universal basic income

Kenya: ‘Free Money’ unmasks the often faceless recipients of foreign aid

By Wilfred Okiche

Posted on March 30, 2023 14:57

Can universal basic income end income inequality? Filmmakers Sam Soko and Lauren DeFilippo’s follows the impact of such a social experiment in the Kenyan village of Kogutu in the documentary ‘Free Money’.

The idea of universal basic income is not as radical as it is often made out to be. In the bid to bridge the poverty gap, and perhaps eradicate extreme poverty, instead of starting yet another well-meaning programme or charitable exercise, try a direct transfer of cash to the people who are most in need.

With no strings attached.

GiveDirectly, a New York based nonprofit startup, has been testing this model in some of the poorest places in the world. The impoverished village of Kogutu in rural Kenya is one of such places.

Kick-off in Kogutu

GiveDirectly’s social experiment kicked off in 2017 in Kogutu, amongst other places. The equivalent of $22 is transferred monthly via mobile network to residents over the age of 18, for a period of 12 years. The money is available for them to do as they please.

The reasoning is that in that space of time, the programme will prove itself the most effective tool for lifting people out of extreme poverty. Sounds noble, but as experiments go, there is a control group that gets nothing. How equitable is this? What are the downsides? Are there ethical implications to be considered? And isn’t this concept of free money too good to be true?

These are some of the questions that ran through the mind of Kenyan filmmaker Sam Soko when he was approached by Lauren DeFilippo, an American, to join a project documenting GiveDirectly’s activities.

“Someone in the US deciding to come to Kenya to give people free money? It was an instant red flag for me. [Additionally], from a Kenyan context, we are sceptical of NGOs, and for very good reason,” Soko tells The Africa Report, in reference to the long and chequered history of non-profits in Kenya.

Still, he was intrigued by the idea.

Taken by intrigue

What would it look like to end extreme poverty and what might his country’s role in it be? In post-production, at the time, for Softie (his award-winning 2020 profile of Kenyan photojournalist and activist Boniface Mwangi) Soko tried to keep an open mind.

It helped that in the New York-based DeFilippo, he found a like minded sceptic of the programme’s goals. “Lauren was accepting of the idea that the story had to be a collaboration of the two worlds where we are both coming from. The journey we went through with making the film was walking that line between both worlds and how they would come together,” says Soko.

DeFilippo was intrigued by the concept of universal basic income as both an inevitable response to redundancies caused by workplace automation and as a solution to income inequality. She arrived here after reading an article about GiveDirectly’s grand experiment in the New York Times. She was particularly fascinated by the tiny detail of rural Kenya being a space for this kind of cutting-edge innovation.

DeFilippo soon secured access to GiveDirectly and started filming as the startup rolled out the experiments in the villages. The film follows the first four years of the programme, checking in at intervals with some of the recipients.

More than meets the eye

While working in Kogutu, DeFilippo realised there was a lot more at play especially with cultural sensitivities that would constitute a barrier. “I was this Western outsider coming in with a camera. It didn’t feel like that was the kind of power dynamic that I was interested in as a documentary filmmaker. I had heard of Sam Soko and his great film Softie and I reached out and we started talking,” DeFilippo tells The Africa Report.

After brainstorming sessions, it became clear that the thrust of Free Money would be just as much about the people of Kogutu as it would be about the organisation doing the experiments. Both filmmakers agreed on telling an intimate story that reflects more on the subjects of this experiment – and the people doing the experimenting themselves – and less about the theoretics of universal basic income.

DeFilippo describes the kinship she shares with Soko saying: “It has been phenomenal finding a partner who could navigate this process in an equal way with me because this was a hard film to make. It is a little insane how we come from different backgrounds, but share a sensibility about the kinds of stories we tell and how we want to tell them.”

It is not the presence of the camera, but the relationships you build that come off on the screen.

One of the first things Soko did after coming on board was to visit Kogutu for a week to establish contact and spend time with the people. The connections made with the people of Kogutu during this visit spurred Soko to want to honour their stories as best as he could.

For Soko, whose ancestral village is not far away from Kogutu, the people represented more than data sets or faceless recipients of foreign aid.

They demanded to be seen, and their agency protected and he needed to get this across to the people at GiveDirectly. “I really love the people, they are genuinely hardworking with dreams and aspirations for themselves and their children. It became important for me to be part of the film so that their side also has representation,” says Soko.

Filming logistics to uphold one’s dignity

Because the villagers were already on the receiving end of the relationship with GiveDirectly, Soko sought to uphold their agency and respect their dignity as much as was possible.

This was easier said than done and practical examples would show up in something as basic as arranging the logistics of filming. Tying the film to GiveDirectly’s monthly payments, the villagers would often go out of their way to accommodate Soko and his crew. They feared not doing so would get them taken off the programme.

Soko says he would encourage them to go about their business while the crew worked around their schedules. “By the third month of walking long distances and going to the farms and fishing with them, they began to see us as one of them,” he says.

For Soko, the experience of nurturing these relationships was meaningful and he considers himself now linked to the village. He says: “To me that’s what makes the film. It is not the presence of the camera, but the relationships you build that come off on the screen. This is not something you can force.”