2022, Movies

Free Money (2022, Lauren DeFilippo, Sam Soko)

This is a brief but reasonably compelling and entertaining documentary about a UBI experiment in Kenya by the charity GiveDirectly.

Full disclosure: I have complete drunk the Universal Basic Income Kool-Aid so I am not going to be the most critical reviewer of anything about UBI. You have been warned.

The film tells the story of one village in Kenya that gets a UBI from the US charity GiveDirectly for 12 years. It focuses both on the arguments by GiveDirectly for UBI and the implementation of the payments in this village. It’s told reasonably well, with a few laughs and enough background information for anyone who is unfamiliar with the idea.

The biggest issue with the film is how it is very much just a film, and not a report. It isn’t particularly substantive: GiveDirectly never reveals data about the overall improvements from the payments. (Instead, the film focuses on individual stories, as a film usually does.)

More significantly for me, the film’s criticism’s of the whole project are extremely vague. Mostly, it boils down to two things. One is a Kenyan-born journalist’s deep (and understandable) feeling that all American NGOs will do more harm than good to his country. But he never really provides a good counter to “Yeah but these people are now less poor.”

The main criticism the film seems to lob at GiveDirectly, though, is one that makes very little sense. It focuses particularly on Jael, who is denied access to the program through a clerical error. And that obviously is unfair for her. However, the U in UBI stands for Universal. In a real UBI system, nobody would be left out, that’s the point. It removes the problem of welfare administration by giving it to everyone. So this criticism is more a criticism of charity bureaucracy than it is the idea of “free money.” One of the biggest issues with UBI as policy is how so many “supporters” of UBI what to remove the “universal” part of it.

I mostly enjoyed the film because I’m interested in the subject matter. But I think a better film could have been made about this specific UBI experiment or about UBI in general.


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