Basic Needs



World Citizen: Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) Finding the Sacred Where We Live




There is a sense of great opportunity and hope that a new world can be built in which social and economic progress, environmental protection and better standards of living can be realized through global solidarity and cooperation. Nowhere can these goals be better demonstrated than through the quality of living conditions in our settlements…We are committed to a political, economic, environmental, ethical and spiritual vision of human settlements based on the principles of equality, solidarity, partnership, human dignity, respect and cooperation…We believe that attaining these goals will promote a more stable and equitable world that is free from injustice and conflict and will contribute to a just, comprehensive and lasting peace.




Thus proclaimed the representatives of governments at the Second UN Conference on Human Settlements — Habitat II — held in Istanbul, Turkey in June 1996. Yet these tasks do not depend upon governments alone, for the improvements of our homes, neighbourhoods and villages are activities in which all world citizens can be active.




Much of the analysis of the positive potential of cities is due to the writings of the world citizen Lewis Mumford. Mumford was active in the late 1930s and with G.A. Borgese wrote a Declaration on World Democracy in 1940 warning of the dangers of fascism and aggressive nationalism. Mumford was already well-known for his work on the history and role of cities with a series of books such as Technics and Civilization (1934) and The Culture of Cities (1938).




Mumford was a student and follower of the Scottish urbanist Patrick Geddes, author of Cities in Evolution (1915), a study of urban civilization and its relations to the State and forms of political power. In continuing to build on Geddes’ work, Mumford became aware of the importance of studying urban phenomenon not only in relation to technological evolution but above all in relation to political and economic institutions. For Mumford, the primary function of the city is to transform power into form, energy into culture, dead matter into living symbols of art, biological reproduction into social creativity. And these positive functions cannot be carried out without creating new institutions capable of controlling the immense energies at the disposal of modern man.




When the Second World War began, he turned his attention to the dangers of authoritarian values and the related dangers of nihilism with a series of important books which combined his wide knowledge of history and his concern with humanistic values: Men Must Act (1939), Faith for Living (1940), The Condition of Man (1944), and Values for Survival (1946).




As the Second World War ended with the destructive power of atomic bombs, he stressed the link between science, technology and destruction. Starting in 1946, he was very active in anti-nuclear-weapon campaigns and in favour of creating a world government that would provide for a real control of nuclear energy. From 1952 onwards, because of his pacifist activities, he was accused of being a Communist and subjected to FBI surveillance. However he was critical of Karl Marx’s abstract economic reasoning, and even more critical of Stalin’s policies in the USSR, including Stalin’s urbanization efforts. Mumford wrote “Karl Marx properly recognized how effective a role the organization of the materials of production (technology) played in molding the human personality. But he made the grave error of treating economic organization as an independent, self-evolving factor, immune to active human intervention; whereas this form of materialization is but one of the many ways in which the fermenting ideas of a culture become accepted, regularized, carried into general daily practice.”




Mumford was equally critical of US foreign policy and its reliance on anti-Soviet military alliances. He wrote “No purely military measures will give us the power to prevail over Russia’s ideas or to avoid a final collision with those ideas on a field of battle. If we continue to rely upon negative measures alone, we are headed straight for war, extermination, and the wholesale disintegration of modern civilization. The fact is that both the United States and Soviet Russia have misconceived their national interests, and have acted as if one side or the other would absolutely prevail. Both are wrong. There is no way out of the present impasse which will not require painful sacrifice by ourselves as well as the Russians; for unless we contrive an honourable method to meet each other halfway we cannot continue to live in the same world. If we are to live together politically, Russia will have to abandon its fascist methods, for they are hostile to all forces that enhance and develop human life. We, in our turn, will have to give up, not the institutions of democracy, but the notion that mammonism and mechanism are the be all and end all of human existence. So the next question is on what basis, before it is too late, can the governments of both states retreat from suicidal course they have been following.”




