Insignificant in many rich places, incredibly important to those in the most ignored, poorest places of the world
Interview with Marcus Brancaglione, CEO ReCivita
How is the Basic Income Startup different from the 2008-2014 pilot project?
It is different in duration or, more precisely, in sustainability. The 2008-2014 project was not designed to last indefinitely, but to encourage the government to fulfill its constitutional obligation towards providing a Basic Income, given that it is law since 2004. Soon we started extending the original pilot as we came to realize that the government would never obey its own laws. The follow-up project in 2016 was conceived to last indefinitely without any interruptions. To that end, we promoted the financial-political independence of the community through the creation of a savings account that is fed not only by financial contributions from ReCivitas but also by contributions by the beneficiaries themselves. In the long term, it is expected that ReCivitas’ contributions can be entirely replaced by the beneficiaries’ contributions.
Who or what instigated the Basic Income Startup project?
As we assessed the results of the first project, we realized one of the greatest positive impacts was related to it being a guaranteed payment; the certainty that, at the end of every month, that sum of money, even while being a rather small one, could be counted on. When the project halted it became quite clear to us that a fundamental commitment in the social contract between ReCivitas and Quatinga Velho was missing in order for us to be able to call these payments, that project a proper basic income: the basic income payments could never stop! Or, to be exact, they could, but they shoudn’t. To be rigorous about it, it should have never been designed to last only for a given amount of time. So we corrected that flaw, not only holding that rule as a goal, but designing an applied model that could sustain that in fact. Of course, we have a long way to go before we can reach an ideal basic income, but at least now we have a practical and theoretical model that is more capable of achieving it. It is something that we would not have come to realize without going through the first experiment.
Which of the four criteria did it meet? Universality? Individuality? Unconditionality? High enough to prevent poverty and guarantee political participation?
If I were to answer that question in the way it deserves, I would inevitably end up writing one or more books about it. To be rigorous, if one ignores any one of these criteria in the theoretical conception of their project, they are in risk of merely distributing cash using the basic income label instead of establishing an actual system that can apply the fundamental, defining principles of the basic income.
To be brief, we upheld all the criteria we met in the first project and, in the second one, we broadened the concept of universality and unconditionality beyond geopolitical referencing: in our case, beyond the Quatinga Velho village. In the current model there are no preconditions or eligibility criteria whatsoever. Community members are absolutely free to establish who is a member and who isn’t. While there are resources to sustain the basic income payments, there is no barrier or condition for participation; no citizenship or home address requirements. Community members don’t even need to know each other personally anymore, as if all parties are in agreement then the decision, as is each person’s own property, belongs only to them at all times.
As for the payment amount, it continues to be a “minimal” in every sense of the word. It is insignificant to many people in many rich places. It is shamefully insufficient to those who aren’t in dire need. However, it is incredibly important to those who live in the most ignored, poorest places of the world, who have nothing and are in need of everything.
Thus, here is where we are with respect to the basic income criteria:
- Individuality: paid to every individual. Adults receive payments on behalf of their dependents.
- Unconditionality: no targeting, no conditions and no preconditions.
- Universality: to all within the reach of a system that is no longer defined geopolitically, but financially, while respecting the voluntary relations between participants.
- Sufficiency: we don’t have enough capital to pay an income capable of eradicating poverty among participants, and we don’t have capital to expand the system towards those who have already manifested their desire (or need) to participate in it, even if it is just to receive the paltry sum of 40 reais (13 USD) per month.
How many persons benefit from it at the moment?
Can you see the impact that the new project has in the individual or in the community as a whole?
That is a very interesting question. In the first project, we ran observations and invited international researchers to observe the experiment (including in loco) and publish their findings. Many did so and have since produced some of the most important studies, if not for basic income itself, at least for Quatinga Velho. These studies have shown the positive impacts of a paltry basic income payment on both individual’s lives and on the community. In this new phase we no longer have that preoccupation. We don’t plan on conducting or publishing any more independent studies. That is not only because we are already fully convinced of the positive results of basic income, but because we know that publishing research won’t make much of a difference, neither towards converting people to the cause, nor towards increasing contributions to the project.
