In rural Kenya, $22 a month can go a long, long way. We’re talking a life-changing sum of money.
That figure is, in fact, the amount calculated by the nonprofit aid organization GiveDirectly as necessary to conduct an experiment in alleviating extreme poverty in the developing world. In 2018, the NGO launched a test case in a handful of carefully selected Kenyan villages, offering adult residents $22 a month in free cash transfers, no strings attached, to do with as they chose. Not just for a single year – for 12 years.
The documentary Free Money, making its world premiere on Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival, explores the real-world impact of that experiment on villagers in the hamlet of Kugutu. American filmmaker Lauren DeFilippo joined forces with Kenyan director Sam Soko to make the film. DeFilippo originated the project by securing permission from GiveDirectly to film their bold endeavor.
“I went to Kugutu and was there at the beginning when they were rolling all of this out and introducing the idea,” DeFilippo tells Deadline. “I quickly realized it was going to be more than a film about an idea — this idea of Universal Basic Income — but rather a character story that I wanted to make and just was totally out of my depth in doing that in a rural Kenyan village as a white lady. I really started early on looking for a collaborator and was lucky enough to find Sam Soko and somehow roped him into this.”
The film follows a number of villagers who overcame initial skepticism about an offer that seemed too good to be true. The money, for instance, allowed 18-year-old John Omondi to go to college in Nairobi, the capital.
“I can cover my basic costs,” he says in the film, “transportation to school, some of my school fees and other things.”
One person used the unexpected windfall to dig a well; another bought a cow, then other livestock. Yet another person made improvements to their home. All good, right? Yes – in some ways.
“In the short term, we see pretty positive effects from UBI,” DeFilippo observes. “When you talk to people in the village who are receiving the money, they say that it’s been hugely transformative… As skeptical as we both were going in, we saw the effects and we saw people’s lives being changed.”
But that’s not the end of the story. Free Money probes fascinating and often troubling implications of GiveDirectly’s experiment. The basic income does give recipients a measure of control over their own destinies. However, from one point of view participants can be seen as guinea pigs in a scenario concocted from afar.
“The people whom you are choosing to change their lives end up lacking agency,” Soko asserts. “If they have a problem [with the program], they have nowhere to go. Because you’re trying to deal with and solve a problem from above, it’s very easy for you to forget that the people below might have some important critical questions that they may choose not to ask you because of the power that you yield.”
There were perhaps unintended sociological consequences to the experiment. It rapidly created a mini world of haves and have nots. Kugutu’s chosen suddenly became “haves.” But people in surrounding villages remained in the “have not” camp. These separate villages often contained members of the same family.
“It’s someone coming and just drawing a line and being like, ‘You guys on this side are going to develop faster than the people on this other side.’ And it’s your brother that we’re talking about,” Soko says. “It’s interesting and curious to see how those relationships play out in the long term.”
In neighboring villages left out of the UBI program, some residents became forlorn and questioned their faith in God.
“It was really heart-wrenching, honestly, to hear from neighbors like Milka, the woman that’s featured in the film. [She was] like, ‘We just don’t know what we did wrong…’” DeFilippo recalls. “She feels like they had a chance and they somehow blew it. That regret is kind of hard to hear.”
GiveDirectly fancies itself an analytical, evidence-driven organization dedicated to studying the effectiveness of its program. It doesn’t appear, at least from the film, that anyone at the organization is losing sleep over a Kenyan villager suffering a crisis of faith.
“That level of consequence – that’s not something they’re caring about,” Soko comments, “because for them the experiment works. [Their attitude is], ‘Let’s move on to the next thing.’”
GiveDirectly gets an A+ rating from CharityWatch.org, which describes itself as “America’s most independent, assertive charity watchdog.” Charity Watch evaluates according to several criteria, including how efficiently a charity uses donations. But DeFilippo argues these kinds of watchdog groups aren’t considering the full picture.
“It’s all very much from the donor perspective of how exactly money is being used. And none of it takes into account the recipients,” she says. “That is kind of an ulterior motive that we have — we would love change around that and these issues of ethics and accountability.”
GiveDirectly’s website says that since 2009 it has delivered more than $550 million “in cash into the hands of over 1.25 million families living in poverty” and adds breezily (in the context of a pitch for more donations), “And no, people don’t just blow it on booze. It’s ok. Many people think that at first.”
Michael Faye, the NGO’s executive chairman and co-founder, appears in the documentary and makes a solid case for doing things the GD way, as opposed to past attempts at poverty alleviation that have sometimes backfired (Kenyan journalist Larry Madowo comments in Free Money, “[T]here’s a long history of NGOs wreaking a lot of havoc.”). GiveDirectly says on its website, “We believe people living in poverty deserve the dignity to choose for themselves how best to improve their lives — cash enables that choice.”
Free Money constitutes neither an endorsement nor a condemnation of GiveDirectly and its experiment in social-economic transformation.
“I do feel like we really were making this film for audiences that were coming at it from opposite sides of the spectrum,” DeFilippo says. “The Western point of view is these are the do-gooders fighting the good fight. And the African Kenyan point of view is like, ‘We’ve seen this before. This isn’t going to end well.’ And we really wanted to tell a story that could speak to both sides.”
Free Money is an acquisition title at TIFF. Dogwoof is handling international sales; CAA is the U.S. sales agent. It’s a timely film because Universal Basic Income has become a topic of increasing discussion worldwide. The Trump and Biden administrations, it can be argued, essentially experimented with UBI during the Covid shutdown and aftermath when it gave unrestricted cash grants, i.e. “stimulus checks,” to Americans. This came as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES), passed on an emergency basis in late March 2020. Studies have shown that economic aid made a huge difference.
According to a PBS Frontline report, “Researchers at the Urban Institute… examined the impacts of pandemic-era benefits and stimulus measures. Looking at 2021 as a whole, they projected government-assistance programs — both those that existed pre-COVID and those created in response to the pandemic — would reduce the 2021 poverty rate by 67% compared to what it would have been with no government assistance.”
“Over the last five years,” Soko notes, “what has happened is Universal Basic Income has wiggled its way into a lot of conversations. There’s so many experiments happening all over the world — in Europe, in Africa, in America. Governments are actually genuinely questioning how to apply UBI… even [in] partial form as a means to deal and engage with poverty. So, it’s with us.”
Soko adds of the documentary, “We feel that this film is a very urgent part in this conversation and becomes a very important piece in this larger space and zeitgeist of Universal Basic Income and cash transfers.”