It was the US war in Vietnam (1963-1975) which for Mumford symbolized the destructive control by power of creativity and life. Probably Mumford’s most powerful book, summing up his approach and vision is The Pentagon of Power (1970). For Mumford, the US Defense Department headquarters, the Pentagon, as a building symbolized the problems that the USA and the whole world faced. He wrote “Though the power system can be adequately represented by abstractions, the concrete form of the Pentagon in Washington serves even better than its Soviet counterpart, the Kremlin, as a symbol of the absurdity of totalitarian absolutism; all the more because this particular megastructure combines a pathetically outmoded Renascence plan with the current wasteful and inefficient facilities for monotransportation by private car. Not the least mark of Pentagonal authority is its imperviousness to information coming from outside sources and expressing human desires and purposes that have no status in the power complex. This in itself helps explain, perhaps, the increasingly desperate human reactions that the system is now provoking throughout the world. Never before has such a vast number of human beings, virtually the entire population of the planet, lived at the mercy of such a minuscule minority, whose specialized knowledge seems only to increase the magnitude of their incompetence in the very areas of their professional specialization.”




It is the rigidity of form — both mental and physical — that Mumford attacks. “Once modern man understands the need for continuity and selective modification, in terms of his own capacities and purposes, instead of blind conformity to either nature or his own technology, he will have many fresh choices before him…The new age will begin when a sufficient number of men and women in every land and culture take upon themselves the burden men once sought to transfer to an Emperor, a Messiah, a dictator, a single God-like man. That is the ultimate lesson of democracy: the burden cannot be shifted. But if each one of us, in his own full degree, accepts this desperate condition for survival, that which seemed a threat to man’s future development will be transformed into a dynamic opportunity.”




For Mumford, there is a need for a shift from a highly mechanized system to an organic one. This is a human, not a technical problem, and it admits only a human solution. He writes “The great revolution needed to save mankind from the projected assults against life by the controllers of the megamachine demands first of all a displacement of the mechanical world picture with an organic world picture, in the center of which stands man himself.




“If we are to prevent megatechnics from further controlling and deforming every aspect of human culture, we shall be able to do so only with the aid of a radically different model derived directly, not from machines, but from living organisms and organic complexes (ecosystems)…This benign transformation can happen only on one condition, and that is a hard one: namely that the life-negating ideals and methods of the power system be renounced, and that in every kind of community, to live not for the sake of exalting power but for reclaiming the planet, for life through mutual aid, loving association, and biotechnic cultivation.”




Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens






Popular Participation: A Central Element of the Basic Needs Approach to Development




In the Declaration of Principles and Programme of Action adopted by the 1976 World Employment Conference, it is stated that “A basic needs-oriented policy implies the participation of the people in making the decisions which affect them through organizations of their own choice.”




Marshall Wolfe of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) defines participation as “the organized efforts to increase control over resources and regulative institutions in given social situations, on the part of groups and movements hiterto excluded from such control.”




Among the intellectual “fathers” of popular participation is Ivan Illich and the Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire (l). Illich urged the 'deprofessionalization' in all domains of life − schooling, health care, planning − in order to make 'ordinary people' responsible for their own well-being. The strongest affirmation of the superior value of participation over elite decision-making comes from Freire who held that the touchstone of development is whether people who were previously treated as mere objects and acted upon can become subjects of their own social destiny. When people are oppressed or reduced to the culture of silence, they do not participate in their own humanization. Conversely, when they participate, thereby becoming active subjects of action, they begin to construct their properly human history, and engage in processes of authentic development. Paulo Freire stresses this inclusion of the marginalized in his discussion of agricultural extension efforts. The ideal to be sought in agricultural extension is true communication or reciprocal dialogue not the mere issuance of information by expert agronomists to peasants or farmers.




'Participation' is a term that is often used in three different ways. It is sometimes used as in much agricultural extension activities as induced from above by some authorities who usually seek some social control over the process. Such State-promoted participation usually aims at getting people to produce more effectively. This is not popular participation in the sense that the Basic Needs Approach uses the term 'participation' although in practice State cooperation is usually needed.