Don’t get me wrong; I believe in the act’s power of inspiration and in the project itself, and not in words and impressions about it. Standard deviations aside, we do not make decisions based on rational data–neither us nor our rulers–but in interests, prejudices and passions. And that’s why, after 10 years speaking about the practical results of the payments I had the privilege to witness firsthand, I can safely assure you the following:
Anyone who needs any other reason other than the reason that a child should not starve to death, will not convince themselves through the employment of any other reason or data whatsoever other than that one. And those who know that no child should die as a result of such colossal human stupidity will not need any of my data or any of my reasons to hold that conviction.
The questioning over the results is valid, but not as they have been put forward, as if experimental results could validate or clear the fulfillment of that obligation of provisioning the vital minimum. And that is a very serious flaw in approach, including that of the defenders of basic income: it would be the same as advocating for the hereditary right to individual properties only after we conducted studies that can show that people make “good use” of private properties and liberties. If the abolition of slavery or the conquering of liberties had to pass through that kind of filter then they would have never happened.
In that sense, our approach with the Quatinga Velho experience is not one of showing to the burgeois how the poor, black person can be civilized if you just give capital to them, but that of the Quilombolas. Our approach is to show it not to those who sit supposedly above us, but to those who are equals: show them that we can emancipate in spite of burgeois capital and science. The problem of the world’s peripheries is not automation per se, but the fact that the lives of “these people” are still worth less than a single bolt of a machine.
In other words, projects have to prove that they can sustain payments by design, instead of trying to prove the benefits of basic income to meet the criteria of those who have interests alien to people’s interests. Projects can never, not under any circumstance, be used by others to invalidate a human right through an involuntary and illegitimate judgement of their merits. That is not a question; that is not our reason to exist as a project, and that is not the practical goal of basic income. Those principles are another significant improvement in this new phase. Thus the results are satisfactory, as we continue to surivive as a project and they continue to survive as people.
Where does the money come from? Who are the contributors?
The money comes from our own pockets, from the beneficiaries themselves whenever they can afford to and yes, from people all over the world who has stuck around with us; many who have never stopped contributing and that have helped to establish the starting capital for this new phase.
Are there people who were or are against the pilot project and what were the three main arguments you encountered?
Wonderful question. Throughout the years we have been throughly questioned and we have faced many objections. Some of them were sound, others no so much. Most objections were towards basic income itself and not towards our specific project, so I will focus on the three main objections to the project itself, which were made as we were just getting started, by the traditional defenders of basic income themselves, at that time.
The first and greatest objection to the project was always that it was insignificant: too small in the number of people reached, as are the 14 people we are reaching right now, or the 100 people of the 2008 version. These objections disappeared when new projects such as MeinGrundeinkommen or YCombinator’s showed up, as these are also evidently not focusing on reaching a large number of people from the get-go.
The second objection was to the project’s sustainability: that objection was proven right, but specifically with respect to our project in Quatinga Velho, but not with respect to the model of person-to-person (P2P) donations that has been successfully adopted and improved since, for example by GiveDirectly, since 2011 if I’m not mistaken, to bankroll a basic income.
We have already covered the third objection, which is that of the payment amounts; an objection that has some merit to it. As we have discussed, it is a valid criticism in the sense that our payment amounts are far from what is ideal, but is completely out of sense and of sensibility, with respect to what it really means for a person to be without their basic needs met, when that objection is used to imply that non-ideal payments should simply not be made. Today that kind of criticism no longer occurs. In Brazil, there is a project from a municipal government that has paid about 10 reais (around 3 USD) in social currencies to their citizens, which is no problem at all (on the contrary).
