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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 5/31/16

Basic Income - International experience (Brazil, Namibia, Canada, India)

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Founded in 1986, the Basic Income European Network (BIEN) is the international NGO that promotes BIG around the world. It held its last conference "Re-democratizing the Economy" at McGill's Faculty of Law in 2014. A North American congress is being held in Winnipeg in May 2016 and its 16th congress in July in Seoul, South Korea. Its credo is that some sort of economic right based upon citizenship rather than upon one's relationship to the production process or one's family status is called for as part of the just solution to social problems in advanced societies.

We are half way there with welfare, various subsidies, unemployment insurance, pensions, but as more people join the "precariat", subsisting on part time work or permanently unemployed, the current ad hoc support network for this 'economic right' requires a people-centred radical reform. This is the logical conclusion of the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976) which recognizes the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living.

There are basic income groups and movements in many countries. The idea is simmering below the surface of conventional political thinking and policy-making across Europe, South America and most of the world. It has actually broken the surface in Switzerland where there is to be a referendum on whether to introduce it. Basic income has proved itself in pilot schemes, in Canada and Namibia as well as in India, but government in both the former countries is hostile.

The idea is most advanced in Brazil where Bolsa Familia ('family bowl'), a universal basic income scheme became law in 2004 and is being introduced in stages. Bolsa Familia has since dramatically reduced poverty where it applies. Inevitably, Bolsa Familia has been denounced for encouraging laziness, but the World Bank has surveyed the scheme and found that it did not discourage working, and even encouraged harder work and entrepreneurship.

In Namibia in 2008 a non-profit coalition implemented a monthly cash of approximately $13 to every Otjivero citizen. Otjivero is a settlement of 1,000 in a hot and dusty region 100 kilometers east of Windhoek, surrounded on all four sides by the electric fences of rich, white farmers. The results were outstanding in reducing child malnutrition and absolute poverty. It has increased entrepreneurial activity, creating a local multiplier effect, increasing employment and mutual support. Crime is down and children can finally attend school.

Only the local white farmers are unhappy. Siggi von Luttwitz: "They all drink, you know, and if you give them 100 dollars, they'll just drink more." Luttwitz, a Namibian of German descent, is a farmer. He pays his workers, his "cadets," the minimum hourly wage of 2.21 Namibian dollars, which is about 20 euro cents, as well as rations of meat and milk, which he believes is sufficient. The general consensus is that Africa's poor should be given food vouchers and wells, but no responsibility.

Economic activity in the village has grown by 10%, more people are paying tuition and doctors' fees, health is improving and the crime rate is down. Before the introduction of the basic income, women prostituted themselves to earn money for food, while the men stole and poached. They spent the rest of their time sitting idle and in a daze in front of their dilapidated huts.

Now, some mothers are raising chickens and men are buying cement for construction. Amy Richardson: Everybody was the same so there was no shame. Only 3% percent of the gross domestic product, or $150 million, would be enough to provide a basic income for all Namibians. Namibian President Hage Geingob announced new plans to eradicate poverty by 2025. At the heart of his strategy is the introduction of basic income grants.

The results of the 1974 pilot project in Manitoba under the socialist government provided a guaranteed minimum income for all the residents of Dauphin. Good results: only new mothers and teens stopped working, the former to spend more time rearing newborns, the latter to study, showing higher test scores and lower dropout rates. There was also an increase in adults continuing education. The period saw a reduction in rates of psychiatric hospitalization, and in the number of mental illness-related consultations.

Amy Richardson, a mother of six whose husband was disabled: "It was enough to bring your income up to where it should be. It was enough to add some cream to the coffee. Everybody was the same so there was no shame." Doreen Henderson, a stay at home mother whose husband worked as a janitor also appreciated the benefits: "Give them enough money to raise their kids. People work hard, and it's still not enough. This isn't welfare. This is making sure kids have enough to eat."

One of the real bonuses is it attempts to take away a lot of the behavioural constraints of existing welfare programs, Forget said. "So people aren't quite so focused on who they should live with, or how many nights a month your [partner] might be spending with you, or whether or not you are looking hard enough for a job."

The experiment was ended under the Conservatives in 1979, and Canada is well down the list in terms of social equality, along with Britain, the US and Australia.

The scourge of poverty causes even US Republicans to lose some sleep. The US came close to instituting a GAI in the late 1960s under Nixon, conducting experiments in 1968--1972 in New Jersey, Iowa, North Carolina, Indiana, Washington state and Colorado. They found that workers decreased labor supply (employment) by two to four weeks per year, 13%, mostly wives and children. That hopeful experiment lapsed with Watergate.

Since the election of the Liberal Justin Trudeau, the policy is back on the table in Canada. Former Toronto mayor, (Liberal) Senator Art Eagleton tabled a motion in the Senate recently calling on the government to create a pilot project that would test a basic income. University of Manitoba health economist Evelyn Forget was invited to address the issue at the House of Commons finance committee in February. A pilot project is part of (Liberal) Ontario's budget for next year.

This is no coincidence. (Liberal) Pierre Trudeau provided support to the Manitoba pilot project in 1974, and Quebec's (Liberal) Minister of Employment and Social Solidarity, Francois Blais, just happens to be author of Ending Poverty: A Basic Income for All Canadians (2002). (Liberal) Senator Art Eagleton: Many families struggle to pay the rent; they can't afford their children's school supplies or school trips. Many rely on donations at the food bank just to feed their families.

Indian experience

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Eric writes for Al-Ahram Weekly and PressTV. He specializes in Russian and Eurasian affairs. His "Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games", "From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-emerging Islamic Civilization" and "Canada (more...)

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