Centenary of the ILO: Meeting the Basic Needs of All


by Rene Wadlow
2019-06-24 08:48:31

The centenary of the International Labour Organization (ILO) was celebrated with the start of the International Labour Conference on 10 May 2019 in Geneva.  To the 5000 delegates attending, Guy Ryder, Director General of the ILO said that there is a common purpose and the means "to construct a future of work, with social justice for all".

The ILO is the oldest "family member" of the U.N. system, its founding agreed to at the same negotiations that saw the agreement to form the League of Nations in 1919.  The ILO has been in the lead to improve labour conditions within the framework of social justice for all.  A high point has been the ILO focus on meeting the basic needs of all.

labour01_400One of the most important and complex questions facing the world today is that of how development can be carried out in a way which can satisfy the most basic needs of all people in the shortest possible time.

The June 1976 World Employment Conference Declaration of Principles and Programme of Action makes a major intellectual contribution to the resolution of this question with the world-wide acceptance of the Basic Needs Approach to Development with its emphasis on people as central to the development process.(1)

There have been two fundamental texts proclaimed by the United Nations and its member Agencies.  The first is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1948 − “A common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”  The Universal Declaration stresses the rights of each person in the world, no matter what his State citizenship and no matter where he finds himself.  The Universal Declaration set the stage for the development of Human Rights Law which develops the application of each Article of the Declaration.

The second fundamental text is the Declaration of the World Employment Conference called under the auspices of the International Labour Office in Geneva in 1976 which placed the family and the household at the core of the development process. Thus, the United Nations has underlined the importance of the individual and his rights and then the central role of the family and household as the basic unit around which to work for development.

Ideas have power in three ways:

- By changing the ways issues are perceived;

- By defining lines of action and agendas for policy;

- By becoming embodied in institutions in ways which ensure implementation over the longer run.

Although the Basic Needs Approach builds on the development thinking in the United Nations and national governments of the 1950s and 1960s  such as rural development, urban poverty alleviation, employment creation through small-scale industries, the Declaration of Principles begins by its awareness that “past development strategies in most developing countries have not led to the eradication of poverty and unemployment; that the historical features of the development processes in these countries have produced an employment structure characterized by a large proportion of the labour force in rural areas with high levels of underemployment and unemployment; that underemployment and poverty in rural and urban informal sectors and open unemployment, especially in urban areas, has reached such critical dimensions that major shifts in development strategies at both national and international levels are urgently needed in order to ensure full employment and an adequate income to every in habitant of this One World in the shortest possible time.”

Thus the major shift in development strategies seen in the Basic Needs Approach is to focus on the family with the objective of providing the opportunities for the full physical, mental, and social development of the human personality.  The Programme of Action defines a two-part approach. “First, Basic Needs includes certain minimum requirements of a family for private consumption: adequate food, shelter and clothing, as well as certain household equipment and furniture.  Second, Basic Needs includes essential services provided by and for the community at large, such as safe drinking water, sanitation, public transport, health, education and cultural facilities.”

The Programme adds a basic element to the actions: “A basic-needs-oriented policy implies the participation of the people in making the decisions which affect them through organizations of their own choice.”

The Basic Needs Approach concentrates on the nature of what is provided rather than on income − income having often been used as the criteria for drawing a “poverty line”.  The Basic Needs Approach is concerned not only with the underemployed but also with the unemployable: the aged, the sick, the disabled, orphaned children and others.  Such groups have often been neglected by the income and productivity approach to poverty alleviation and employment creation.

The Basic Needs Approach focuses on the family as the basic unit of action, families which know their specific needs and who participate actively to meeting these Basic Needs.  There is also an important role for the State and cooperatives to help meet the needs or education and training, for health, and for creating structures for popular participation and local mobilization.

Happy 100th Anniversary!


(1) See the Director General's Report and the Declaration in International Labour Office. Employment, Growth and Basic Needs: A One World Problem (NewYork Praeger Publishers, 1977, 224 PP.)

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