Features; Opinion

Comparing a Universal Basic Income to Cash Transfers

Written by: Frank Kamanga


This article is inspired by the article titled “Helicopter money and basic income: Friends or foes” authored by Stanislas Jourdan (2017). He made a very important attempt to clear up confusion between two similar and conflicting yet important terms in the global economy at this moment. Hıs article has opened doors for another attempt to compare basic income scheme and cash transfer schemes. This article will explain the definitions of cash transfers (CTs) and universal basic income (UBI), as well as institutional frameworks under which the programmes are implemented. It will also address financing arrangements for the programmes, and linkages between UBI, CT and Sustainable Development Goals, in an attempt to explain the justification of UBIs in the current state of the global economy. Policy issues related to both CTs and UBIs will also be highlighted.

Basic income and cash transfers are not novel ideas for poverty alleviation. A basic income scheme was initiated in North America in the 1970’s and 1980’s with support from prominent economists of that time. Following the successful implementation of such programmes, governments and the World Bank began implementing cash transfers in emerging and developing countries. With the rising discontent toward the neoliberal economic system and austerity measures, poverty alleviation measures such as Universal Basic Income (UBI) have been resuscitated back to life in developed economies. Gradually, governments in emerging and developing countries are carrying out pilot projects to assess the efficacy of basic income projects.

Emerging and developing countries like India and South Africa, which are implementing cash transfers, are also contemplating introducing basic income projects. This demonstrates that there are differences between these two concepts. Indeed, these two programs are similar regarding their purpose of alleviating poverty and their nature of implementation. However, the analysis below will show why UBI stands out as a different programme from cash transfers, and why our current economic circumstances means a basic income scheme should be implemented globally even in developing and emerging economies.



Cash Transfer Programmes are founded on social inclusion theory in the context of economic development. The social inclusion theory posits that governments should integrate the poor into the general economy by supporting them with a basic amount of cash.  Cash transfer programmes fall into two categories: conditional cash transfers and unconditional cash transfers. Under conditional cash transfers, recipients receive cash only if they can demonstrate that their behavior meets certain stated requirements. Under unconditional cash transfer programmes, the payout does not depend on individual behaviour (Forget E.L et al., 2013).

Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT) are used to encourage the behaviour of utilizing public services such as education and health services which lead to a reduction of poverty in the long run. For instance, in Mexico the conditional cash transfer programme provided cash to households on the condition that their children regularly attend schools and also access health services at clinics[1]. Proponents of conditional cash transfers argue that the scheme leads to better investments in human capital through access to social services that improve people’s knowledge and skills. The World Bank is a major supporter of the conditional cash transfer programme.

Meanwhile, advocates of the Unconditional Cash Transfer (UCT) programme look at the situation from a different perspective. They argue that poverty is cyclic and hard to break out of when there are conditions imposed on your spending. For instance, with restrictions on peoples’ spending, some basic needs are left out of the spending equation. To meet these basic needs, people may engage in other risky income generating activities such as sex work. When people are in poverty and desperate for money, we should not condition help on changing their behavior. Therefore, advocates of UCT argue cash should not be given according to certain behaviors. Rather, these resources should be made available to poor families so that they can make spending decisions consistent with their socio-economic priorities regardless of the work or job they are engaged in. UCT programmes are supported by human rights advocates and are consistent with a human rights based approach to development.

Unconditional cash transfers are not only premised on certain behavioural requirements, they also have lower administrative costs than conditional transfers (Capriati 2016).  In addition, in countries like Malawi unconditional cash transfers have also been merged with other social services like agricultural farm cooperatives and access to health services, hence improving their effectiveness. In this case, UCTs are more consistent with meeting a broader aspect of sustainable development goals.

This notwithstanding, with regards to impact, lessons from CCT and UCT programmes in Zomba city in Malawi have shown that both programmes have had positive results in terms of reducing child marriages, improving educational attendance, and avoiding early pregnancies. However, it has shown that UCT is relatively more effective in solving several challenges met by the families. This is because based on tastes, preferences, and priorities, families could decide how to spend money without constraints so that intended objectives can be met (Forget E.L et al., 2013).


The concept of basic income is a relatively new phenomenon in the developing world as opposed to the developed world. In Canada, a basic income experiment called MINCOME was carried out as a means-tested negative income tax[2] in the 1970s. Meanwhile, a notable experiment was conducted in Namibia and currently two countries are carrying out pilot projects – Kenya and Uganda. Basic income guarantee or Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) is considered as a UCT income large enough to guarantee everyone in an economy or in the world a minimum level of financial resources on an individual basis without imposed conditions.

Basic Income mainly works on the principles of unconditionality and universality. Proponents of basic income also argue that the programme is based on the intrinsic value of human beings in an economy. This value is generated from their contribution to the creation of the general wealth of the society and also from the inherited value of our ancestors who created the wealth we are enjoying today (Jourdan S. 2017). Just like cash transfers, basic income plays quite an array of roles from poverty alleviation, school attendance promotion, work emancipation, gender balance incentivization, social protection, modernization and early child marriage prevention.


