Conference report: The 15th International Congress of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN): Re-democratising the Economy

Friday 27th June to Sunday 29th June 2014

McGill Faculty of Law, Montréal, Quebec, Canada

More than 200 delegates (academics, activists, policy-makers, political representatives, members of NGOs and the general public) congregated to take part in the 15th BIEN Congress, held in the pleasant leafy environment of McGill University’s Faculty of Law, in downtown Montréal, Quebec. While many of them came from North America, there was also a good representation from Europe including 10 participants from the UK, and others from France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Slovakia, Poland, Finland, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Portugal. True to its ‘new’ name (since 2004), there were also representatives from further afield, including Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia, and Australia.

Thursday 26th June 2014, NABIG Pre-conference Workshop Day

Prior to the main BIEN conference on 27-29 June, there was a special meeting for the 13th North America Basic Income Guarantee (NABIG) Congress – the annual joint meeting of the BI Canada Network, and the US BIG Network. This set the conference off to a good start. Each organisation held a meeting in the morning of 26th June to focus on strategies to activate and implement a BI policy in each of their jurisdictions.

At the Canadian session, the importance of the terminology used in a campaign was emphasised, recognising the political or social context in which it is made. A new campaign called ‘The BIG Push’ had been launched. It was suggested that different responses were needed to respond quickly to a query such as ‘What is a Basic Income?’ in an elevator ride, or during a bus ride, or in a full lecture, and that an example from one’s own life is useful, as well as backing it up with economic, statistical or legal facts. The advantages of pilot projects were discussed, some people regarding their adoption as a delaying tactic.

During the afternoon, a moving tribute was paid to Allan Sheahan, a founding member of USBIG, who died in October 2013, aged 81. He was active in USBIG, and his other absorbing interests, right up until the end.

Dr Anne Reid, Past President of the Canadian Medical Association, 2013-14, gave ‘The Health Case for a Basic Income’, in which the advantages in terms of better health, and a saving in the costs for medical services, were clear.

The BIEN Congress plenary sessions

As usual, the plenaries were the keynote sessions of the conference.

Renana Jhabvala, President of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), and Guy Standing of SOAS described the pilot projects that had taken place in India, where food and fuel vouchers had been replaced by cash transfers. The procedure was described, and a film was shown in which some of the recipients in the scheme were interviewed. The beneficial effects were obvious and often moving. The fact that women had received their individual BIs increased their status in their families and villages. Some villagers had clubbed together to use their cash transfers to buy other members out of bonded labour. Thus the Basic Income had been truly emancipatory. The project had also helped to regenerate the local village economies.

Joe Soss presented a very interesting lecture, ‘Disciplining the Poor, Downsizing Democracy? Why we need a Basic Income Guarantee’, sponsored by NABIG. Democracy is not just to do with an election, but requires an educated public, a responsible media, and a government prepared to serve all, not just its own constituents. Democratising the polity will lead to a democratisation of the economy.

The second Plenary Roundtable featured Enno Schmidt (Switzerland) & Stanislas Jourdan (France). Stanislas described the campaign in 2013 that hoped to obtain a million signatures from a population of 500 million across the European Union, within a year of registration, for a petition to the European Parliament for it to discuss the concept of an Unconditional Basic Income (UBI). It asked the Commission to encourage co-operation between the 28 member states to explore the UBI as a tool to improve their respective social security systems. 300,000 signatures were obtained. Enno Schmidt is a co-founder of the Initiative Basic Income in Switzerland, which organised a petition that gained 100,000 signatures in 18 months from a population of eight million people. It called on the Swiss Government to hold a Referendum to vote on the proposal for the implementation of a BI in Switzerland. Philippe Van Parijs, a co-founder of BIEN, compared the two campaigns and identified some of the necessary conditions for success.

Concurrent sessions

Concurrent sessions are always frustrating, since they necessarily mean that one will miss most of them – although many of the presentations have been mounted on the website. Often one would like to hear three papers in one session, but each is in a different room. How to choose which to attend, or whether to rush between rooms to try to hear the particular presentations?

The thirty two concurrent sessions included the following topics: Financing the BI, BI and the financial crisis, The economic case for a BI, BI and employment, BI and economic participation, BI and inequality, Rethinking the welfare state; Legal protection, BI and democracy, Politics of BI; Gender perspectives, Migration, Sustainability; From conditional cash to a BI in S. America, BI in Japan, BI in South Korea, and BI in N. America; and a Round Table on Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century. These sessions presented about 100 papers. *

I enjoyed each session that I attended, including papers on how to protect the right to a BI, through a written constitution or other means, and I pondered on Jennifer Nedelsky’s proposition that every adult should work only part-time, for 12-30 hours per week, and that it should become the social norm that each adult should contribute 12-30 hours per week of care-giving, alongside a role for professional care-givers.

The Roundtable on Thomas Piketty’s book Capitalism in the 21st Century was well attended. The three presenters emphasised that the book, which reveals the extent that capitalism has led to increased wealth inequality, was a work of scholarship, based on fact, using an excellent data set. The technological revolution that has led to automation on a large scale is forecast to continue. It has led to an increase in productivity, and the rate of return on capital has become much larger than the rate of growth of the economy. Future inheritances would be an important method of maintaining the inequalities. Suggested solutions included tighter regulation of markets, a progressive global tax both on wealth and on income, a high-enough global Basic Income, and ceilings, as well as floors, to income.

As usual, the papers at a large international conference such as this vary both in content and in presentation. Newcomers sometimes appear to be re-inventing the wheel, yet there is still something new to learn for old hands, even after all these years. One becomes aware again what a multi-disciplinary exercise the study of a Basic Income is, drawing on philosophy, political science, psychology, economics, sociology, social policy, health, and the law. In addition, it is good to have the opportunity to meet up with old friends every two (or maybe four) years.

At the BIEN General Assembly – contrary to established practice, which would have led to the next Congress taking place in Europe (offers were made by both the Netherlands and Finland) – members accepted the proposal put forward by the Basic Income Korean Network, which put up a strong case to hold the 16th Congress in Seoul, South Korea in 2016.

The organisation of the Congress by the Basic Income Canada Network Organising Committee, co-chaired by Jurgen De Wispelaere and Kelly Ernst, was excellent. Montréal is a vibrant, bi-lingual, cosmopolitan city, which provided a great back-drop to the conference. We were also blessed with sunny but not oppressively hot days, during which we could enjoy lunch al fresco.

*Look up to access the BIEN Congress 2014 program. Clicking on a particular session brings up details about the authors and the titles of their papers in that session. The ones with (pdf) after them can be downloaded. For details about BIEN in general, go to