Comic Relief funding innovative Universal Basic Income pilot

Malcolm Spence, Grants Innovation Manager

By Malcolm Spence, Grants Innovation Manager

Vulnerability is one of the defining characteristics of poverty. What will I do if my child gets sick? What if I lose my job? How will I cope if my crops fail? It’s not just a matter of peace of mind: there is growing evidence that dealing with these challenges day in day out affects your mental health. It doesn’t need to be this way. In a world where 8 men own as much wealth as the 3.6 billion people who form the poorest half of the world's population, poverty is no longer a matter of creating wealth, but sharing it.

One simple solution – Universal Basic Income – is starting to generate some buzz, and Comic Relief is delighted to be supporting an innovative pilot by GiveDirectly to see if and how the buzz translates into real change.

Universal Basic Income entails giving everyone in society what they need to meet their basic needs. The idea is gaining traction as a simple, more dignified way of delivering social security, but also as a means of ensuring everyone in society benefits from technological progress in a future in which robots may put us all out of work. Pilot projects are being mooted from Fife to Finland, and there is a growing interest in how it might work in the world’s largest democracy, India.

GiveDirectly’s pilot is the most comprehensive planned to date. It is taking place across 200 villages in Western Kenya and will reach over 26,000 people, each of whom will receive $22 a month for either two or twelve (yes twelve!) years.

GiveDirectly have been using mobile technology to put cash directly into the hands of those who need it most for the last 6 years in East Africa and the results are impressive. Giving people control of their own choices allows them to invest in building a better home, develop opportunities to make a better living and spend more on nutrition.

But when it comes to providing everyone in a community with what they need there is much we still don’t know. Comic Relief is joining other funders including Google.org, Omidyar Network and Good Ventures in supporting the pilot which will deepen the understanding of how Universal Basic Income works. Comic Relief’s £100,000 contribution will provide a basic income for a whole community for two years, allowing people to set their own pathways out of poverty with dignity. Some of the world’s leading economists from MIT and Princeton are on board to gather evidence of change.

As it has never been done at this scale before we don’t quite know what will happen. Families will likely invest more in their home and their futures, but communities will also shift and build individual and collective resilience. This is what we are seeing from the first village to take part in the pilot, with recipients spending on things like fishing nets, livestock and school fees. 81% also plan to start saving, whether on their own or as part of a group savings scheme. It is these collective opportunities which offer the most excitement, with a real potential to unleash creative and entrepreneurial forces.

Our commitment to this experiment is one of the first to come from our new innovation programme, Redshed. This programme provides a unique opportunity to fund innovative and experimental ways of enabling lasting and significant social change in the hope of finding new ways to make a difference. This pilot is the perfect opportunity to do just that - put rigorous testing behind an approach that could point the way to a world without poverty.