Leaving no one behind: the argument for temporary basic income

Authors: Camilla Göth
  • Reading time: 6 min.
  • Posted on: September 17, 2020

Right now, 4 billion people – half of the world’s population – are trying to survive the COVID-19 pandemic without any form of social protection coverage. A new UNDP report suggests that providing a temporary basic income to people who live below or just above the poverty line could be a solution to tackle inequalities while ensuring COVID rates are kept at bay. 

Photo by ding lei from Pexels

The ongoing pandemic is pushing more people into poverty as they lose their jobs and livelihoods. In developing countries, the immediate economic effects of the pandemic are already severe but the long-lasting consequences on development are not yet clear. Initial reports do not look promising. 80% of workers are engaged in work that simply cannot be performed from home, putting them at a very high risk of losing their income. The pandemic has also led to an increase in men’s violence against women, severely affecting women’s health and wellbeing, including through negative economic effects driven by a loss in productivity and increased use of resources from the justice system and social services. 


The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) recently published a paper on how Temporary Basic Income (TBI) for those living below or just above the poverty line in 132 countries can make them more resilient post-COVID19. This means giving emergency cash assistance to 2.78 billion people who need it the most and is estimated to cost between USD 200-465 billion. There is no doubt this is an expensive intervention, but for comparison: in 2019, the global military expenditures were USD 1917 billion. So, it begs the question: why don’t we re-prioritise global expenditure to save lives instead of spending billions of dollars on military spending? 

Over the past three decades, global poverty rates have fallen but many who are just above the poverty line remain vulnerable. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic we might be facing an increase in global poverty levels for the first time since the 1990s. A cash payment made to those who need it the most, with no strings attached, could be a lifeline. Central to the Sustainable Development Goals is the transformative approach of ‘Leaving no one behind’ and this is the time to show we are committed to this approach.


TBI wouldn’t come without obstacles but we can prepare for most of them. For example, how do we reach people that may not even be on official records or payment systems? How do we ensure governments will redirect the funding raised for the intended purpose of TBI and nothing else? And how can we make sure that those who benefit see the schemes as credible? 

To address these concerns, it will be essential to partner with trusted social networks and organisations who can improve accessibility, but also build credibility around the scheme itself. Political challenges would have to be addressed on a country-by-country basis and this represents one of the biggest challenges in implementing this scheme. 

A TBI scheme such as one the UNDP suggests will not happen overnight, but it needs to happen soon, otherwise, it risks setting positive gains in international development back to the 1990s. The potential effects of such a scheme are therefore tremendous. Besides helping poor families put food on the table and pay for their children’s education, it also has the potential to have a positive long-term impact on women’s economic security, health, and wellbeing. Temporary Basic Income as suggested in the report is a more than fair system in distributional terms. It will benefit all, but especially those who need it the most.