Free Money – Glasgow Film Festival 2023 – Film Review

There’s no such thing as a free lunch is a popular adage and it is a concept explored within the documentary Free Money. As its premise, Free Money examines the initiative of the New York based GiveDirectly Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), to create steps to eradicate world poverty by providing eligible individuals in the Kenyan village of Kogutu with free money over the course of 12 years. Such initiative is understandably met with suspicion by the villagers and probably viewers, including this reviewer, who are familiar with the earlier mentioned adage. The film, over a 3 year period, is therefore an intriguing, impactful study of this process to provide a universal basic income (UBI) of USD 22 per month and its effect, whether positive or negative, on the individuals that it purportedly seeks to assist. The sentiment behind Free Money may be seemingly altruistic but several ethical questions concerning the initiative come to the fore.

Free Money is a taut documentary, at 75 minutes long. The charity’s local representatives attempt to shore up support for the scheme unveiling the positive benefits for the community however the insidious elements are not discussed despite the scepticism of some of the village elders. The discrepancy between the villagers and those local charity workers is immediately obvious and the camera focuses on a representative’s high heeled shoes and pristine outfit compared to the villagers’ traditional attire. That notion of wealth is therefore omnipresent from the outset with the villagers’ access to the funds from the UBI initiative only possible by way of a mobile phone which creates that division between the haves and have nots.

Charity workers from GiveDirectly in Free Money
Charity workers from GiveDirectly in Free Money

Footage of the eligible villagers is interspersed with scenes with the leaders of GiveDirectly, in a Ted Talk format, discussing the scheme with students. The charity’s aim is to alleviate poverty, but it is revealed that Google is a key backer. Viewers are privy to this information, but alas, the villagers are not. As such, the unassuming villagers might appear to be pawns within a social experiment. Free Money provides that balance in displaying both perspectives. However, it also permits the critical voice to be present too. Extracts from footage and interviews with a BBC World journalist, Larry Madowo, provide that discerning voice and question the long-term impact of such initiative on the uninitiated villagers. When challenged by Madowo as to whether there is a form of A/B testing, split testing, utilised on these villagers as human subjects, the reluctant admission from GiveDirectly’s co-founder Michael Faye will leave a bitter taste.

Free Money follows some of the younger eligible villagers receiving UBI, which assisted with their studies. It is a positive element of the scheme, as younger students in the village need to pay for their education. However, at the other end of the spectrum is the heart-rending tale of 16-year-old Jael, who effectively fell through the cracks. Fortunately, this is challenged by the documentarians.

This situation echoes a question posed by Madowo as some larger organisations make sweeping changes to a village’s infrastructure, reminiscent of a God Complex, ultimately without recourse. It is an interesting discourse permeating throughout the film, and, refreshingly, the filmmakers do not shy away from this line of questioning. Seeing that GiveDirectly is the fastest growing NGO, in this century, is a concern and begs the question as to who really profits from schemes of this type, as highlighted by the documentarians Lauren DeFilippo and Sam Soko. Free Money is a riveting, thought-provoking, and timely film, and it will be interesting to see the results of this initiative at its conclusion in 2031.

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