive in the South, especially in addressing poverty: UBI recipients in India, for instance, were more likely to start small businesses.

In Namibia, offering the basic income has seen poverty, crime, and unemployment reduce as school attendance went up.

In African countries endowed with significant resources that include minerals and newly found oil reserves but where extreme poverty and youth idleness is rampant in the villages and urban centres, the Namibia and India examples should make the continent sit up and take notice.

The guaranteed income concept was originally proposed by English-American revolutionary Thomas Paine as a means to equalize opportunity, and of which the two examples demonstrate the possibilities.

In Africa, as it needs not be belabored, whole generations are growing up without realistic prospects for employment.

While the idea of a basic income for every person has been around for a while, and being implemented or contemplated for implementation in countries such as Canada, Germany and Finland, it is changing the way we think and talk about poverty and inequality.

It is, in fact, turning around the thinking behind the well known and persuasive Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

For anthropologist James Ferguson, in his book, Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution, giving a man a fish might be more useful than teaching him to fish.

He addresses the vexed issue of global inequality with the argument that the problem is not that we do not produce enough to provide for the world’s population, but that it is about the distribution of resources.

According to this line of argument, as one commentator observes, when discussing inequality, we usually focus on employment and production. Yet, much of the world’s population has no realistic prospects of employment, and we already produce more than what is sustainable.

Ferguson’s radical notion is that the idea of a basic income “discards the assumption that in order to get the income you need to survive, you should be employed or at least engaged in productive labour.”

And for those of us who are or have been artists of one shade or the other, it is easy to appreciate the concept of basic; how anyone who ever invented or created anything only managed to do so with a modicum of financial security behind them.

More broadly, guaranteed income can be a great equalizer between the haves and have-nots, and those vulnerable sections of society whose rights always risk being trampled upon by those wielding economic power.

By allowing one to stand on their own, UBI has been viewed as an enabler of, among others, liberty and equality, the flexibility of the labour market and the dignity of the poor, the fight against inhumane working conditions, as well as autonomy from bosses, husbands and bureaucrats.

But universal basic income, as is currently being implemented, remains a social experiment, the outcome of which is yet to conclusively demonstrate its usefulness.

UBI proponents see social policy and economic policy being conceived separately, with basic income being viewed as a viable way of reconciling the respective central objectives of poverty relief and full employment.

All told, however, if the Namibia example should serve, it is time more African countries started conducting their own UBI social experiments.