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Basic Income in Kenya: Could it Transform Our Ideas of ‘Development’?

Written by Sarah Koedijk

August 20, 2018

International Development – Paternalistic chaos?

International development has been criticised for being paternalistic and dysfunctional. Development practitioners can be prone to deciding what communities need without consulting residents themselves. What’s more, programmes often do not reach intended beneficiaries, and can create new problems where old ones have barely been tackled. However, recent initiatives have challenged these criticisms. One is Give Directly’s Lumpsum Project in Kenya.

Give Directly’s Project in Kenya

Based on the idea of cash-transfer programmes, the experiment is providing 6000 vulnerable people in 40 rural Kenyan villages with a guaranteed basic income for the coming 12 years. Give Directly transfers the monthly payment of $22 per adult via a mobile phone-based payment system. Recipients then withdraw their money from their bank account.

The Lumpsum project is not the first of its kind. Similar programmes have been tested in Finland, the Netherlands or Germany. However, it is the first large experiment researchers have conducted in a “developing” country and is unique in terms of length and reach. And it has serious potential to change the way we think about “development”.

As a payment, the Basic Income is universal. To be eligible, recipients do not have to be exceptionally poor or employed. It is also unconditional. As such, beneficiaries do not have to fulfil certain conditions, such as vaccinating their children. Most importantly, it does not prescribe solutions to people’s problems. The experiment therefore enables each villager to decide what they wish to spend their money on. Rather than foreign donors determining their needs, villagers are free to follow their personal aspirations and reach their own goals.

Lumpsum’s Mostly Positive Results

In the two years that the Lumpsum project has been running, its “hands off” approach has proven hugely successful. Give Directly has reported a 30% increase in income for every dollar recipients receive and a great diversity in people’s spending. Some users have bought durable assets such as a boat or a cow. Others have spent money on home renovations. Some have even bought musical instruments and have started a band. Naturally, there have been cases of ‘misuse’, with some recipients spending their income on gambling or alcohol but this has been rare. Overall, villagers’ psychological well-being has improved, due to reduced stress because of financial problems.

International Development – Not so bad, after all?

The Lumpsum Project in Kenya therefore lets us rethink the idea of “development”. It shows us that “development” does not have to be paternalistic, uncoordinated or dysfunctional. It demonstrates that the structure of dominance and control does not have to be woven into the fabric of development programmes to make them effective. People will find their own way to improve their lives. “The poor” do not need conditions to spend money “responsibly”. And they can be agents of their own futures, and not merely passive recipients.

About The Author

Sarah Koedijk is currently completing a MSc in Political Economy of Emerging Markets with the Department of International Development at King’s College London. She is also doing an internship with LIDC. Sarah researches poverty and inequality, agriculture and human rights, which she has brought together in her dissertation that investigates the effect of land investments on the communities living in Ethiopia’s lowlands.

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