Our greatest problem were never the objections, but with the outsider character of the project and of basic income itself which today is infinitely smaller than it was 10 years ago–when basic income was considered just plain crazy talk. Dealing with objections and establishing dialogue is a pleasure. What is hard is to break the cultural prejudices and barriers that, unfortunately, are growing and spreading globally at a much more radical and break-neck pace than the libertarian and cosmopolitan spirit of the basic income.
Can you describe Quatinga Velho to someone that has never been to Brazil?
I believe the best way to describe Quatinga Velho is to use a description of Brazil made by an economist and that was aimed at those who don’t know Brazil, be them the people living in it or outside of it. That economist (Edmar Bacha) defined Brazil, as he observed our endemic social inequalities, as a “Belindia”: a Belgium inside of an India. Quatinga Velho is the India that is not known by neither the European living in Brussels nor the Latin-American that considers themselves European and that lives in the Brazilian suburbs. They don’t know it, don’t want to know about it, and seriously doubt that it is even possible for such a place to exist.
With the current refugee waves it becomes easier to comprehend. Quatinga Velho is that poverty, that misery so great and so physically close that only a wall can make it invisible. And, in Brazil, we are specialized in walls and in keeping social inequalities in place, even while possessing one of the richest economies in the world. That is Quatinga Velho: a kind of poverty that you can’t find even in the urbanized favelas, that can be reached in minutes by car from the third largest metropolis of the world.
Basic income has given me the opportunity to tour the world, from Europe to Japan, and I can say I have met some of the most generous people in the world. And some of these people are there.
How is the Basic Income Startup different from other social benefits (governmental or otherwise)?
Wow… that is a terrible moment for me to answer that question. For me to provide an analysis of governmental programs, laws and benefits I would have to start by assuming that we have, or had, a democratic and law-based state with a legitimate government that upheld programs and laws that were minimally serious. But what is being confirmed these days is that none of that ever existed in Brazil, and to try to deny that, being a Brazilian, would be hypocrisy. Recently, large-scale and endemic corruption involving virtually all administrations of Brazil’s “New Republic” period was publicly and widely revealed. That level of corruption, which involves virtually all large private companies and banks infiltrating and ransacking the public sector to an unbelievable degree, makes it impossible to speak of “social programs” without sounding absolutely partial or superficial. I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but the estimates of public losses just can’t handle the wasted billions of dollars per year that amount to trillions over decades–resources that would have been more than enough to finance a sovereign fund for basic income. That is not simply “corruption”: that is an organized mafia that has institutionalized itself as a legalized criminal state. Therefore, I have no confidence in governmental agencies, their data, their programs and their regulations to go throught all of them. Of course there are technical aspects that can’t be dismissed outright, but not only I don’t have the means (or the spirit) to conduct a serious evaluation, but I don’t believe anybody actually can without access to truthful audits of public accounts and proceeds.
I can then say with conviction that the main difference is that the Basic Income Startup is definitely a non-governmental project: in resources, in methods and in purpose–that is, in all senses it is the opposite of what the governmental machine with its bureaucracy and corruption currently is to Brazil. It is a project that could be big, but with its Brazilian soul, it chooses to remain poor, small and unknown instead of becoming a criminal project, and above all not becoming governmentally criminal. And I’m not speaking only in the legalist sense of the word, but in respect to the rights that come before legality: in respect to natural and human rights.
What can you buy with 40 reais?
With R$ 40 you can buy about 5kg of rice, 500g of beans, 500g of flour, 500g of pasta.
Are you collaborating with other people that are executing or planning pilots in Brazil or in other places of the world?
I have participated in Montreal’s World Social Forum in 2016 and I have met the Algosphere group. Since then we have been planning a basic income project for refugees.
- Universality –
- Individuality – yes
- Unconditionality – yes
- Sufficiency –
How many people benefit: 14
Manja Taylor interviewed Marcus Brancaglione, CEO ReCivitas
Translated by Fabiana Cecin