At the head of the Office of the Pilot Plan to Implement the Universal Basic Income, Sergi Raventós and his team are making progress in the design of an experiment that aims to reproduce as closely as possible what life would be like for a population in which everyone’s basic needs are covered.
By Sara Babiker/El Salto diario
The Office of the Pilot Plan for the Implementation of the Universal Basic Income of the Generalitat de Catalunya overlooks the Plaça de Sant Jaume. From there, its director, Sergi Raventós, and the team that makes it up, can see what’s going on in the street up close, follow, through the windows, the different protests that converge in front of the building. This office is indeed looking outwards, but beyond that: since it took off last autumn, it has intensified its activity to gather all the data it needs on the municipalities and towns where an innovative pilot project will be implemented in a few months’ time.
With the team in place and an intense agenda of meetings behind them, Raventós takes stock of the first months of work and the path to follow in order to be able to put this experiment into practice, with which they hope to obtain experience and information to base the political proposal for a basic income. To this end, they also have an advisory committee, and are setting up a scientific committee and an ethical committee to ensure the content, effectiveness and coherence of an initiative which, they hope, will be a firm step towards basic income as a reality.
-How are you coming to the summer break after these first months of activity?
-Now is a time when you want to close issues and you have the feeling that you are not going to make it to the summer. It’s true that things are moving: we feel that the pieces are falling into place, some faster than others. For example, yesterday I had an important meeting on how the department that manages the benefits, which is Social Rights, is getting involved in this issue and can help us in everything. This is a key issue, because if we can move forward, it will be, among other things, because the application, the management of the pilot plan, can be done. For this we need professionals who are involved and with whom we can coordinate.
-A couple of months ago, you had a conference with key figures from other pilot schemes, what did this conversation bring?
-Yes, it was at the end of March, April, and several experts from pilot schemes participated. It was good because the workshops were held with the aim of commenting on the different previous experiences, and they also allowed us to see the different mistakes that have been made, what things we should also take into account in terms of communication, pedagogy and storytelling. We were able to talk about all of this with these people who have been in Canada, Finland and the United States, trying out different pilot schemes.
-These are experiences that have left a legacy from which lessons can be learned.
-Of course. It is true that here in Catalonia we are carrying out a very special pilot scheme, a type of approach that is quite similar to what a basic income would be applied to a territory: we are going to give €800 for adults and €300 for children under 18, to 5,000 people. Of these 5,000, 2,500 will be in two municipalities. They are small towns of a thousand or so inhabitants, and then the rest will be chosen randomly throughout Catalonia.
Regarding the random part, this is what has been done most previously at a global level. On the other hand, the fact that everyone will receive basic income in two municipalities is quite original. The amount we are going to grant is also quite considerable. And then the fact that we are not going to make any specific group here, the unemployed, people in poverty, etc. …. No, no, everybody is going to receive it.
As far as the random part is concerned, we are looking at whether we can assign the basic income to complete cohabitation units, so that all the people in the selected household receive a basic income. We had the debate on whether we would do it with one person per household or whether we would provide the basic income to all members. In the end, the second option won out, because we believe that this way the impact will be considerable: here we will be able to find things like a young person being able to emancipate himself or a woman deciding that this is the time to leave, to leave this guy or not. Otherwise, with a basic income for a household of three or four people, the basic income would be somewhat diluted.
In order to put this into practice, the Statistical Institute of Catalonia has to provide us with the data to see if we can really detect how many people live in each of the 800,000 households there are. That’s the slightly more complicated part.
-I understand that a large part of the work now, in addition to defining exactly what this basic income is going to be like, is to establish dialogue and involve all the necessary institutions.
-That’s right. In this sense, the whole process ahead of us is very interesting, but also very thorough and laborious. On the one hand, we have the dissemination of the pilot plan, we are attending different localities, both in Catalonia and abroad. We have held online meetings, of course, but we are also being invited in person. I was in Palma a few days ago, a couple of weeks ago in Almeria and next week there are people from the office who are going to Freiburg. Here in Catalonia, we have held events in different places and we are going to do more.
