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How Basic Income paves the way to a Social Protection Floor for all

The recent Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) Congress 2018 provided a platform for a fascinating conversation on the convergence between the UBI and the Social Protection Floors debates. Development Pathways Associate Rasmus Schjoedt and I presented preliminary findings on the potential benefits of a progressive introduction of a UBI in order to contribute to this, writes Heiner Salomon.

Three main messages stood out from the discussions:

Firstly, Philip Alston argued that, if we ever want to move the needle on social protection globally we need to create a ‘sense of outrage’ about the unfairness and inadequacy of many current social protection systems.

Secondly,  the perils of path dependence loomed large: Once a country creates large bureaucracies to administer complex programmes – for example, with (proxy-) means testing, conditions and control – it is hard to switch to a more universal system, even if there is political appetite for it.

Thirdly, there was an interesting and refreshing convergence between the debates on universal basic income and those on the social protection floor because of the diverse presenters and audience. These included a panel session organised by UNICEF about universal child benefits, for example.

A ‘sense of outrage’

Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights and a champion of UBI globally, launched the conference by framing the central debates within a global context. He made it very clear that the future of social protection systems is currently being debated all around the globe, as regular readers of this blog will be aware.

UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights

Alston – who recently criticised the IMF’s dismissal of social security systems as a way to fight poverty, among other critiques, – used a memorable rallying call: If we want to improve social protection systems, we need to foster a “sense of outrage” against the violation of the human right to an adequate standard of living.

I think he is right. If more people were aware – for example, of how degrading the disability benefit assessment can be in the UK (see the film I, Daniel Blake for a powerful reference) or how, in the Philippines, many people are living in poverty and yet are excluded from the vital 4P cash transfer because of a complex algorithm with many flaws (and, in some cases, non-receiving children’s nutrition status might have even deteriorated) – we might have a wholly different debate. One focused  more on human dignity and potential, and less on costs and fiscal space.

Path dependence

Leandro Ferreira, an aide to Eduardo Suplicy, who introduced Brazil’s basic income law, reminded us that path dependence casts a long shadow on national social protection systems. The law from 2004 mandates the progressive introduction of a universal basic income in Brazil and was introduced right before the law setting up Bolsa Família, Brazil’s well-known conditional cash transfer programme.

UBI proponents had hope that Bolsa Família would be a stepping stone towards basic income. Instead, Bolsa Família – which has (soft) conditions and is targeted to ‘poor’ families – has crowded out the debate about the potential benefits of a UBI. Because Bolsa Família is now the starting point for debates about expanding social protection in Brazil, advocates for basic income need to consider how to move towards a more universal and unconditional system within the existing poverty targeted and restricted framework. See also Professor Lena Lavinas’ similar argument.

And that question clearly has relevance beyond Brazil: How can one introduce a universal basic income alongside or within the existing social protection system? And, more importantly, in low-income countries, how might opting for the ‘more affordable’ poverty targeting programme today shape and constrain the policy universe tomorrow?

Universal Basic Income and Social Protection Floors

Finally, it was pleasing to see convergence between the universal basic income debates and the social protection floors debate: Philip Alston started off the conference with an international outlook, noting the need to bring together the debates on UBI and social protection floors; UNICEF organised a panel on the relationship between UBI and universal child grants while another panel was focused entirely on social protection; and there were participants from South Africa, Ethiopia, Indonesia, India, Georgia and Tanzania, among others.

Our own presentation showed some preliminary results of what a progressively realised UBI could look like in three low- and middle-income countries. We simulated the impact on poverty levels over time of such an approach in India, Ethiopia and Nigeria, where starting with ‘partial’ universal basic incomes for older people and children would have massive effects on poverty levels, while being reasonably affordable. At the same time, this approach would allow for a gradual expansion of coverage across age groups as countries grow wealthier. In India, for instance, a universal child grant for every child below 18 and an old age pension for everyone above the age of 60 would reduce extreme poverty at the $1.9 line by nearly 90 per cent, while costing about 6.3 per cent of GDP (see here for the presentation with more preliminary results).

This year’s BIEN conference provided a welcome platform to connect the two debates and forge wider coalitions across countries. Next year, the conference will be held in Hyderabad, India. Given the widespread debates about UBI in India in recent years (for instance, see the widely discussed proposal by the Ministry of Finance), and the proximity to many other countries working on setting up Social Protection Floor frameworks, that conference also promises to be another opportunity to bring the two debates even closer together.

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