Curitiba in south-eastern Brazil has a global reputation for ‘sustainability’, having successfully dealt with rapid population growth during the late 20th century. The population tripled over twenty years as people from surrounding areas as well as Europe sought work in the city’s industries, such as construction and car manufacturing – in addition to achieving economic and income growth, the city invested in affordable public transport systems and pedestrianised shopping areas, placed limits on urban sprawl and preserved green spaces, with disused land purchased to house new residents. With the lowest illiteracy rate in Brazil, Curitiba has built a ‘Lighthouse of Knowledge’ (‘Farol do Saber’) in every part of the city, situated near schools and public squares – all citizens have access to an observation tower and can use the computers and neighbourhood libraries for free. Students recycle waste in exchange for school supplies and cultural activities, with some of the money raised going to programmes such as those employing homeless people in recycling separation jobs, while an Open University allows residents to undertake courses on everything from hairstyling to mechanics and environmental protection.
Founded in 1861, the independent Lincolnshire Co-operative – which administers over 200 outlets around the county including food stores, pharmacies, funeral services, post offices, coffee shops, department stores and a florist - has a quarter of a million individual members, all of whom get a share of its profits. In the past financial year, £20.9 million was paid to members in the form of a dividend – ‘the divi’ – and each Co-op cardholder is linked with a local good cause, with a donation made every time they shop. The democratic, ethical and social principles underlying the co-operative movement sees Lincolnshire members elect representatives to their board – in the run-up to an election, ballot papers are automatically generated with a till receipt – while buying energy from small-scale hydro-electric plants and wind farms, and working with the council to deliver local library services.
In 2011, four American graduate students set up ‘GiveDirectly’, which collects public donations online and makes direct cash transfers of $1000 over ten months to some of the poorest households in Western Kenya, no-strings-attached. The initiative targets homes made from non-durable material; mud or thatch, rather than cement or iron - the average recipient family lives on 65 cents per person per day, and two-fifths have had a child go without food for at least a full day in the previous month. ‘GiveDirectly’ is an alternative to traditional aid projects distributing non-financial gifts or offering conditional cash transfers (requiring families to, say, enrol children into school or get them vaccinated), understanding that the most impoverished places on earth may well lack basic infrastructure like schools and hospitals. Having transferred purchasing power onto recipients, families can decide what to buy themselves, rather than having arms-length donors guessing on their behalf. Findings show that the money is mainly spent on food and home improvements (such as installing weather-proof tin roofs) but is also used to pay off historic debts, invest in local businesses (from agriculture to clothing), or put into savings.
Pilot studies - funded by Unicef and supported by the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) - gave more than 6000 Indians a modest monthly income grant, set at a third of subsistence level. One 18-month project in eight villages in Madhya Pradesh saw every woman and man initially receive 200 rupees each month and every child 100 rupees, paid through their mother or guardian. This was raised to 300 and 150 rupees respectively, paid in cash at first, then as a transfer into a bank or co-operative account. The effects of providing universal unconditional grants to these villages include improvements in child nutrition and sanitation, school attendance and performance; better outcomes for women, people designated as ‘lower-caste’, elderly and disabled people; reduced debt and increased labour.
Co-operatives are businesses owned and controlled by their employees, rather than external investors or shareholders. The co-operative model sees members have a say in how their organisation is run, prioritising ‘one-member-one-vote’ decision-making and long-term sustainability over short-term profit-making – this allows co-ops to often offer cheaper prices than their commercial rivals and provide a social or community focus to their investments.
More than a billion people across the world are somehow involved in co-operatives – as producers, consumers, workers, or credit union members. Co-operatives provide over 100 million jobs (far more than, say, multi-national corporations) and are significant players in the global agriculture, insurance and retail industries. Co-ops may act as a counter to the competitive market and continued growth model – frequently, profits from co-operative businesses are equally shared amongst members, reinvested back into the company or spent on wider community projects.
