Conference Report: The BIEN Congress in Sao Paulo

The Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) has come of age. It held its fourteenth international congress in the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo on June 30-July 3, 2010, and was attended by over 400 participants from 31 countries, including representatives of the UK’s Citizen’s Income Trust, and was remarkable for the upbeat mood among the participants.

A primary reason for that was that Brazil’s own bolsa familia scheme was working remarkably well. Members of BIEN had lobbied for a Brazilian cash transfer scheme in the 1990s, and after some years of scepticism this had helped lead to a series of experimental cash transfer schemes in Brazilian cities, known as renda minima and bolsa escola (school bags). When President Lula was elected in 2001 he consolidated several types of scheme in the bolsa familia, a cash transfer made conditional on families sending their children to school and to health clinics. By 2010, over 50 million Brazilians were receiving the cash transfers, and, under a law passed in 2004, the Government has committed the country to introduce an unconditional basic income as and when it can afford to do so.

Symbolic of the commitment, President Lula held a 90-minute discussion with the Executive Committee of BIEN on the day before the Congress, and the man who as Minister of Social Welfare had been responsible for introducing and implementing the bolsa familia, Patrus Anaias, actively participated in the Congress, as did the Senator for Sao Paulo, Eduardo Suplicy, who is now co-president of BIEN.

The mood at the Congress was optimistic, partly because 17 Latin American countries now operate cash transfer schemes and seem to be moving towards a universalistic type of system. The challenge now is to roll back the focus on conditionalities. Evidence presented at the Congress showed that the main reason why the cash transfers have had such a positive effect on poverty, nutrition, child school performance, income distribution and women’s socio-economic status, is the provision of cash, and not the application of costly and onerous conditions.

Well over 100 technical papers were presented at the Congress. Among the most interesting was one on how the oil subsidy in Iran is being converted into a simple cash transfer, a form of basic income, without that being presented by the authorities as that. There was also news of pilot basic income schemes in Africa and India, exciting developments that are leading to important evaluation exercises that all advocates of universal basic income security should follow with interest.

At the end of the Congress, the Executive approved the new membership of the Basic Income Korean Network, the body representing activists and academics promoting basic income in South Korea. At the time of registering, the BIKN had 444 paid up members and has been expanding rapidly. It joined the Japanese Basic Income Network that had held its inaugural conference in Kyoto in April, which drew hundreds of academics and activists from across Japan.

Guy Standing, BIEN Co-President and CIT Trustee.