The ideal meets the practical

Towards an unconditional Citizen’s Basic Income

At a time when the idea of Citizen’s Basic Income is gaining traction, discussion and debate continues to break down when the idea meets with pragmatism and practicality. Questions of feasibility aside, this is particularly apparent during discussion of Citizen’s Basic Income experiments, or pilot schemes, currently taking place across the world. That such and such experiment focuses on unemployment, or that another involves targeting, somehow taints the purity of the idea. A full Citizen’s Basic Income would be unconditional, would not be income- or work-tested, and would be paid to the individual. This is radically different from the conditional benefits that characterise prevailing welfare and social protection, and which are income- and/or work-tested, often paid on a household basis, and often stipulate conditions like school attendance and health check-ups. The issue of implementation, however, was addressed during the closing remarks at the 2017 Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) conference, when Louise Haagh, the BIEN Chair, reflected upon ‘a necessary move from idealism to realism.’

Recent literature has taken up the question of what a notion of realism might mean within utopian thought (see for example, Levitas, 2013; Bregman, 2014 [2017]; Sarr, 2016). Rutger Bregman distinguishes between forms of this thinking: between a sort of rigid and immutable ‘blueprint’, and a set of more abstract ideals which offer ‘guideposts’ (Bregman, 2014: 12, 13). He writes: ‘Instead of forcing us into a straitjacket, [a guidepost] inspires us to change’ (Bregman, 2014: 13). This literature emphasises utopian thought as essential for bringing about new realities: but how might policy change sit within it and respond to this move?

Social protection floors as stepping stones

An approach set out in a UN report published in March 2017 offers one way to think about this. It suggests that ‘if it is to be recognised that basic income is not an idea that can be achieved in a single leap, there could be no better and more elaborate and widely supported programme than that for the social protection floor’ (Alston 2017: 20). As with Citizen’s Basic Income, the idea of a social protection floor is not new. What is relatively new, however, is its formalisation in policy in 2012 when the International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted its Social Protection Floor Recommendation. This sets out a minimum guarantee for states to aspire to: that ‘over the life cycle, all in need have access to essential health care and to basic income security which together secure effective access to goods and services defined as necessary at the national level’ (ILO, 2012). And it recommends processes of expansion and gap filling of existing policies, while at the same time asserting a key commitment to the principle – an ideal – of universality. I’ll take each of these in turn.

Revolution or patching – a comparative exercise

The tension between overhaul and more gradual change recalls William Beveridge’s claim that a ‘revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching’ (Beveridge: 1942: 6). The Beveridge Report certainly was a watershed moment in the development of the welfare state in Britain. However, it is worth unpacking the story a little to help shed light on some of the processes taking place today. A combination of the ‘ecstatic’ reaction from the public and press, as well as its sweeping political support, had an effect of masking important histories and alternative ideas (Timmins 1995 [2001]: 23, 43).

Beveridge himself was the first to acknowledge that his Report was not necessarily such a radical break with what had been happening before. In the same document, a few paragraphs down, he added: ‘the scheme here proposed is in some ways a revolution, but in more important ways is a natural development from the past. It is a British revolution’ (Beveridge, 1942: 17). Beveridge cites the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1897 as the first step towards social security in Britain (Beveridge 1953: 55). Next important steps included the first state pensions in 1909 – the ‘Lloyd George’ – and the adoption of the National Insurance Act in 1911, which brought together health and employment measures which had crept in during the previous decade. Over the next thirty years, these policies would expand and evolve in a piecemeal manner, constituting what has been dubbed the ‘ambulance state.’ This process of patching was vital to the development of the welfare state in Britain, and it epitomises the sort of ad-hoc emergence of social protection that has occurred in many developing countries around the world.

Senegal is one country that is in the process of adopting a social protection floor (Safiétou Ba et al, 2016). Social security linked to formal employment dates back to the post-war years when, in line with the French Code du Travail (Labour Code), family allowances were allocated to families of wage earners in urban areas in French West Africa (Cooper, 1996). Shortly before independence, two bodies were created to administer social protection: the Caisse de Sécurité Sociale (Social Security Fund) in 1956, and the Institution de Prévoyance Retraite du Senegal (Senegal Old-Age Pension Insurance Institution) in 1958. Recent tax exemptions, an increased regularity of payments, and greater institutional harmonization, are subtle indications of the government’s commitment to these bodies. However, in a country where sixty percent of the active population is employed in the informal economy (Sarr, 86), the more recent expansion of social protection and increased budgetary provision for this sector is significant.

Policies and programmes that have emerged over the past decade include Plan Sésame, which provides free medical cover to the elderly, the Programme pour l’égalité des chances (Equality of Opportunities Programme), which provides assistance for disabled people, and the bourse familiale (family grant), a conditional cash transfer allocated to the poorest families nationwide. The latter is usually paid to the mother, and there are eligibility criteria – including having children of certain ages, or there being disabled or elderly people within households – and in theory there are conditions attached to the grant once it has been given, including schooling, healthcare, and registration for civil status if the family had not already done so. The most recent addition to this constellation of programmes, currently being rolled out, is Couverture Maladie Universelle (Universal Health Cover: CMU), which aims to fill the gaps in health care for those between the ages of six and fifty-nine: and the government is considering signing it into law – another key commitment required by the ILO Recommendation.

