One could debate and dispute whether implementing a Basic Income Grant would be a good idea in affluent post-industrial societies, as we did (here and here and here) at CT before. Yet for developing societies with serious problems of persistent poverty, it seems to me like a very good idea indeed. One could add as a (desirable) condition that such a society should be able to internally generate the money to fund such a BIG (that is, there must be a big enough section of rich or middle class people whose consumption or income can be taxed). The idea may work wonderfully in countries like South Africa for example. If you give poor South Africans a relatively tiny BIG, they are not given welfare payouts that enable them to sit back and rest (as the critics may have it), but rather people are given some very basic means to take their lives in their own hands: money for food, for basic health care, for school fees, for a roof above their head, and perhaps to set up a small business. No more begging for food needed. The amounts can be tiny and may seem like pocketmoney to people in the global North, but as we know from the relative success of microcredits, poor people can change their lives (and those of their children) when they have small amounts of money.
There is now empirical evidence supporting this line of reasoning, coming from Namibia, where in 2004 a coalition of churches, trade unions, NGOs and AIDS organisations decided to run a pilot project to figure out what a small BIG would do to the lives of the extreme poor.
The BIG Coalition raised money which allows them to give a BIG of 100 Namibian Dollars to each individual which was registered in July 2007 as living in the Otjivero-Omitara area, about 100 kilometres east of Windhoek (pensioners were excluded as they get an unconditional state pension). The amount is small, since the food poverty line stands at 152 Namibian dollars per capita, whereas the poverty line counting “the severely poor” stands at 220, and the official poor are all those living on less than 316 Namibian dollars per month.
As the study of the effects of the BIG after one year clearly demonstrate, the effects are strikingly positive. The percentage of those falling below the food poverty line has dropped from 76% to 37%. The percentage of those being able to get a job or become successfully self-employed has increased from 44 to 55%, and the amount of non-BIG income per capita rose from N$ 118 to N$ 152 (indicating a virtuous economic growth cycle). The number of underweight children has dropped from 42 to 10%. School attendance has gone up, and teachers report that the children are better able to concentrate. The health clinic receives many more patients (for illnesses that would otherwise not have been treated). Average household debt fell from N$ 1,215 to N$ 772. Crime rates fell by 42%, and there is no evidence that alcohol-abuse (which is a serious problem in many poor areas) has worsened. (Further details are in the report, together with interviews documenting the experiences of the people who have been given the BIG).
The authors claim that the funds needed to implement this across Namibia could be raised within the existing fiscal constraints, and that thus the only remaining question is one of political will. To me their story made complete sense and I found the empirical evidence compelling. Yet am I overlooking something? Some to-be-expected unintended negative consequences when this would be implemented on a larger scale, for example?