'Participation' in the Basic-Needs – inclusion of the marginalized sense – springs from below during a crisis and in response to some threat to a community's values or survival. Often with no prior plan or precedent, some hitherto passive group mobilizes itself to protest, to resist, to say “No”. As the world citizen Albert Camus wrote “ Any oppressed group's refusal to accept its conditions is always the latent bearer of all affirmations of possible new orders. To say “no” is to open up possibilities for saying “yes” in a multitude of ways. Those who begin by saying “No” to their oppressors soon feel the need to utter some “Yes” of their own.”




'Participation' in the Basic Needs Approach can also be used to define the catalytic action of third party change agents − technicians, community organizers, missionaries or members of a specialized NGO. Most such change agents view self-reliance of the poor and marginalized as a desirable goal. Accordingly, they see their own activation of the marginalized as 'facilitation' destined to disappear after the people awaken to their dormant capacities to decide and act for themselves.




Popular participation usually follows a sequence of steps:


- initial diagnosis of the problem or condition;

  • a listing of possible responses to be taken;

  • selecting one possibility to enact;

  • organizing, or otherwise preparing oneself to implement the course of action chosen;

  • self-correction or evaluation in the course of implementation;

  • debating the merits of future mobilization or organization.




If participation is to influence decision-making at a level where it makes a difference in national development, there is a necessary transition from the micro, local area to the macro, national planning dimension. A Basic Needs Approach provides an opportunity for previously powerless communities to enter into national development thinking. Participation can fruitfully be understood as a moral incentive enabling hitherto excluded groups to negotiate new packages of material incentives in areas such as food, housing and access to education.




Participation − an active role by intended beneficiaries − is an indispensable feature of the Basic Needs Approach to Development Planning.





  1. For Ivan Illich see: Toward A History of Needs (New York: Pantheon, 1978)

    Ivan Illich. Deshooling Society (New York: Harper and Row, 1983)




For Paulo Freire see: Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970)


Paulo Freire. Educaion for Critical Consciousness (New York: Seabury Press, 1973)









The Basic Needs Approach to Development Planning and Post-violence Reconstruction




Although it has become common to speak of “post-conflict situations”, there are rarely post-conflict situations. There are post armed-violence situations, but conflicts continue. The tensions that led to armed conflict are rarely resolved by an end to fighting. Post-violence situations need both analysis of root causes which led to violence and then measures to resolve the conflicts in non-violent ways. There is not a clear linear progression from negotiation of a peace agreement to the deployment of peacekeeping forces, peace maintenance and then peacebuilding efforts. Rather, these different aspects are interrelated in complex ways and often overlap.




Violence is often the result of unmet basic needs usually within a specific State. When the United Nations was created in June 1945, the Second World War was still being fought in Asia. The Second World War provided the image of the type of war that was to be avoided in the future: wars between States with a deliberate and public act of aggression marking the start of the war − German troops moving into Poland, Japanese troops into China or attacking Pearl Harbor.




Today, wars between States still exist. However more common are insurgencies within one country which quickly have trans-frontier implications. The UN is inadequately prepared for this type of conflict. Regional bodies also have an uneven record, be it the African Union or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.




The Basic Needs Approach to Development Planning can provide a useful framework for a post-violence integrated peacebuilding strategy − a strategy based on genuine partnership among the people, the national government, the UN system, and NGOs.




It is important to transform violent conflicts into peaceful and constructive societies. There must be efforts to mobilize and empower communities for broad-based, comprehensive and inclusive approaches to post-violence rebuilding. There is a need to move from cease-fires, a halting of the violence to a reweaving of the social web by addressing root causes, transforming the underlying conflicts and developing resources for peace and reconciliation. The Basic Needs Approach can provide a framework for such a reweaving process.









Radical Change in Perspectives with the Basic Needs Approach




It is worthy of emphasis that the United Nations exists not merely to preserve the peace but also to make change − even radical change − possible without violent upheaval. The United Nations has no vested interest in the status quo. It seeks a more secure world, a better world, a world of progress for all peoples. In the dynamic world society which is the objective of the United Nations, all peoples must have equality and equal rights. Ralph J. Bunche (1904-1971) Nobel Peace Prize 1950.