The institutional framework of these programmes can be analyzed in terms of implementation, sources of funding, policies and financial infrastructure. Firstly, given the diverse nature of objectives of both cash transfer and basic income projects, different non-governmental organizations and line ministries of central government can implement these projects. The government normally implements both basic income and cash transfer projects in the context of fiscal policies.

Financial sector tools such as mobile payment technology and policies also play a huge role in implementation of both basic income and cash transfer projects. GiveDirectly, a US based NGO, is able to implement a basic income project in Kenya and Uganda due to robust mobile technology payment systems established in these two economies.


Cash transfer programmes and UBI programmes share some differences in terms of how resources are to be mobilized. There is readily available information in terms of how cash transfer programmes are being implemented and funded in developing countries like Malawi. As for UBI, the information is scant but constantly flowing, as different suggestions on how the scheme should be financed are being put forward by proponents.

From an experience of cash transfer schemes in Malawi, these Conditional Cash Transfers are mainly funded by the World Bank and implemented by the government of Malawi. Meanwhile, Unconditional Cash Transfer schemes are implemented by Unicef, Oxfam, Government of Malawi and several non-governmental organizations. These programmes are financed by various donors including the Government of Germany, EU, World Bank, Irish Aid and the Government of Malawi. At the same time, the government of Netherlands is funding the design of a linkage and referral system of the Social Cash transfer programme.

As for the financing of the UBI programme, the topic is currently being addressed in different circles at policy and academic levels. Some of the topics being discussed include how the resources should be mobilized, what kind of tools should be used and who should fund the programme. Understanding this aspect of the UBI programme can assist in providing information on how to strategize campaigning and advocacy programmes for UBI in different countries.

It is claimed that there are currently no established, in-country funding mechanism for UBI in developing nations, except for external funds, as in the cases of Uganda and Kenya. However, in selected developed countries that are piloting the schemes, governments are implementing the projects through their fiscal space. Given the need for longevity of the schemes, some authors such as Young (2017), Stern (2017) and Santens (2017) have suggested sustainable ways for mobilizing resources for UBI in the United Kingdom and United States of America. Some of the methods may apply to both developing and developed countries, while others are restricted to developed countries. Here we will dwell on Young’s proposal for financing UBI and this can be can be categorized into three main groups: 1. Recalibrating existing tax and benefit systems 2. Replacing CCT 3. Communalizing common assets 4. Direct grants from the private sector can also be utilized.

Advocates for proposal one argue that for UBI to be politically feasible, it must be achieved using the existing infrastructure of taxation and spending. The idea is that UBI is currently at a conceptual stage. To materialize this scheme, governments must begin with existing resources (on a trial basis) and there is neither a need for radical and rapid changes to the system nor additional taxes. In this approach, the UBI scheme can be small in scale, targeting the most vulnerable people across the board. As in the case of developed nations such as the UK, resources can be mobilized through restructuring the existing, inefficient and unfair benefit systems. Under this proposition, UBI can be used as a subsistence or sub-subsistence level of income to be supplemented by earnings from employment and/or disability, housing, or child benefits.

One of the ways in which savings for UBI can be generated is through restructuring existing benefits, as explained by Malcom Torry of the Citizen’s Income Trust. He states that the administrative savings from dismantling the means-tested benefits system are in the range of £8-10 billion. In other words, it is very expensive to decipher who is and isn’t deserving of government support, especially when recipients must prove their worthiness. Restructuring the benefits to look more like a UBI scheme can not only help save money but would also be fairer.

The second proposal for financing UBI is simply replacing the CCT scheme with a UBI scheme in developing and emerging economies. India is already on the way to do this. UBI is more closely related to a UCT scheme, hence all the benefits of a UCT scheme over CCT also accrue to UBI.

The third proposition involves communalizing common assets. Some proponents state this UBI financing mechanism takes a more radical and systematic overhaul approach. These proponents look at financing UBI in its universality context and hence propose financing solutions that span across geographical boundaries of both developed and developing countries. These proponents argue for the abolishment of private ownership of resources – be it physical, cultural, biological, or economic. They argue that resources such as the biosphere, atmospheric carbon, fisheries and forests, and unearned income of technological change should be respected as the common property for all, rather than be the source of exploitative disparities from unequal access and power. The implementation of such a systematic and transformative change requires establishment of new policies, institutions and a new economic paradigm at a global level.

There are several prominent advocates who have come up with several ideas on how resources can be mobilized under the proposal of communalizing common assets. First, Barnes Boyce and James Boyce put forward that charges should be put in place by governments on access and use of ‘communally inherited assets’ and that revenues must be redistributed. They argue that charges could be placed, for example, on polluting the scarce resource that is the carrying capacity of our atmosphere, or on trades of stocks, bonds, and derivatives (the latter of which could raise $300 billion per year). Barnes and Boyce claim that charges on a portfolio of universal assets could grant a US citizen a UBI of $200 a month.