The history of the modern co-operative movement begins in Britain during a time where rapid industrialisation threatened the livelihoods of many workers. In the 1760s, weavers in the East Ayrshire village of Fenwick formed a co-operative professional association to bulk-buy their food and sell it to members at a discount, further founding a lending library and mutual credit union. Eighty years later, the Rochdale Pioneers opened up a shop to sell basic food and provisions to the community, having published the Rochdale Principles of democratic ownership and profit dividends - based on these principles, over a thousand co-operatives were created nationwide over the following decade.
Since then, the model has flourished worldwide. Argentina – where nearly a quarter of citizens are linked to cooperatives or mutual societies - weathered an economic downturn in the 1990s and a sovereign debt default in 2001 to become the continent’s fastest growing economy. The recovered companies movement ‘Las Empresas Recuperadas’ saw workers co-ops take over 200 factories whose owners had abandoned them post-crash. Employing a horizontal management structure in which every member’s voice is heard, the idea further spread to dozens of factories operating in Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay.
In Europe, there are 160,000 co-ops employing over five million people. The Mondragon Corporation - a federation of workers cooperatives in the Basque Country - is one of the ten biggest businesses in Spain, whilst in Finland the average adult is a member of two cooperatives and a new society launches every working day of the year. In Britain, there are now nearly 7000 co-operative organisations, contributing more than £37 billion to the UK’s economy – from community-owned shops taking on the big supermarket chains or credit unions acting as alternatives to payday lenders, to food and drink start-ups like craft breweries, coffee shops, and fish or vegetable box delivery services aiming to cut waste and guarantee fair wages, while providing a direct link between producers and customers.
Photo Juanedc on Flickr
A number of governments across the globe are looking at introducing different forms of basic income in which each citizen receives a regular, flat unconditional wage from the state, irrespective of their work status.
This income guarantee can act as a simple safety net - knowing that basic essentials such as food and electricity can be afforded, the recipient is better able to consider what waged work to undertake, also feeling secure if jobs are lost or industries sold off due to downsizing or technological development. In a precarious job market, those receiving the stipend may further choose to pursue retraining and studying opportunities, or improve their work-life balance, finding more time for volunteering or family care.
Paid to individuals rather than the household, it is argued that a ‘UBI’ (universal basic income) could replace the British-style means-tested welfare system – complex, often confusing, costing considerable amounts to administer with billions of pounds of entitlements left unclaimed – whilst reducing inequality and putting an end to extreme destitution, offering a degree of dignity to the poorest in society. Support for the basic income has been voiced across the political spectrum – in Britain, the free-market Adam Smith Institute has called it “better than any of the various welfare systems we have at present” whilst the Green Party adopted plans for a ‘Citizen’s Income’, payable to every woman, man and child, in its General Election manifesto.
There is a rich intellectual history behind the idea of a universal income, from Thomas Paine (who felt that payments should be made “to every person, rich or poor”) to Bertrand Russell (“a certain small income, sufficient for necessaries, should be secured to all”). In America, the Republican President Richard Nixon’s administration was the first in the developed world to draw-up plans for a national guaranteed income in its ‘Family Assistance Program’ (though never introduced, measures were passed by a majority in the US House of Representatives).
One of the first places to put this idea into practice was the Canadian city of Dauphin, Manitoba, where citizens in the late 1970s were sent monthly cheques by the Government, dubbed the ‘Mincome’ – extreme poverty was eradicated in the five years this experiment took place, leading to improved health and life chances for residents. From 1982, the state of Alaska has paid an unconditional yearly dividend to all its inhabitants, and in 2004, Brazil became the first country to pass a law for the introduction of a national basic income.
Opponents of the idea have argued that paid work is disincentivised and that free money from the Government could embed a ‘something-for-nothing’ culture among citizens. Nevertheless, feasibility studies and pilot schemes have been drawn-up across Europe - Utrecht and 19 other cities in the Netherlands are giving welfare recipients around £660 per month (any additional income they choose to earn will be added to this); Switzerland will hold a referendum on introducing the basic income for all adults in June; and in 2017 a two-year pilot scheme will see up to 10,000 Finnish adults be given between 550 and 800 euros per month tax-free.