When the ILO World Employment Conference was held in Geneva in 1976, governments were viewed as the engine that would make a positive difference in the lives of people. Voluntary actors were considered to be marginal to the development process. The result was that voluntary organizations were ignored in favour of a comprehensive development planning process focused on State institutions only.




The 1970s was the peek of State-directed planning and development both in the Socialist systems influenced by the Soviet Union and China and the more flexible forms of planning as in France and French-influenced African countries.




Thus the Basic Needs Approach to Development Planning with its emphasis on the household and its family members was a radical shift in perspective − a shift that not all the participants recognized at the time.




Today, non-governmental organizations (NGO) are seen as the organized voice of the poor and as central agents for a just and peaceful society.




It has become increasingly clear that the State alone cannot cope with the increased demands for meeting basic needs and a better standard of living.




“Grassroots” organizations have emerged in both rural and urban settings focused on solving problems at the local level. Starting world-wide in the 1980s, there has been the gradual rise of voluntary associations that can be called “civil society”. NGOs are increasingly identified as appropriate intermediaries between the “grassroots” micro-level efforts to make progress and government development policy. These growing NGOs can pose a challenge to many national governments which continue to believe that they alone should be responsible for improving the living conditions of their citizens. An increasing number of civil society organizations and new social movements challenge governments' preoccupation with macro issues that are rarely translated into something meaningful to ordinary citizens.




Thus, the Basic Needs Approach with its focus on food, water, clothes, shelter, education and health gave an emphasis to local knowledge, the possibility of people to solve local problems but also to make a contribution at the national and global levels. Perhaps the greatest challenge facing many NGOs involves making the poor and vulnerable capable of reflecting on their own circumstances in ways that liberate them from dependency on the ideas of others.




The radical change in perspectives of the Basic Needs Approach has led to a greater capacity to listen to local voices, especially those of the poor.









Abraham H. Maslow: An Intellectual “Father” of the Basic Needs Approach to Development Planning




Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) was a US professor of psychology, most of his career at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.(1) Maslow's writings cover a wide range from an early interest in anthropology to his later applications of humanistic psychology to business and education. His mature views are presented in a posthumous work The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (2). However, it is his work on the hierarchy of inborn needs and the concept of self-actualization which are most directly related to the Basic Needs Approach to Development Planning.




Maslow constructed what he called a “Needs Hierarchy” which he believed was trans-cultural, appearing in all human beings, in all cultures. His model is a six-level model which depicts a human energy flowing upward with each need leading to the next level when fulfilled:




Physical Needs: food, water, clothing, shelter, hygiene, and health care.




Safety-Security Needs: the need for psychological and physical safety, freedom from fear.




Belonging Needs: the need for human relationship, affiliation to others, affection and psychological warmth.




Esteem Needs: the need for a positive image of self, a sense of inner dignity and value, respect and recognition from others.




Self- Actualization Needs: the need to develop one's potential, for creative expression, a sense of direction of one's life.




Transcendent Needs: the need to commune with Nature, to become enlightened, to live in harmony with universal principles. The transcendent needs, what Maslow also calls the “value life” (spiritual, religious, philosophical) “is an aspect of human biology and is on the same continuum with the 'lower' animal life (rather than being in separated, dichotomized or mutually exclusive realms). It is probably therefore species-wide, supracultural even though it must be actualized by culture in order to exist.”




Maslow held that these needs are an unfolding, evolving process in all human beings everywhere. The ways in which needs are fulfilled are influenced by specific cultures, but the needs are universal, and society must be structured so that all these needs can be met. His emphasis is on the oneness of humanity.




If needs are not fulfilled, Maslow held, this will lead an individual or a larger group to “metapathologies” such as meaninglessness, despair, apathy, resignation and fatalism. Thus we need to design and implement new social and economic arrangements that more closely fit the needs of human nature.




The first three levels of needs − Physical Needs,; Safety-Security Needs, and Belonging Needs − can be met within the household-family. It is on these three levels of needs that the ILO Basic Needs Approach is focused. Esteem Needs and Self-Actualization Needs are linked to the wider society and require cooperation with and action in the wider society.




