First-person perspectives on the world of work
Photo: Insignia Films & LBX Africa

The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 46
Social protection

The value of free money

20 September 2023

How would you react to being given money on a regular basis, with no strings attached? And how might this change you, your family or the wider community?

This is the question faced by the Kenyan village of Kogutu after being chosen as a location for the largest ever experiment in Universal Basic Income.

Filmmakers Lauren DeFilippo and Sam Soko spent five years chronicling the dramatic impact of this experiment on the lives of these villagers to answer the question: is UBI the answer to end world poverty?


From the International Labour Organization in Geneva, Switzerland,

this is The Future of Work podcast.

I'm Anders Johnsson,

here to talk today about universal basic income.

How would you react to being given money every month to spend

in any way you want with no strings attached?

Would you save it, spend it, invest it?

If so, on what?

Would you use it to make your life better or that of your family or community?

That's the basic idea behind universal basic income

where a government or institution gives citizens a set amount of money

on a regular basis in the hope of alleviating poverty,

or replacing other social programs

that potentially require more bureaucratic involvement.

In a world with continued

or even rising unemployment and inequality,

with fears of automation and artificial intelligence replacing


or where pandemics or other catastrophes limit people's ability to work,

this direct payment to citizens is being increasingly mentioned

as a possible solution.

So far, so good,

but what are the unintended consequences of such cash transfers?

What happens when good intentions meet the real world?

To discuss this, I'm excited to have with us Lauren DeFilippo,

Co-Director of the documentary Free Money, which chronicles five years

in the lives of residents in the village of Kogutu in Kenya,

where an experiment is being carried out that involves handing out money for free

as part of the world's largest universal basic income project.

It's a fascinating and very real story filled with the unexpected,

and I can't wait to talk about it.

Lauren, thanks so much for joining us.

-Thank you so much for having me.

-First things first.

As you see it, what is universal basic income all about?

-Universal basic income,

as you described,

is really a payment that can be relied upon,

whether it's monthly,


on a certain schedule period,

so people can feel as though it's guaranteed

and they can expect and plan on having that money.

It is an amount of cash with no strings attached,

so there are no conditions

to what people have to do with the money.

They can spend it on whatever they would like.

There's no means testing.

It really is cash that is just going out to people on a regular basis

with the intention of covering their basic needs.

-Lauren, you're a documentary filmmaker based in New York.

What drew you to this issue and inspired you to tell this story?


I first heard about this project, this big experiment in UBI

that this organization called GiveDirectly was running in Africa,

primarily in Kenya and in Uganda.

From a New York Times article

in the New York Times Magazine, a writer named Annie Lowrie profiled

the first village that was receiving this money.

They had done it as a lump sum, and so it was kind of just everyone

in this village was receiving $1,000, and GiveDirectly was going

to see what people did with it and report back.

Through that article,

I learned that GiveDirectly was working on a much bigger project,

a follow-up that would last 12 years and would be

the largest and longest experiment in UBI to date.

I was able to gain access to the experiment and to GiveDirectly

and began filming in one of the villages that was a part of the 12-year experiment.

That being said,

it was just a really interesting moment in time.

It was around, I would say 2016 when this all began,

and it was before people,

at least in the US were really talking about UBI.

Basic income became a bigger part of the conversation

with Andrew Yang's, run for President here,

and then during COVID with the stimulus packages

and just the cash that was given by the Federal Government.

It was this much more niche conversation

that was just really bubbling specifically,

among people in Silicon Valley.

I was very interested in why the people who were potentially designing the AI

that was going to put us all out of work were also so interested in UBI

as a potential solution.

-Your co-director is Sam Soko, a Kenyan filmmaker.

Can you tell me a little bit about how he got involved in the film?

-I partner at Insignia Films, it's based here in New York.

We were able to get access to GiveDirectly, as I said.

I went and I started filming in the village as GiveDirectly arrived

and they rolled out the experiment and were enrolling people to be involved.

I quickly realized that as a white American,

I was out of my depths in a rural Kenyan village.

I really wanted to tell the story from both sides.

I wanted to tell it from the people who were doing the experimenting

at GiveDirectly and their perspective and I wanted to tell it

from the recipient side in really an authentic way.

I realized that in order to do that, I needed a Kenyan collaborator.

I had heard about Sam Soko

just through our shared documentary community.

He had made a wonderful film called Softie

about a Kenyan journalist that I really admired.

I reached out and we had a number of conversations.

Soko was skeptical about the whole thing from the start, giving people money.

How is that going to work?

This NGO coming in.

After much conversation and Soko going to visit the village himself,

he decided to sign on and we continued making

the film together for--

It took us a total of five years.

-One of the things that struck me personally

was this idea of Westerners once again experimenting on Kenyans,

especially poor and vulnerable ones.

I know that this is something that you as well felt this reaction to it.

Can you tell me a little bit more about it?


This was something that I went into the project,

also curious and with my own skepticism about.

