Economists globally (but especially in the west) are increasingly having a debate about a potentially world changing idea, dubbed Universal Basic Incomes. In a nutshell, UBI is touted as one way of providing literally everyone with a no strings attached cash payment every month to enable everyone to have the same opportunity to make something of their lives.
One of the more prominent proponents of the idea lately is Facebook founder, Mark Zukerberg who said “We should have a society that measures progress not just by economic metrics like GDP, but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful,” he said.
“We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things. We’re going to change jobs many times, so we need affordable childcare to get to work and healthcare that aren’t tied to one company. We’re all going to make mistakes, so we need a society that focuses less on locking us up or stigmatizing us. And as technology keeps changing, we need to focus more on continuous education throughout our lives.”
On the face of it, what a game changer! There are countries like Finland and Sweden, who having met the basic tenets of development and where they have less inequality, may consider a Universal Basic Income model – and they are.
In Kenya, we are currently at a place where there is general agreement that things are tough for everyone – rich or poor. The cost of living has gone right through every ceiling that was previously anticipated and as a country, we are hopelessly in debt – every woman, man and child is today in debt to the tune of about $1000.
The easy response for many Kenyans has been to blame the Kenyatta administration, whose prominent programmes, these past 5 years are the Standard Guage Railway, energy and infrastructure projects. All of these are important but the challenge is that they do not directly affect every persons daily economy. Certainly the SGR has proven to be wanting as it has not directly employed many Kenyans in its building – chinese workers were the vast majority.
Unfortunately however, the progression that the country has taken cannot cast the only shadow on President Kenyatta and his team. There is no evidence that members of his opposition would do things differently or have a different mindset. Measures of progress are focused on GDP and what tangible things citizens can point to in order to make folk heroes of the leaders – “(former president) Kibaki built roads, (former prime minister) Raila saved the Mau forest, (President) Uhuru built roads” and so on.
We, the citizens are hardly better. We evaluate our education system by the number of booksmart students it graduates and not by their creativity or ‘street-smartness’. We evaluate successful politicians as those who impact our pockets. It is no wonder that politicians steal from public coffers in order to give the masses.
Here is the challenge with this thinking that to my mind is not resolved by the new ideas around Universal Basic Incomes: inequality is very real – and in much more drastic ways than American economists may conceive it.
There are young people who have lost hope who drink away their lives in illegal booze dens because they didn’t get an A in school and everyone told them they are failures. As technology has taken hold, whole job categories are being swiftly considered redundant – no one now seeks for secretaries anymore. The gap between the wealthy and the poor continues to increase as shopping baskets grow increasingly lighter. There are still people who are illiterate in 2017, even as the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and I pontificate on UBI and how it will be paid for.
What if we instead tried to concentrate on Universal Basic Outcomes?
My thinking is that we would have a greater chance of providing everyone with a platform for self improvement if we ensured that everyone has basic education and universal health, for example. What if we could ensure that every child under 5 had access to necessary immunizations? What if we made sure that all remote places had access to basic infrastructure like quality roads?
There is a direct relation between basic infrastructure and the rate of development in the places where such infrastructure is situated (see my earlier thinking on roads). Northern Kenya is a distinct example: since independence in Kenya, the people of northern Kenya have been woefully neglected by successive governments over forty or so years. The reasoning is that there is no value in investing in the dry, hot, deserts on the north given that no production happened – there is little to no farming there. As an agriculture dependent nation, we placed more value in the areas that produced food.
As a result children in the north have little access to education and no exposure to the rest of the world. There are thirty year old men and women who could not even aspire to seeing the rest of the world or having interactions with modern technology. Many die of illnesses that would not raise an eyebrow in the city given that there are no medical facilities to speak of.
If we were to focus on Universal Basic Outcomes, we would better align ourselves to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) principles to “Leave no one behind”. In essence, one would advocate for a more targeted development approach – those who have no incomes get these basic incomes, those who have no homes are provided with basic homes, those who are more well to do get the means to invest in order to increase wealth, innovation and employment.
Here’s the thing: I agree that everyone needs a basic platform upon which they can make something of themselves. I however advocate that we move away from the development models that paint whole swathes of people with the same broad brush and that begins to target people according to their microcosms of need. If we were to give everyone a free mosquito net, we are likely to give an extra one to people who already have nets.
Lets not be necessarily equal, Lets be equitable and in so doing, let us find ways to improve equality in the world.