Transcendent Needs are fulfilled both individually − a confidence that we are basically one with the cosmos instead of strangers to it − and within society as a person needs access to philosophical currents of thought in order to express to others this confidence in harmony.




Abraham Maslow provides a useful framework for using the Basic Needs Approach to Development Planning as based on the deepest nature of the person. Each person is an active, self-governing mover, chooser and center of his own life.





  1. For an overview of Maslow's life and writings see Edward Hoffman (Ed.) The Right to be Human: A Bibliography of Abraham Maslow (Los Angeles, CA: Tarcher Publishers, 1988)

  2. Abraham H. Maslow. The Father Reaches of Human Nature (New York: The Viking Press, 1971)




Basic Needs in Relief Operations

Rene Wadlow


The 1976 World Employment Conference of the International Labour Office placed the Basic Needs Approach to Development Planning directly on the agenda of governments and regional UN organizations such as ESCAP.


The Conference Report indicates a core element in the Basic Needs Approach:

Basic Needs “include certain minimum requirements of a family for private consumption: adequate food, shelter and clothing, as well as certain household equipment and furniture. Second, they include essential services provided by and for the community at large, such as safe drinking water, sanitation, public transport, and health, education and cultural facilities.”



The Basic Needs Approach aims to come to grips directly with poverty in the fields of food, nutrition, health, education, and housing.


Coming to the aid of people caught in disasters, either natural or man-made such as war, has been a crucial aspect of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). There are NGOs, often called humanitarian aid organizations, which are specialized in relief operations. Nearly all these organizations have developed disaster preparedness capacity dealing with issues such as water and sanitation, nutrition, food, shelter and health services.


Originally, relief was considered to be short-term action, such as helping people after a flood until they were able to return home. Anything longer-term was considered “development” and fell into another category, often to be taken up by a different set of organizations. However large-scale population returns are difficult to sustain if development stalls and instability grows.


Refugees can live in camps for years while the conflict situation continues, such as Somali refugees living in Kenya, some since 1991 when the administrative structures of Somalia fell apart and have not yet been re-established. In addition to long-term refugees who will not be integrated into a host country, there are long-term internally displaced persons who remain within their country but not in their home area. For all these uprooted peoples a Basic Needs Approach to planning is important.


Relief operations bring together humanitarian agencies, mostly NGOs, United Nations agencies and programs, and national governments some of which have specialized disaster-response agencies or the military who have transport facilities, shelter and battlefield health equipment. Each of these groups have a different “organizational culture”, and they have to learn to work in a cooperative spirit. Deciding on humanitarian aid projects involves difficult choices. Humanitarian aid providers face violent conflicts, famines, and natural disasters, all of which concern people in need of food, medical treatment and shelter. Humanitarian aid organizations therefore constantly face difficult decisions about whom to help and what to do in a situation with serious time constraints.


The Basic Needs Approach with its focus on human dignity provides important guidelines for relief operations and the re-settlement of the displaced. Relief, settlement and return can be planned within the Basic Needs Approach. While it is natural to try to meet immediate challenges of people without food or shelter, it is necessary to plan from the start for the longer term. Violence which results in people being forced to move is often related to unmet basic needs. Therefore the relationships between basic needs and relief operations should receive detailed analysis.





Mahatma Gandhi and the Basic Needs Approach

Rene Wadlow


The Basic Needs Approach to development planning and mobilization proclaimed by the 1976 World Employment Conference of the International Labour Office has many early “fathers”. One father was Mahatma Gandhi. His approach may be described as action oriented (the environment of domination and oppression was his laboratory), normative (the welfare of the poorest of the poor was his standard) and global (a non-violent world society was his ultimate goal.)


Thus, one of Mahatma Gandhi's close co-workers was Jayaparakash Narayan (often called just J.P.). In a speech to the National Conference of Voluntary Agencies in 1969, J.P. Said “Every individual should have all his primary needs fulfilled − enough clothing, a decent house to live in, education, medical care for the sick and disabled in the family, and equal opportunity for employment. These five primary needs of every man should be met by whichever community he lives in.”