It was really through conversation with Soko that I gained that Kenyan

and African context for it all.

One of the things I'll never forget is Soko saying to me,

in the US you have an opioid epidemic.

In here in Kenya and Africa, we have an NGO epidemic.

We have this problem where organizations come in,

they make promises,

they really play on people's hopes and fantasies for themselves.

In the end, there's really no accountability

for these organizations,

and there's no place where if a recipient does have a problem, they can go for help.

It's just so ingrained into the political system in Kenya.

That was just really fascinating for me as an outsider coming into all of this

and something that really became

a bigger part of the film as we continued to follow recipients' lives

and how an organization like GiveDirectly engages with them.

-Now, cash transfers have a very strong track record

around the world in reducing poverty.

What's the difference between, what I would maybe say,

more traditional cash transfer methods and UBI in this situation?

-It's interesting that you say they have a good track record because they do.

I feel like anybody who spends any time with the studies or with the research,

it becomes quite clear that cash transfers are

a pretty successful intervention overall.

That being said,

I think that there's just still this real cultural stigma

to giving people cash.

We continue to do these studies and these experiments over and over again

to prove to the skeptics that this is a good idea.

I think we're hitting the threshold of that,

or I would like to think where the evidence is there.

I do think that GiveDirectly's experiment

will go on to provide more data in that space

that hopefully will help change hearts and minds,

but I think it just still is something that the public at large has

a hard time really understanding.

Just this being such a massive experiment in an intervention like this, hopefully,

it will make a dent.

-The flip side of that seems also to be true.

One of the things that surprised me when I first saw the documentary is

how many people were actually reluctant to accept free money.

Is this something that you were expecting?

-At first, I was a little shocked.

I think when you put it in perspective

it's basically someone knocking on your door and saying,

"I'm going to give you free money every month for the next 12 years.

It's going to double your average income."

You would be skeptical too.

It would be hard to imagine that.

I think that's precisely what was happening here.

People just couldn't believe that there wasn't something

that would be asked for in exchange.

I think the skepticism was a healthy one and it was just something

that we definitely wanted to highlight in the film that people just weren't

coming at this with open arms saying, "Yes, let's go for it."

They definitely had their good questions as well.

-We haven't actually mentioned this before but can you put the actual number

into perspective?

What does $22 a month represent in the village of Kogutu?

-It's quite a big sum of money.

It really is about double what they make on average a month.

It's significant for them and it also is even more significant

in that it's going to every member of the family

who's over 18.

This is a very traditional patriarchal society

and so this was the first time a lot of women were receiving

their own income

that was separate from their husbands.

Everyone gets their own cell phone and these come as mobile payments

on their phones

and so it potentially provides independence,

I think to women like never before and also younger adults

in a way in a place like Kogutu, it provided this new sense of autonomy

that I don't think has really been seen before.

-It's a good thing you brought that up because this reminds me

of there's these scenes,

particularly early on where the men in the village

are expressing their fears that their wives might leave them

after receiving their own money

or that it will be harder for them to manage their families.

When marginalized groups are empowered, be they women or youth,

how do people really respond?

What did you see happen?

-I think that's when you have to watch the film to see what happens.

I can just say it was a very big source of anxiety

for the men in the village.

I think something that also the women were talking about

in amongst themselves of like, "What are we going to do

with this newfound independence or newfound sense of empowerment."

I think that it is something that we follow in the film and frankly,

I think the jury is still out, the experiment is continuing

for another six years

and so I think it's going to be very interesting to see

the lasting impact on relationships overall.

-Tell me a little bit about Larry Madowo

who's in the documentary

because he was one of my favorite things about watching it.

How did he get involved?


came about because of Soko.

He had worked with Soko a little bit on Soko's previous film

and so he had known about Larry and so for listeners

who don't know Larry Madowo, he is Kenyan himself,

but he works internationally as a journalist.

Currently, he's an international correspondent with CNN.

He is a celebrity in Kenya.

I've been around the streets of Nairobi with Larry,

and just everyone stops him.

He's a very big name there, a very trusted person and face.

We went to Larry as someone who has looked deeply

and studied deeply the relationship of NGOs

in a lot of different African contexts,

and we just wanted to get his opinion.

Larry voiced some skepticism and decided that he wanted to learn more

and essentially came along with us on this ride of watching this village grow

and change and also really putting a magnifying glass up to give directly

as an organization and how they were working

within the village as the American outsiders coming in.

He gives a very great and well-needed perspective to the film.

-Something that really struck me while watching your film is that it seems,

at least to me, to be pretty even-handed.

It shows both the good and the bad, the upsides and the downsides

of something like UBI,

particularly, in this African context.

Was this a conscious decision at the start,

in effect,

to not take a side in this debate?

-Yes. I think that we,

ultimately we see a UBI as a pretty positive thing overall.

We see positive impacts to the village, I would say.

We really wanted to tell a story that was from the recipient's perspective.