A wealth tax could also provide an alternative for resources for UBI ın some countries. Researchers such as Thomas Piketty suggest measures such as progressive capital taxation. Martin Faley suggests the Georgist land value tax (LVT) in the context of the UK. Faley claims that land taxes coupled with common licenses could fund a £4,500 annual UBI. A globalization fund could also strike a deal. Globalization has had some negative consequences as we can see from recent increased in nationalism and unemployment in developed and emerging economies. Multinational companies exploiting labor and cheap natural resources in developing countries whilst making billions of US dollars should be charged a globalization tax to be fed into the globalization fund. This fund can be used to support a global UBI dividend or grant.

The fourth industrial revolution is mainly characterized by automation of jobs and technological unemployment. Some economists and futurists have found leeway to press for resource mobilization to finance UBI. For instance, Economist Yannis Varoufakis and futurist Kartik Gada have each suggested that the labor savings from automation could (and should) pay for UBI. According to Varoufakis, the proposal is that one-part should be wealth tax and one-part should be ownership restructuring. That is, a small tax is levied on shares from every initial public offering put into a commons capital depository that in effect grants citizens property rights over new technologies that yield financial returns. The Commons Capital Depository would then pay out a UBI to all citizens.

The last proposal that is also being applied already is the financing of UBI activities with funds from the private sector. eBay is financing pilot projects in both Kenya and Uganda. More and more private companies can come in to support such projects in developing countries.


Cash transfer and basic income share the same theories of how they change people’s behavior or improve living conditions of people in the context of Sustainable Development Goals.

  1. CT programmes reduce poverty and increase income. As income increases, people spend money to solve diverse needs of their families and they also spend on luxury goods. SDG 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 9
  2. CTs and Basic income reduce risk. A CT or a Basic income is a form of social insurance that increases the planning horizon and allows one to take calculated risks. SDG 2,3,4
  3. CTs and Basic income reduce income inequality. SDG 10
  4. CTs and Basic income enhance social values of dignity and integrity, hence build communities through interaction. SDG 11, 16, 17


There are quite a number of reasons to justify the policy shift in favour of basic income in both developing and developed countries. The first reason is that the basic income is guaranteed over a long period, thereby enabling people to make plans for major life decisions ahead of time. The longevity of UBI can also stimulate demand in the global economy, hence leading to increased production and employment in the production sector.

Additionally, just as with unconditional cash transfers, basic income schemes could be cheaper than providing in-kind transfers and conditional cash transfers. In-kind transfers take the form of goods and services like cattle, books, schools, and hospitals. It is claimed that projects involving the provision of such projects have huge administrative, implementation and logistics costs. Besides this, they constrain people on their freedom to spend money on the goods and services of their choice. However, thanks to mobile technologies, basic income programmes are implemented with ease and offer economic freedom on expenditure of the money.

Basic income is also conventionally universal and is regarded as a human right. Basic income programmes target people across the board in an economy. The cash is provided irrespective of your employment status, gender, region, physical ability. Rather, it is based on one’s inability to meet basic needs in a society. Therefore, beneficiaries in a basic income project are diverse and the impact on poverty reduction as well as the multiplier effect on the economy are likely to be huge.

Finally, just as with conditional cash transfers, basic income offers an opportunity for long term investment in human capital. From the recent evaluation survey of GiveDirectly’s basic income project in Kenya, 20 percent of respondents said that they were using the money for payments of school fees for either themselves or their children. As the project is expected to last for some years, recipients of the cash can make long term and secured plans to finance their studies, hence building human capital in the economy.


  • Basic Income is more closely related to UCT. Therefore, in terms of cost structure, the cost per unit of outcome will be lower with a UCT and UBI scheme compared to conditional cash transfer scheme.
  • UBI has a greater potential for political advocacy and long-term stability despite its perceived greater cost, due to its universality.
  • Financial Modelling of UBI in Malawi must be conducted to assess the possibility of carrying UBI and UCT concurrently.

Frank Kamanga is a former Economist of the Central Bank of Malawi.  He is a co-founder of Global Hope Mobilization and Centre for Child Development of Research, two local NGOs in Malawi. He is member of the Basic Income Earth Network Outreach Committee and also Global Unification International UBI Africa Committee.


Capriati M. (2016) https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/post/2016/07/whats-so-special-about-give-directlys-basic-income-pilot/ Accessed in April 2017

Forget, E.L, Peden A.D., and Strobel, S.B (2013). Cash Transfers, Basic Income and Community Building. Social Inclusion, 1(2), 84-91.

Jourdan S. (2017) helicopter money and basic income: friends or foes?

Santens S. (2017) How to Reform Welfare and Taxes to Provide Every American Citizen with a Basic Income. Accessed on 6th June 2017.

SDG knowledge platform.  https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/?menu=1300.  Accessed in April 2017

Stern, A. (2017) Raising the floor. Accessed in June 2017

Young Charlie (2017). Conversation about Basic Income is a Mess. Here’s How to Make Sense of it. http://evonomics.com/basic-income-conversation-make-sense-charlie-young/. Accessed in April 2017.


[2]A negative income tax is a progressive income tax system where people earning below a certain amount receive supplemental pay from the government instead of paying taxes to the government.

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