On the other hand, we are meeting with more or less important organisations from different fields: children, migration, the third sector, alternative trade unions and also Comisiones Obreras. Important organisations in Catalonia such as Òmnium or the ANC, and even Caritas. We are also coordinating with the different departments of the Generalitat, we are explaining the pilot plan to them, but also asking for data. For example, in terms of education, what indicators do you have on children dropping out of the school system? Or with the Department of Social Rights, what indicators are there at the social level? In this way, we intend to construct the base survey that we are going to have to draw up soon in order to be able to pass it on first to the whole population, and then to the treatment and control group, and thus be able to see what changes are produced.
-I guess that mapping is central.
-It is important to develop the indicators that we want to address, issues related to debt, poverty, education and even issues related to people’s autonomy. Data that will allow us to discern what they are going to spend their time on from now on with basic income or if they are going to have a different approach to the one, they had without basic income, if they have thought about the possibility of setting up a business, if they are going to make less use of social services. We think that all this information that we want to find out is the part that many pilot schemes have not been able to achieve, that is, to assess the impact of a basic income in a community where everyone receives basic income.
We are going to create a small microcosm of what a basic income applied to a territory would be like. We will have two municipalities – between one and the other there will have to be a separation so that they cannot be contaminated – and all the people who are part of those municipalities will receive the basic income. In reality it will be 90%, because the richest 10% will not receive the income. As we cannot make any kind of tax simulation, because we do not have the instruments to do so, what we are going to do is this kind of approach that from a certain cut-off point, which we will have to see if it is 40,000 or 40-odd thousand euros, or whatever it is, that the richest people will be left out. It is also a way of showing the population that the richest people would have to contribute more money and therefore, in terms of addition and subtraction, they would lose out.
-There will be a certain amount of expectation to get all these ideas off the ground, when will the actual pilot start?
-Initially we were thinking of starting this December, because we thought it would be an interesting message, to start in the same year that the office started. But then we decided to postpone, taking into account the fact that fiscal years are better if they are whole years, and the need to have a little more margin, to be on the safe side. We were also beginning to realise that we were not going to have enough time, because one thing is the creation of the pilot plan office as a body, but then the staff, the technicians and technicians who form part of the office, joined in February.
Now we have a good team, in this sense a marvel. At the time I had to think a bit about which profiles were the most suitable. In the end it is made up of a lawyer, a database specialist, a data analyst, an economist, a sociologist, a communications colleague and an administrative technician. With this team, the truth is that things can already be managed, processes can be advanced. In this sense, since the team has been in place, we have been making progress on different fronts at a legal level, at a data level. It is true that we are already in June and there is less and less time left, and nerves are increasing. But it is also true that progress is being made.
-How are you going to define the municipalities that will become this microcosm in which all people receive basic income?
-We will have to analyse a database of municipalities. We have more or less calculated that for the number of inhabitants we want for the pilot plan – around a thousand, a thousand and some inhabitants – there are around 70 municipalities in Catalonia that meet this requirement. But of course, of these 70 municipalities, we have to start by ensuring that they are not very rich municipalities, or extremely poor municipalities, which in some way distorts the result. In short, that there are not too many biases.
From there, we will draw lots once we have a pre-selection of the municipalities that could be candidates. There will be around 40 or 50 municipalities that also combine the rural, service and industrial sectors, that have schools, that have a primary care centre if possible, that have some kind of services, which would also provide us with complementary data. With all this, at some point we will have to draw lots in front of a notary.
-And while you are enthusiastically pursuing this project, do you think the political will is there? We have recently seen the passage of the Basque ILP through Parliament, and how the political parties have killed a proposal that had gained a lot of popular support.
-Here, unlike the Basque ILP, we are already in the government, and in this sense, we have the governing party, Esquerra, on the one hand, promoting the issue, and on the other hand, we have the CUP, which led to this agreement. We will have to see what positions the other parties are taking in relation to the pilot plan. For the moment they are waiting in the wings. We will also encounter hostile sectors, surely, but the fact that we are working from the government makes it easier for us to reach important actors and corners. From here we are calling on all kinds of entities, from entities that work with immigrants, to legal offices, to people who work with homeless people, or people living in poverty. In short, we have the possibility of being able to dialogue and debate the virtues of a basic income.
