Silicon Valley tech executives conduct social experiment in Kenya


Today, the integration of technology into everyday life is continually on the rise. However, increased automation of labor had led to serious concern for the future of the workforce. As technology continues to replace human employees, questions over the possibility of unemployment and how people will maintain some sort of income and livelihood are becoming ever more relevant.

Faced with tackling this problem, executives of technology businesses in Silicon Valley are using Kenya as a testing ground for possible solutions to this problem. The village these executives selected represents an extreme situation of poverty. Even compared to the rest of Kenya, the village of Aswan Abagi is poor. The village faces a host of difficulties that contribute to its continued state of poverty.

Transportation to and from the village is a major obstacle, as a series of unmarked roads forms the difficult and only route that travelers must take to get there. The only building that has access to electricity is the school, which is located at the center of town. Similarly, access to even basic resources is limited. There is only one working water tap, meaning it is often the duty of local women to gather water from this tap in jars and cans. Conditions are unsanitary, as the village has no plumbing system whatsoever.

Indeed, it is still common practice for families to practice open defecation because they have no other option. Even one of the rules of courtesy in the village is representative of the extent of poverty. It is considered rude to consume food in public because the act is regarded as boasting that one has access to food, which is scarce for locals. However, conditions in this village have slowly been taking a turn for the better. The turnaround was facilitated by a charity group called GiveDirectly.

This charity came to the locals in October of last year and offered them periodic monetary payments for nothing in return. Thus, the charity is testing one of the solutions Silicon Valley’s executives have to address increased automation in the workplace – a universal salary. GiveDirectly is a nongovernmental nonprofit organization that is based out of the United States that has no affiliations with either political party.

Representatives of the charity who made their way to Aswan Abagi explained to the villagers their plan. GiveDirectly will give every villager that registers with GiveDirectly 2,280 shillings (the equivalent of about $22) a month. Furthermore, these payments will be given for the next 12 years with no strings attached. The plan started with Aswan Abagi.

Now, GiveDirectly is in the process of registering the residents of more than 40 villages, which equates to about 60 adults. In addition, 80 villages with a total of about 11,500 residents are also going to be guaranteed two-year incomes. Thus, Africa is going to serve as the testing ground for the universal income. A number of economists see Africa as the ideal test due to its proportion of poorer populations.

The goal of GiveDirectly is to show how a universal salary is not only cheap but also an effective way to bring the world’s poorest populations out of the extremes of poverty. Some of the biggest backers in this charity are based in Silicon Valley. The results of this experiment in Africa will serve as a good indicator of whether the universal salary is the solution Silicon Valley executives are seeking. It is believed by technologists that the United States is moving towards a burgeoning of artificial intelligence that will bring Americans into a future without work.

However, this could prove both a boon and a detriment; it is a matter of achieving a right balance. While those who create the technology would attain large amounts of wealth, a rising number of unemployed citizens would be on the opposite extreme. Testing of the universal salary solution is being extended to other nations, including Canada, India and Namibia. However, the experiment in Kenya stands out because it is the first time that an entire village is being given money over an extended period of time. The driving force behind these efforts are some major names in Silicon Valley. This includes Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook. He has not only donated heavily to GiveDirectly but also started his own $2 million directive to explore the basic income solution.

Another major player is Sam Altman, who heads Y-combinator. Altman is working independently to bring the experiment of a universal income to United States soil for the first time. His plan is to provide 1,000 families in Calif. and another state (that is still to be determined) with periodic cash payments. Altman has been a vocal advocate for the universal income solution. At an anti-poverty event hosted by Stanford University, the White House and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Altman brought out the point that because technologists are the cause behind the diminishing workforce, these technologists also owe the world a solution to the problem they have created.

The idea for the nonprofit GiveDirectly came from Michael Faye and Paul Niehaus, each of whom studied economics at Harvard. The basic principle behind their plan stemmed from the idea that cash is more valuable to the impoverished than material goods. So far, it has become apparent that distributing cash in countries like Kenya, where the banking infrastructure is small or nonexistent, is a major obstacle. Thus, in countries like America, where such systems are well-established, the possibility of distributing universal salaries will be more promising.

Still, the increased prevalence of technology – especially mobile phones – has eased the distribution of money in Africa. The usage of mobile phone allows money to be transferred with just the push of a button. So far, the results seem to be successful. Frederick Omondi Auma has a particularly impressive success story. With his money, Auma bought a motorbike, which allowed him to begin his own taxi business. The business has significantly increased his earning and, thus, quality of life. As experiments into universal salaries continue, it seems that this form of charity may prove to be one of the most successful.


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