TIFF Doc explores experiment with universal basic income - deadline

TIFF Doc explores experiment with universal basic income – deadline

In rural Kenya, $22 a month can go a long, long way. We are talking about a life changing sum of money.

That figure is, in fact, the amount calculated by the nonprofit aid organization GiveDirectly as needed to conduct an experiment to alleviate extreme poverty in the developing world. In 2018, the NGO launched a test case in a handful of carefully selected Kenyan villages, offering adult residents $22 a month in free cash transfers, with no strings attached, to do as they pleased. Not just for one year, for 12 years.

The documentary Free money, which will have its world premiere Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival, explores the real-world impact of that experiment on the villagers of the village of Kugutu. American filmmaker Lauren DeFilippo joined forces with Kenyan director Sam Soko to make the film. DeFilippo originated the project by obtaining permission from GiveDirectly to film her daring effort.

‘Free Money’ directors Lauren DeFilippo and Sam Soko
Insignia Films / LBX Africa

“I went to Kugutu and I was there from the very beginning when they were implementing this whole thing and pitching the idea,” DeFilippo tells Deadline. “I quickly realized that it was going to be more than a movie about an idea, this idea of ​​Universal Basic Income, but rather a story of characters that I wanted to do and it was totally out of my league to do it in a rural town of Kenya. like a white lady. I really started looking for a collaborator early on and was lucky enough to find Sam Soko and kind of got him into this.”

The film follows several villagers who overcome initial skepticism about an offer that seemed too good to be true. The money, for example, enabled 18-year-old John Omondi to go to university in Nairobi, the capital.

“I can cover my basic costs,” he says in the film, “transportation to school, some of my school fees and other things.”

John Omondi in Nairobi

John Omondi in Nairobi, Kenya
Insignia Films / LBX Africa

One person used the windfall to dig a well; another bought a cow, then another cattle. Someone else made improvements to his house. All good, right? Yes, in a way.

“In the short term, we see quite positive effects from UBI,” DeFilippo observes. “When you talk to the people in town who are receiving the money, they say it’s been hugely transformative… As skeptical as we both were going in, we saw the effects and saw how it changed people’s lives.”

But that is not the end of the story. Free money investigates the fascinating and often worrying implications of the GiveDirectly experiment. Basic income gives recipients a measure of control over their own destinies. However, from one point of view, the participants can be seen as guinea pigs in an invented scenario from afar.

Jael Rael Achieng Songa in 'Free Money'

Jael Rael Achieng Songa, a young woman denied UBI benefits in ‘Free Money’
Insignia Films / LBX Africa

“The people you choose to change their lives end up lacking agency,” says Soko. “If you have a problem [with the program]They have nowhere to go. Because you are trying to deal with and solve a problem from the top, it is very easy for you to forget that the people below may have some important critical questions that they may choose not to ask you because of the power you give them.

Perhaps there were unintended sociological consequences to the experiment. He quickly created a mini world of rich and poor. Kugutu’s chosen ones suddenly became “rich”. But the people of the surrounding villages remained in the camp of “have-nots”. These separate villages often contained members of the same family.

“It’s someone who comes in and just draws a line and says, ‘You guys on this side are going to develop faster than people on the other side.’ And it’s your brother we’re talking about,” says Soko. “It’s interesting and curious to see how those long-term relationships develop.”

In neighboring villages left out of the UBI program, some residents felt sad and questioned their faith in God.

Humanitarian workers from the GiveDirectly charity

GiveDirectly charity staff
Insignia Films / LBX Africa

“Honestly, it was heartbreaking to hear from neighbors like Milka, the woman who appears in the film. [She was] like, ‘We just don’t know what we did wrong…’” recalls DeFilippo. “She feels like they had a chance and somehow they blew it. That regret is a little hard to hear.”

GiveDirectly envisions itself as an evidence-based analytics organization dedicated to studying the effectiveness of its program. It doesn’t seem, at least from the movie, that anyone in the organization is losing sleep over a Kenyan villager suffering from a crisis of faith.

“That level of consequence, that’s not something they care about,” says Soko, “because for them the experiment works. [Their attitude is]’Let’s move on to the next thing.’”

GiveDirectly earns an A+ rating from, which describes itself as “America’s most independent and assertive charity watchdog.” Charity Watch evaluates according to various criteria, including how efficiently a charity uses donations. But DeFilippo argues that these kinds of watchdog groups aren’t looking at the whole picture.

“It all depends very much on the donor’s perspective on how exactly the money is being used. And none of that takes recipients into account,” she says. “That’s an ulterior motive that we have — we’d love to change that and these ethics and accountability issues.”

GiveDirectly’s website says that since 2009 it has delivered more than $550 million “in cash into the hands of more than 1.25 million families living in poverty” and gleefully adds (in the context of a pitch for more donations) , “And no, people don’t just spend it on alcohol. That’s fine. A lot of people think that at first.”

Michael Faye, CEO and co-founder of the NGO, appears in the documentary and makes a strong case for doing things GD’s way, unlike previous attempts at poverty alleviation that sometimes failed (Kenyan journalist Larry Madowo comment on Free money“[T]there is a long history of NGOs causing a lot of havoc here”). GiveDirectly says on its website: “We believe that people living in poverty deserve the dignity to choose for themselves the best way to improve their lives – cash enables that choice.”

Free money It does not constitute an endorsement or condemnation of GiveDirectly and its experiment in socioeconomic transformation.

“I feel like we were really making this movie for audiences that came from opposite sides of the spectrum,” says DeFilippo. “The Western view is that these are the do-gooders who are fighting the good fight. And the point of view of African Kenyans is like, ‘We’ve seen this before. This is not going to end well. And we really wanted to tell a story that could speak to both sides.”

Free money is an acquisition title in TIFF. Dogwoof handles international sales; CAA is the US sales agent. It’s a timely film because Universal Basic Income has become a topic of growing discussion around the world. It can be argued that the Trump and Biden administrations essentially experimented with UBI during the Covid shutdown and afterward when it gave unrestricted cash grants, i.e. “stimulus checks” to Americans. This came as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed on an emergency basis in late March 2020. Studies have shown that financial aid made a big difference.

According to a PBS first line report, “Researchers from the Urban Institute…examined the impacts of pandemic-era benefits and stimulus measures. Looking at 2021 as a whole, they projected that government assistance programs, both those that existed before COVID and those created in response to the pandemic, would reduce the 2021 poverty rate by 67% compared to what it would have been without. government assistance. .”

“Over the last five years,” Soko notes, “what has happened is that Universal Basic Income has found its way into many conversations. There are so many experiments happening all over the world: in Europe, in Africa, in America. Governments are actually genuinely questioning how to apply UBI… even [in] partially as a means of coping with and engaging with poverty. So, he’s with us.”

Soko adds of the documentary: “We think this film is a very urgent part of this conversation and becomes a very important piece in this larger space and spirit of Universal Basic Income and cash transfers.”

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