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Paid To Be Alive: Can Universal Basic Income Change Lives In Sri Lanka?

Imagine a world in which the government grants every individual enough money to cover their basic needs: food, water and shelter. There are no conditions upon which this money is given and recipients are not even strictly made to use the money on basic needs—they could even use it for non-necessities— if they so choose to.  

Would this world be any better than the one we are living in today? Is this kind of world  even possible to achieve?

These are some of the big questions a small non-profit,  the Poornam Foundation, is trying to answer. 

A New Version Of An Old Idea

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a government-guarantee to give each citizen a minimum income, and while different versions of the idea have existed since the beginning of the 16th century, the idea of giving people a basic income to get by on with no strings attached first surfaced in the middle of the 19th century. The pros and cons of a ‘basic income’ have been debated since, gaining support from figures as politically diverse as Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon. 

But the idea, which was initially seen as radical, has been steadily making its way into mainstream social and political debates. U. S. Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang even used the policy as his main campaign promise this year, and it has even been endorsed by high-profile names like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg (although their intentions have been criticised.)

In the 1790s pamphlet ‘Agrarian Justice’, American Founding Father Thomas Paine called for a “citizen’s dividend”—a payment to all U.S. citizens, paid for by a tax on landowners. This is noted as one of the first proposals for what is now known as UBI. Photo Credit: www.fortune.com

In Sri Lanka, however, the concept is still relatively unknown. 

“The idea that UBI will become a national policy in Sri Lanka is a far reach, so I decided to start small,” Selvi Sachithanantham, Chief Executive Officer of the Poornam Foundation, told Roar Media. “So we looked at two groups, artists and war widows, and we focused it down to a small number of people, and found some donors to sponsor the project.”

Cash Without Conditions

Sachithanantham came across the concept of a basic income a few years ago in Switzerland, when she met Enno Schmidt, a basic income activist, who has been promoting the idea globally since 2016. 

“He was explaining this concept to me, and I thought, ‘this can be a life changing decision for Sri Lanka’,” she said.

On returning home, Sachithanantham discussed the idea with a few friends, and decided to begin a similar initiative in Sri Lanka, however small. The pilot began in 2018, and participants were selected through a draw. The money given by the donors were put into a separate bank account, from which Rs: 10, 000 was sent to the selected recipients every month, for two years. No conditions were imposed on the recipients. 

“They can do what they like with it, and I found, especially with the war widows, that made a big difference,” Sachithanantham said. 

Making A Difference 

Before receiving a basic income, Indira*, a widow from the Northern Province had extremely low self-esteem as a result of her difficult financial situation and the personal trauma she had experienced in her life, and found it difficult to even communicate. 

A year later, she is able to stand on a stage, speaking confidently to a room filled with people.

“After receiving this money, I decided to get a loan to buy five cows. I figured I could use the Rs. 10, 000 I received every month to pay it back,” she recalled. “I was granted the loan, and this has been a very good thing for me and my family.”

Indira’s cows have now had calves, giving her a total of eight cattle, with which she is able to make Rs.15, 000 per month—leaving her with a little extra cash in hand. 

UBI projects have been conducted around the world, yielding fascinating results. In countries like Kenya, results of the pilot showed an increase in investments, like livestock. Photo Credit: The New York Times

“The main point is that the income is given with no conditions attached to it. This is a paradigm shift and what sets the basic income model apart from other charity models,” Schmidt told Roar Media.

He explained that in regular models of charity, money is often given with a slew of conditions attached to it—the charity often dictates the ways in which the recipient is to spend the money, based on what they think will be the best use for it. 

“Frankly, I find this to be quite patronizing,” Schmidt said. “All this so-called goodwill is nothing but power over others. “‘If I give you money, I have power over you, and you have to do what I think is best.’ I think all these pilot projects around the world have made evident that the poor are poor because of a lack of money, not because of a lack of intelligence,” Schmidt explained. 

Pilot projects testing the outcomes of UBI have been implemented globally, yielding some fascinating results. Between 2011 and 2013, a UNICEF-backed pilot provided 6, 000 people in Madhya Pradesh, India with a basic income. 

By the end of the pilot, research showed that the vast majority of those participated used the additional income to invest in other income-generating opportunities, like livestock. The money was used to allow children to pursue their education, instead of working to help make ends meet. 

Similar pilot programs around the world, have produced varied results due to regional differences, but many have shown positive results—an overall improvement in health conditions, an increase in school enrollment among low-income youth, and a decrease in the percentage of those living below the poverty line.

Pilot projects around the world have shown UBI to have a positive impact on communities. Among them, a decrease in school dropouts. Photo Credit: www.bice.org>

The Money To Make It Happen

While the social benefits of UBI programmes have now been tried, tested and documented, one of the main issues raised against the programme is economic feasibility. 

“One of the most frequent questions I get asked is, ‘where are we going to get the money from,’ and that is a pertinent question,” said  Sachithanantham. “But it is not impossible [to find money]. One way would be to redirect funds from social welfare schemes, and put it towards a UBI.”

While Sachithanathan maintained that social welfare policies, like free education and healthcare should not be compromised to make way for a UBI, welfare schemes like the ‘Samurdhi’ and ‘Mahapola’, would no longer be necessary. 

“All of these concurrent welfare schemes…the money is not reaching the people who need it, and there is so much corruption within these enterprises,” she said, pointing out that social welfare schemes like the Samurdhi have been heavily criticised for their inefficiency and politicisation. 

But while Sachithanantham believes that replacing these schemes with a UBI program would be a much better way to alleviate poverty in Sri Lanka, she understands that proposing as a policy would invite controversy.

“People benefiting from these schemes are not going to like it, and politicians are not going to like it, so implementing a national UBI policy will not be an easy task,” she said. “There will be things that [come up to] derail it —  but that’s how all great ideas come into being.”

In global debates over UBI, many left-wing critics argue that replacing welfare schemes with UBI is a regressive policy, since money that would otherwise be directed specifically towards the poor would instead be spread out towards basic income for all.

But Schmidt maintains that — especially in a Sri Lankan context — this will not be the case, arguing that the degree of corruption within the current welfare schemes in Sri Lanka ensured there was no guarantee the money goes to poor people. “Since the UBI will have to be given to everyone, there is less room for corruption to take place,” he said. 

Sachithanantham also added that the income given to people through a UBI would also ultimately bring more benefits to the poor.

“Ultimately, through a UBI, the poor will have a safety net which will allow them to negotiate the terms of their labour,” she said. “The prevalent view on people who do dirty jobs is, they have no choice. With a UBI, they will have to be valued more, and paid for better, because the recipients will be able to say no.”

Although they are aware they have embarked on an uphill battle, both Sachithanantham and Schmidt are committed to continue spreading awareness of the benefits of UBI.

“Unconditional basic income is not a payment. Everyone should be given the basic things we need to live: food, shelter and clothing,” said Sachithanantham. “And it has to be given on the same terms with which we are given air and water.”

*—name changed to protect identity 

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