-In 2020, when there was a brutal interruption of work, the debate on basic income as a way of dealing with this reality gained force. Two years afterwards, we are hearing about falling unemployment and the recovery of the labour market. Does this optimistic talk about work displace the question of basic income?
-I think the basic income debate is here to stay in many respects. The other day, for example, there was also a debate on prostitution in Parliament, and the CUP member of parliament raised the issue that Basic Income could be a good proposal for sex workers. Here in Catalonia, some organisations from the third sector and the youth sector have also taken a stance.
Regarding the issue of work, we will also have to see what contracts are made. If the labour market is really improving, and if this really allows people to escape from situations of precariousness and poverty, as we already know that there is a considerable percentage of people who are still working and are in a situation of poverty.
-We are also coming from a time when we are talking a lot about mental health, do you think that when this issue is addressed, people’s material situation is being taken into account and how measures such as a basic income could be used to tackle this crisis or other broader issues?
-I see that basic income is making inroads in different sectors. Now I have the possibility to have perhaps a broader perspective. From the office we have met, for example, with organisations that work in the environmental field and see it with sympathy, with organisations that work in rural areas, or farmers’ unions, the Unión de Pageses, for example, who have understood perfectly well that this proposal could provide a response to many of the problems they have: young people who leave the villages, seasonal workers who work for a few months and then are left in the lurch because they can’t accumulate enough time to claim unemployment benefit or even make it difficult for them to claim the guaranteed income of citizenship or the minimum living income.
In short, you can see that basic income is of interest to young people who see that emancipation is becoming increasingly distant, to women who also see the factor that it could mean for their emancipation, to avoid toxic dependencies, to people in the world of cooperatives, who see how this tool would make it easier for them to move forward. I think that basic income allows us to open up the focus more and not just focus on issues of people living in poverty or allowing material existence and that’s it.
-In two weeks, the period for the signing of the European Citizens’ Initiative for a universal basic income, which aims to take the proposal to the EU institutions and from there to the member states, will end. This is an initiative that started in September 2020 with some force but has fallen far short of its objective. What is your assessment of this?
-Talking to activists, we have agreed that there has certainly been a lack of important figures or people who have made the campaign visible, and the media, in general, have not helped to publicise it. I understand that there are very few signatures left to reach the minimum target in the Kingdom of Spain, but overall we are still a long way from the million signatures needed. I think that this is a debate that, curiously enough, may be gaining force at the territorial level. We should also reflect on the dynamics that have caused the campaign to have such a limited reach in some countries. It seems that in the end, perhaps only three countries will achieve the minimum: Slovenia, Italy and the Kingdom of Spain, which is on the doorstep.
-And how do you gain force in the territories?
-You have to look, for example, at dynamics such as the Popular Legislative Initiative in the Basque Country. In this case, the 22,000 signatures needed for its ILP were easily obtained, but it is possible that the 22,000 people who signed there may not have signed the European initiative. It remains to be seen whether this mismatch is due to the fact that people see basic income as something more feasible at the territorial level than at the European level.
In any case, I believe that the ILP in the Basque Country, the Pilot Plan in Catalonia and the European initiative have been three dynamics that have generated some debate. It is important to continue to insist: now, for example, in Andalusia, I also understand that Adelante Andalucía has already taken up the proposal and we will have to see if we are at a point where we can make a little more progress in the knowledge and dissemination of this possibility, because we already know that the pilot plans are very good and can be a good channel for dissemination, debate and analysis of the data that they can provide us with. But we also know what their limitations are, and so we also have to adjust our expectations.
Above all, mobilisation is necessary: the social movements must continue to insist on the issue. It cannot be that here in Catalonia, as the office of the pilot plan already exists, that’s it, we do nothing more. On the contrary, I believe that the important thing here is to make progress in the debate and in the dissemination of Basic Income as a proposal that could provide a solution to many of the problems we face.