I think that there's a lot of stories out there where,

at least in my world,

where the organization comes in

and we see all the benefits they bring to a place

that is poor and a poor population and we all just celebrate

and then walk away.

That isn't the case in this film.

I think we get to see more in-depth what it is really

like from a person on the other side who is receiving something like a UBI

in this sense and how it really impacts their lives in a deeper,

more authentic way.

That was really our goal in making this film,

was to provide that window

and I think that experience overall.

-You alluded to this earlier

but this idea that there's a lot of people,

especially in developed countries

who are very much against the idea of UBI

and think that either it will never work or it will cause people

to stop working entirely.

During COVID, the experience was probably the biggest ever experiment in UBI

with many countries in effect paying their citizens

regardless of whether they were working or not.

These massive cash transfers

to provide that social safety net

that helped obviously to reduce the stress and the anxiety that populations felt

to keep them safe, to keep them at home,

to keep them able to function.

Have you therefore seen a difference in how people talk about UBI

and their reactions to your film after COVID?

-Yes, it was a real turning point for us in making the film.

I think as I was saying before, it really did seem

this niche conversation that suddenly blew up

with COVID and suddenly everyone

can understand in this way that they previously couldn't, right?

It seemed as though we were having a conversation about poor Africans

that didn't apply to them, and then suddenly everyone

in the US needed some form of stimulus and protection and everyone

in Europe needed that.

It just became obviously a global phenomena.

I think it really was this very unique event,

where people got to put themselves

in someone else's shoes and see it in a new light.

Yes, I think that it has really changed the conversation and I think

the possibility of a UBI being embraced in a bigger way.

-Now, you mentioned this a little bit ear earlier

but was there anything else that ended up surprising you or challenging

your preconceptions as you made this film?

-Yes, as I said there was a lot for me to learn about NGOs in Africa,

and so a lot of that really did surprise and challenge me in terms of the story

we were telling.

I also think in terms of the UBI itself,

going through the experience of the pandemic with the village

was very interesting.

Just seeing I think on a base level in terms of the effectiveness of a UBI.

We finally would,

after lockdown and this and that we were finally able

to get back to the village to continue filming

as the pandemic wore on

and the level of security that the people had in the village

versus their neighbors was very apparent.

People were honestly continuing to thrive, I would say.

One of our main characters was able to buy some cows and extend her farm.

People were continuing to just live their lives and go on.

Whereas their neighbors were just really in a bad place

with a lot of anxiety and a lot of very real hard problems

to deal with on a daily basis,

where literally eating every day is a challenge.

I think to see the effectiveness of cash and of a UBI in that context

was really surprising and just an amazing window into something

that we got to experience.

-Is it fair to say in your opinion that the concept of universal basic income

has proven itself,

but that the devil is in the details and that what we need to ensure is

that the implementation takes into account the specific local context,

the specific local needs that it's not a one-size-fits-all solution.

-Yes, exactly.

I think that that was our biggest takeaway from making this film.

If we are going to embrace a UBI,

which does seem

like a positive piece of the puzzle, right?

I don't think it is the silver bullet to solving poverty,

but I think it's certainly a one effective measure

that should be embraced more and more, if we're going to continue to live

in a capitalistic society which it seems we're all on track to do.

I think then it really comes down to who's implementing the UBI and what can

a program like that look like.

Yes, it does seem to be by a case-by-case, country-by-country basis.

-Finally what's next?

The experiment is supposed to go on for a total of 12 years

and your film only covers the first five.

Are you planning to continue telling this story?

-Yes we are, we see Free Money as a piece of a larger project.

I have to say we're continuing to figure out exactly what the bigger piece

of it all really is.

We may have a follow-up film or some other series that looks

at different facets of UBI, and that hopefully continues

to track what's happening in Kogutu.

I think the really interesting thing will be,

yes this experiment is 12 years,

but what does this village look like in 14 years, right,

after GiveDirectly has left, and we can really see

the effects for better or for worse of what this money has done.

Yes, we are hoping to continue on and that this is just the first part.

-Lauren, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today.

I know that we could definitely keep this conversation going for much longer.

There's so much to cover.

It's because it's a really great story.

If people, if our audience want to watch Free Money, where can they do so?


We are still continuing to figure out its distribution worldwide.

If you're on the continent of Africa it is available on Netflix now to stream,

in the UK it's available for to buy or rent on Amazon or iTunes.

We're continuing to figure out the distribution

for the rest of Europe and the US and the rest of the world essentially.

Just beginning to roll it out now but hopefully more to come soon.

-Thank you so much Lauren.

For our listeners that was Lauren DeFilippo,

documentary filmmaker and Partner at Insignia Films in New York City

and Co-Director along with Sam Soko of Free Money,

which I can highly recommend.

Please if you're listening to us, go and check it out.

I assure you that you're going to enjoy it.

For now that's goodbye from Geneva and I hope you'll join us again

for the next episode of The Future of Work podcast.


Free Money Documentary - Official Trailer