J.P. went on to add “I have worked out the humanistic philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi had said that man was the supreme consideration for him. He wanted the highest possible moral, material and physical development of the individual human being. He begins from there... Gandhi was himself an incarnation of voluntarism. His whole political, social and moral philosophy was based on the individual performing his duty in the best manner possible individually and also combining with other individuals toward solving the problems of the community, of society and the nation. Throughout his life, he established voluntary organizations and conducted them with the greatest possible interest in every detail of their activities... What are these various sectors of Gandhi's method of social change and social reconstruction? One is what we are doing by setting up social service organizations, which Gandhi called constructive work organizations, manned by people who are motivated by the spirit of service, idealism and the love of humanity...Their activities are to be coordinated. Let us be creative.”


The Basic Needs Approach builds upon voluntary efforts and cooperatin among governments, NGOs, the business world, academia and others to achieve social development for all.



Ideas Have Power


Rene Wadlow*


One 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 emboded 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 characterised 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 or cooperatives to help meet the needs or education and training, for health, and for creating structures for popular participation and local mobilization.


Much of the Basic Needs Approach has been incorporated in to the U.N's yearly Human Development Report and in the U.N's 2000 Millennium Development Goals. As is normal for an organization such as the United Nations where the representatives of States play the major role, the focus on the family has often given way to the focus on the State and its “Basic Needs”. However, with the re-structuring of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015, there is a chance for non-governmental organizations to draw again attention to the family and to the household as the key leaders of the Basic Needs Approach to Development.



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


* Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens




The Convention on the Rights of the Child

A Legal Framework of the Basic Needs Approach for Survival and Development


Rene Wadlow*



When the Convention on the Rights of the Child was unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 20 November 1989, governments took a major step forward in establishing a framework of world law to protect the basic dignity and rights of children in all parts of the world. This universal framework is based on the principle that each child should have the possibility to develop into an active and responsible member of society. The way in which a society treats its children reflects not only its qualities of compassion and protective caring, but also its sense of justice, its commitment to the future and its urge to better the human condition for coming generations.


The Convention on the Rights of the Child is unique in the response it has met. No other human rights treaty has been ratified so quickly by so many. The fact that a government has ratified gives the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in a country a new opportunity to raise fundamental issues about the status of children in an on-going way. In many States, the Convention has resulted in increased political attention to children and young people. The Convention can serve as an agenda for discussion on the current circumstances of children.


The effort to create a legal framework for the welfare of the child began early in the League of Nations efforts with the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child of 1924 which was largely based on a text written by the then newly-established non-governmental organization “Save the Children International Union”. Child welfare has always been a prime example of the cooperative efforts among governments, scholars highlighting the conditions of children, and NGOs working actively in the field. The Geneva Declaration served as the basis for the UN General Assembly resolution on the Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted also on 20 November 1959. The 1959 Declaration was followed with the more specific provisions of the Declaration on Social and Legal Principles relating to the Protection and Welfare of Children, the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice, and the Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict.


In 1978, some representatives of both governments and NGOs, in UN human rights circles in Geneva felt that it was time to bring together these different declarations and provisions into a single text that would have the legal force of a UN convention. The Polish delegation to the UN Commission on Human Rights took the lead in this effort, but some governments felt that the different declarations needed to be closely reviewed and measured against changing realities. Thus a Special Working Group on the Rights of the Child was created in 1979 under the chairmanship of Poland. Governments and NGO representatives worked together from 1979 to 1988 for a month each year. There was a core group including the Association of World Citizens which worked steadily and which represented a wide range of different beliefs, values and traditions, as well as a wide range of socio-economic realities.


As a result of serious discussions, the Convention covers a wide range of human rights, which can be summarized as the three “Ps”: provision, protection, and participation. Each child has the right to be provided with certain things and services, such as a name and a nationality, to health care and education. Each child has a right to be protected from certain acts such as torture, exploitation, arbitrary detention and unwarranted removal from parental care. Each child has a right to participate in decisions affecting their lives as well as in community life.