This process of patching, then, begins to build up to something analogous to the ambulance state. The forms of social security described are in many ways interrelated, and convergence between them is part of the Plan Sénégal Émérgent (Emergent Senegal Plan). Disabled people, for instance, are eligible for the bourse familiale, while those who receive the bourse familiale and the Programme pour l’égalité des chances are automatically signed up for the CMU. Moreover, developments within this process can help contribute to wider debates, vital to those about Citizen’s Basic Income. For instance, one important shift in the debate, brought about by cash transfers, has been that of just giving money to the poor (Hanlon et al, 2010). However, current cash transfers are modelled on ‘poor relief,’ and they are limited, with targeting, conditionality, and the focus on women, that compromise efforts towards an entitlement culture (Schjoedt, 2017). Another shift, then, could be brought about by universality, a principle being introduced in Senegal through the CMU.

Towards universality

In Britain, although universality characterised the National Health Service and the Family Allowances that Beveridge called for, the principle of universality was lost amid fervent support for the Beveridge Report’s National Insurance and National Assistance benefits. Social activist Juliet Rhys-Williams provided one of the most important alternatives to the Report with her proposal for a universal basic income (Sloman, 2015). She had a longstanding commitment to universalism, and her proposals were much more radical than those of Beveridge, crucially in the sense that they were less gender and labour oriented than his assumptions of the ideal household and full employment (Sloman, 2015). If there was not the ‘social space’ for alternative ideas at the time (Torry 2016: 216), the principle might now find that social protection floors offer a way forwards. While a gradual spread of universal policies – in the form of pensions, child benefit, health care, income guarantee – would still be a long way from a Citizen’s Basic Income, they could be part of the necessary ‘groundwork’ (Bregman 249), establishing a move away from conditionality, and offering a ‘guide’ to the direction that future policy might take. It is this commitment to universalism which underscores the UN’s sixth and ‘most important’ conclusion, on the necessity of bringing debate on social protection floors and Citizen’s Basic Income together (Alston, 2017: 19).

What might next steps in each country look like?

At a time when the IMF appears to be changing its views on tax and growth, and when the World Bank (WB) is being ‘open minded’ on universal basic income, the intention to scale up social protection in Senegal is significant (IMF, 2017; Gentilini, 2017). The poor relief oriented policies described above are largely backed by these international financial bodies. And while, in the words of the WB senior economist working on social protection, ‘a sudden introduction of BIGs [basic income grants] in a LIC [low-income country] may be closer to moon-shooting than leap-frogging’, it is likely that Citizen’s Basic Income will increasingly be included ‘as an option on a policymaker’s social assistance menu’ (Gentilini 2017). Senegal, a country with historically ‘extroverted’ policies (Bayart, 2000), is likely to take up the idea of Citizen’s Basic Income, and is particularly likely to do so if other countries implement Citizen’s Basic Incomes first. Government and policy officials don’t hesitate to point out that the bourse familiale is the French for the more famous Bolsa Familia in Brazil, which has always been intended as a step towards a Citizen’s Basic Income. In the context of structural adjustment policies, alarm bells might ring particularly loudly at yet more polices from the IMF and the WB. It is beyond the scope of this piece to offer a fuller critique, although it is essential to stress the importance of opening debate on Citizen’s Basic Income to the many contexts in which it might be considered. One conversation might begin with the way the debate on Citizen’s Basic Income resonates with aims set out by Senegalese scholar Felwine Sarr in his broad-ranging critique of development. His idea of Afrotopos as an ‘active utopia’ aims for balance between the realms of the economic, social, cultural and spiritual (Sarr, 2016: 14), and while his central thesis is to put Africa at the centre, he calls for the ‘selective incorporation’ of ideas and practices that might initiate elsewhere (Sarr, 2016:14, 34).

Conservative Party rejection of Citizen’s Basic Income during a debate in the House of Commons in September 2016 highlights current intransigence on the matter in the UK. Main objections rest on it being unaffordable as well as undesirable, and that Universal Credit, with its commitment to making work pay, is the ‘right’ system for this country. In some respects, cross party support for many of the principles underpinning Universal Credit might suggest that it a sort of stepping stone. Even stumbling blocks (such as the initial six-week absence of benefits) at the very least provide leverage for debate and symbolic victories for opposition parties which are seriously considering Citizen’s Basic Income. The same debate, however, highlights the very real discrepancy between principles and practice – between idealism and realism – making any serious move towards Citizen’s Basic Income seem a long way off. Scotland is probably the closest to implementing a Citizen’s Basic Income in the UK, with its plans to implement pilot schemes. Indeed, such small countries like Scotland (population five million) and Senegal (population fifteen million) might be among the first to implement Citizen’s Basic Incomes.



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