February 23, 2017


The Future of Not Working (Annie Lowrey, Feb. 23rd, 2017, NY Times Magazine)

The villagers had seen Western aid groups come through before, sure, but nearly all of them brought stuff, not money. And because many of these organizations were religious, their gifts came with moral impositions; I was told that one declined to help a young mother whose child was born out of wedlock, for example. With little sense of who would get what and how and from whom and why, rumors blossomed. One villager heard that GiveDirectly would kidnap children. Some thought that the organization was aligned with the Illuminati, or that it would blight the village with giant snakes, or that it performed blood magic. Others heard that the money was coming from Obama himself.

But the confusion faded that unseasonably cool morning in October, when a GiveDirectly team returned to explain themselves during a town meeting. Nearly all of the village's 220 people crowded into a blue-and-white tent placed near the school building, watching nervously as 13 strangers, a few of them white, sat on plastic chairs opposite them. Lydia Tala, a Kenyan GiveDirectly staff member, got up to address the group in Dholuo. She spoke at a deliberate pace, awaiting a hum and a nod from the crowd before she moved on: These visitors are from GiveDirectly. GiveDirectly is a nongovernmental organization that is not affiliated with any political party. GiveDirectly is based in the United States. GiveDirectly works with mobile phones. Each person must have his or her own mobile phone, and they must keep their PIN secret. Nobody must involve themselves in criminal activity or terrorism. This went on for nearly two hours. The children were growing restless.

Finally, Tala passed the microphone to her colleague, Brian Ouma. "People of the village," he said, "are you happy?"

"We are!" they cried in unison.

Then he laid out the particulars. "Every registered person will receive 2,280 shillings" -- about $22 -- "each and every month. You hear me?" The audience gasped and burst into wild applause. "Every person we register here will receive the money, I said -- 2,280 shillings! Every month. This money, you will get for the next 12 years. How many years?"

"Twelve years!"

Just like that, with peals of ululation and children breaking into dance in front of the strangers, the whole village was lifted out of extreme poverty. (I have agreed to withhold its name out of concern for the villagers' safety.) The nonprofit is in the process of registering roughly 40 more villages with a total of 6,000 adult residents, giving those people a guaranteed, 12-year-long, poverty-ending income. An additional 80 villages, with 11,500 residents all together, will receive a two-year basic income. With this initiative, GiveDirectly -- with an office in New York and funded in no small part by Silicon Valley -- is starting the world's first true test of a universal basic income. The idea is perhaps most in vogue in chilly, left-leaning places, among them Canada, Finland, the Netherlands and Scotland. But many economists think it might have the most promise in places with poorer populations, like India and sub-Saharan Africa.

GiveDirectly wants to show the world that a basic income is a cheap, scalable way to aid the poorest people on the planet. "We have the resources to eliminate extreme poverty this year," Michael Faye, a founder of GiveDirectly, told me. But these resources are often misallocated or wasted. His nonprofit wants to upend incumbent charities, offering major donors a platform to push money to the world's neediest immediately and practically without cost.

What happens in this village has the potential to transform foreign-aid institutions, but its effects might also be felt closer to home. A growing crowd, including many of GiveDirectly's backers in Silicon Valley, are looking at this pilot project not just as a means of charity but also as the groundwork for an argument that a universal basic income might be right for you, me and everyone else around the world too.

Posted by at February 23, 2017 9:40 AM