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Report of Lecture at Oxford University

The ReCivitas project has paid an unconditional basic income to members of a small community in Quatinga Velho, in the state of São Paulo in southern Brazil, since 2008. In early February Basic Income Oxford hosted a talk by the NGO’s co-founder Marcus Brancaglione, at an event introduced by Oxford University professor of geography Danny Dorling. Brancaglione spoke about the history of the project and its significance for basic income trials in Brazil and around the world.

Brazil adopted a national law mandating unconditional basic income in 2004, after a long campaign led by Senator Eduardo Suplicy. It was the first country in the world to pass such a law. But an easy political pledge proved hard to turn into reality. To date, the ReCivitas is the only project in Brazil to have succeeded in paying a basic income. While the 10 year-old national Bolsa Familía programme shares some features with basic income policies, it is neither universal nor unconditional. Its mixture of conditional and unconditional cash transfers and education initiatives is aimed only at the poorest quarter of Brazilian families, and they can only qualify for payments by demonstrating their children have attended school and participated in vaccination programmes.

ReCivitas pays its participants 30 reais per month (about €15), a small but significant sum in a poor community where many residents have little security against starvation. It is paid to a self-selected group of 27 residents of the small rural village of Quatinga Velho, who voluntarily signed up to the project initially for 1–2 years at a public meeting attended by around 100 people. Brancaglione said the community was at first sceptical about the project, having learnt from experience to distrust the outside forces of the state and organised crime, but it soon saw that an unconditional basic income could improve people’s lives. There was more interest in the project from women than from men, a difference that Brancaglione attributed to them being more comfortable discussing politics in public meetings, and the project had least success in engaging with men under 30.

The ReCivitas basic income is paid in cash, since few members of the community have access to banks. There is no bureaucracy involved in the payments, which are distributed by hand, and the community itself determines who is a resident and so eligible to receive money. For the first few years the project was funded by Brancaglione and his co-founder Bruna Pereira, but it has since gathered funding from donors around the world. The first round ran for 5 years and finished in2014.

What effects did the project have? Brancaglione described it as small yet powerful. It ‘changed the dreams’ of people in the community, he said, giving some of the poorest a basic security, and it allowed them ‘the capability to project in to the future’, rather than living and budgeting without ever being certain that their income was secure. The money and the terms of payment gave citizens the power to change their relationship with the outside authorities. Rather than having to prove the extent of their poverty in order to receive social security, they were freed to assert their citizen’s right to a basic income. The payment was symbolic beyond its low level, as it allowed each citizen a share of the overall social wealth. As Brancaglione summarised, ‘a Basic Income means you take back your commons’.

Politicians have had little interest in the ReCivitas project in the seven years since it began.

Brancaglione explained that the idea of Basic Income has had little political currency since the original law was passed by President Lula in 2004. It is specially unattractive to many local and national politicians as it disrupts the clientelist relationships on the backs of which many rose to power. It would also be much harder to trial similar projects in cities — as Pereira and Brancaglione had originallly hoped to do — as the projects would need to be larger and they would need to cope with the complex forces of crime and politics.

But Brancaglione is hopeful that ReCivitas will inspire others in the future, in Brazil and beyond. It was the first example of a Basic Income project in a country in the global south; similar trials have since taken place in India and Namibia. It has been studied by academics from Germany looking at economic development and the development of individual capabilities, and academics from Switzerland looking at basic income’s effects on social capital. It is hard to imagine ReCivitas and basic income being ignored by Brazilian politicians forever.

Last January the project moved in to its second phase, as Pereira and Brancaglione began a more ambitious scheme to pay 14 people a basic income for a 21-year period. This scheme will be permanent enough to study in unprecedented detail how a basic income affects citizens’ ability to participate in work, training and the community over the long term. This time the project is funded by the interest from an endowment fund, which gathers together donations from Brazil and around the world, so it is likely to be financially sustainable throughout its lifetime.

Brancaglione’s talk was listened to by a packed audience of activists, academics and interested citizens in Oxford. Brancaglione and Pereira have given talks around the world and inspired many audiences with their project. Of course, the direct relevance of ReCivitas to basic income projects in the UK and Europe lies more in its general features than in the specific effects of very small payments in a poor rural community.

But the project nonetheless teaches powerful lessons about the practical potential of unconditional basic income. It proves that a partial basic income is workable and helps a small community living a precarious life. It proves that the effects of basic income go beyond the simple increase in spending power; it provides psychological security and empowers people to take a greater role in community and political life. Most importantly perhaps, the project shows that citizens can take action and enact a basic income themselves, providing an example to others. If such projects continue to spread, governments will one day surely follow.

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Text by: George Bangham is an independent writer and political campaigner interested in economics, the politics of work and in ecology. He is based near Oxford. Contact

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