TIFF Doc Explores Experience 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.

This figure is, in fact, the amount calculated by the non-profit aid organization GiveDirectly as needed to conduct an experiment aimed at alleviating 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 with whatever they chose. Not just for one year – for 12 years.

The documentary Free money, which will make its world premiere on Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival, explores the real impact of this experience on the villagers of the hamlet of Kugutu. American filmmaker Lauren DeFilippo has teamed up with Kenyan director Sam Soko to direct the film. DeFilippo originated the project by getting permission from GiveDirectly to film their daring venture.

Lauren DeFilippo and Sam Soko, directors of “Free Money”
Insignia Films / LBX Africa

“I went to Kugutu and was there early on when they rolled this all out and pitched the idea,” DeFilippo told Deadline. “I quickly realized that this would be more than a movie about an idea – this universal basic income idea – but more of a character story that I wanted to do that was just out of my reach doing it in a rural village in Kenya.like a white lady.I really started looking for a collaborator very early on and was lucky enough to find Sam Soko and kind of roped him in.

The film follows a number of villagers who overcame their initial skepticism at an offer that seemed too good to be true. The money, for example, enabled 18-year-old John Omondi to attend university in Nairobi, the capital.

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

John Omondi in Nairobi

John Omondi in Nairobi, Kenya
Insignia Films / LBX Africa

One person took advantage of the unexpected windfall to dig a well; another bought a cow, then another cattle. Another person made improvements to their house. Everything is fine, right? Yes – in some ways.

“In the short term, we’re seeing some pretty positive effects from UBI,” DeFilippo observes. “When you talk to people in the village who receive the money, they say it has been hugely transformative…As skeptical as we both were, we’ve seen the effects and we’ve seen people’s lives change.”

But that’s not the end of the story. Free money explores the fascinating and often unsettling implications of the GiveDirectly experience. Basic income gives recipients some control over their own destiny. However, from a certain point of view, the participants can be seen as guinea pigs in a scenario concocted from a distance.

Jael Rael Achieng Songa in

Jael Rael Achieng Songa, a young woman deprived of UBI benefits in “Free Money”
Insignia Films / LBX Africa

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

Perhaps there were unintended sociological consequences to the experiment. He quickly created a mini world of haves and have-nots. Kugutu’s elected officials suddenly became “haves”. But the inhabitants of the surrounding villages remained in the camp of the “poor”. These separate villages often had 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 the people on the other side. And it’s your brother we’re talking about,” Soko said. “It’s interesting and curious to see how these relationships play out over the long term.”

In nearby villages excluded from the UBI program, some residents became desperate and questioned their faith in God.

Aid workers from GiveDirectly

GiveDirectly Association Staff
Insignia Films / LBX Africa

“Honestly, it was really 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…’” DeFilippo recalled. “She feels like they had a chance and kind of missed it. That regret is kind of hard to hear.

GiveDirectly considers itself an analytical, evidence-driven organization dedicated to studying the effectiveness of its program. It doesn’t appear, at least from the film, that anyone in the organization lost sleep over a Kenyan villager suffering a crisis of faith.

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

GiveDirectly earns an A+ rating from CharityWatch.org, which describes itself as “America’s most independent and assertive charity watchdog.” Charity Watch evaluates by several criteria, including how effectively a charity uses donations. But DeFilippo argues that these types of watchdog groups don’t see the full picture.

“It all depends on the donor’s perspective on exactly how the money is used. And none of that takes into account the recipients,” she says. “It’s kind of an ulterior motive that we have – we’d like to change around that and those ethical and accountability issues.”

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

Michael Faye, executive chairman and co-founder of the NGO, appears in the documentary and makes a strong case for doing things the GD way, as opposed to past attempts at poverty alleviation that have sometimes failed (Kenyan journalist Larry Madowo comments in Free Money“[T]here is a long story of NGOs that are doing a lot of damage. “). GiveDirectly states on its website, “We believe that people living in poverty deserve the dignity of choosing for themselves how best to improve their lives – money enables that choice.”

Free Money does not constitute an endorsement or condemnation of GiveDirectly and its experience of socio-economic transformation.

“I feel like we were really making this movie for an audience that came from opposite sides of the spectrum,” DeFilippo said. “The Western view is that it is the benefactors who fight the good fight. And the view of Kenyan Africans is like, “We’ve seen this before. It’s not going to end well. And we really wanted to tell a story that could speak to both sides.

Free Money is a TIFF acquisition title. Dogwoof handles international sales; CAA is the US commercial agent. It’s a timely film as Universal Basic Income has become an increasingly discussed topic around the world. Arguably, the Trump and Biden administrations essentially experimented with UBI during the Covid shutdown and its aftermath when it provided unrestricted cash grants, i.e. “stimulus checks”, to Americans. This is part of the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act), which was urgently passed at the end of March 2020. Studies have shown that economic aid makes a huge difference.

According to a PBS First line report, “Researchers at the Urban Institute…examined the effects of pandemic-era benefits and stimulus. 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% from this. that it would have been without government assistance. .”

“Over the past five years,” notes Soko, “what has happened is that universal basic income has worked its way into many conversations. There are so many experiments going on all over the world – in Europe, Africa, America Governments are really wondering how to apply the UBI… even [in] partial form as a means of confronting and tackling poverty. So it’s with us.

Soko adds of the documentary, “We believe this film is a very urgent part of that conversation and becomes a very important piece in this larger space and in the zeitgeist of universal basic income and cash transfers. “

Christy J. Olson