The Working Group managed to come to a consensus on the final version in time for the General Assembly to adopt it on 20 November 1989, the anniversary date of the Declaration. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is meant to provide guidance for governments to review national legislation and policies in their child-related initiatives. It is by examining national law and policy and the effectiveness of structures and mechanisms that progress can be measured.


To help governments to fulfill their obligations and to review national practices, a Committee on the Rights of the Child was created as called for in article 43 of the Convention. The Committee is composed of 10 independent experts elected by the states who have ratified the Convention for a four-year term. The Committee usually meets three times a year for a month each time in Geneva to review and discuss reports submitted by governments. The sessions of the Committee are largely carried out in a non-confrontational dialogue with an emphasis on ‘unmet needs’, realizing that many countries have a limited capacity to comply fully with the Convention’s provisions without technical and financial assistance. The discussion usually lasts six to nine hours for each country. The Committee asks many questions and based on the government’s responses, makes suggestions for improving the promotion and protection of children’s rights in the country.


The Committee has a permanent secretariat in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. NGOs continue to work closely with the Committee on the Rights of the Child providing additional information and disseminating widely the conclusions and recommendations that the Committee prepares after receiving national reports.


By creating a common legal framework, the Convention on the Rights of the Child has increased levels of governmental accountability, bringing about legislative and institutional reform and increasing international cooperation. As James P. Grant, then UNICEF Executive Director said “Transcending its detailed provisions, the Convention on the Rights of the Child embodies the fundamental principle that the lives and the normal development of children should have first call on society’s concerns and capacities and that children should be able to depend upon that commitment in good times and in bad, in normal times and in times of emergency, in times of peace and in times of war, in times of prosperity and in times of recession.”


There are four major areas of action that arise from the Convention of the Rights of the Child which reflect its guiding principle that “Mankind owes to the child the best it has to give.” These four action areas are health, education, conditions of labour and protection in armed conflict. I will briefly highlight three of these action areas with which I have personal experience with an emphasis on the important role that non-governmental organizations such as the Association of World Citizens play.




Despite concerted efforts at the local and national level, there are still millions of children who are deprived of school-based education. In addition, much education does not prepare children for a creative and meaningful livelihood. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has tried to mobilize world cooperation to meet the goal of education for all. The full realization of the right to education for all without discrimination or exclusion is one of the biggest challenges of our time.


Education, of course, is not limited to school-based education. Parents and other adults have an important role to play in education for they are models for identity — what it is to be a person. Each culture and each historical era presents only a limited number of socially meaningful models with which a young person may use to draw together what becomes his personality. Thus, it is important that we as adults present models which can help guide the young to grow up emotionally secure, loving life and looking forward to the future.





Today, millions of children, especially those living in extreme poverty, have no choice but to accept exploitive employment to ensure their own and their family’s survival. Child labour is often hidden behind the real and non-exploitive help that children bring to family farms. However, such help often keeps children out of school and thus outside the possibility of joining the modern sector of the economy. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that of the some 200 million child labourers in the world, some 70 percent are in agriculture, 10 percent in industry/mines and the others in trade and services — often as domestics or street vendors in urban areas. Globally, Asia accounts for the largest number of child workers — 122 million, Sub-Saharan Africa, 50 million, and Latin America and the Caribbean, 6 million. Young people under 18 make up half of humanity, a half which is virtually powerless in relation to the other half. To ensure the well-being of children and adolescents in light of this imbalance of power, we must identify attitudes and practices which cause invisibility.


But statistics are only one aspect of the story. It is important to look at what type of work is done and for whom. The image of the child helping his parents on the farm can hide wide-spread bonded labour in Asia. Children are ‘farmed out’ to others for repayment of a debt with interest. As the interest rates are too high, the debt is never paid off and ‘bonded labour’ is another term for a form of slavery.


In Africa, children can live at great distances from their home, working for others with no family ties and thus no restraints on the demands for work. Girls are particularly disadvantaged as they often undertake household chores following work in the fields. Schooling for such children can be non-existent or uneven at best. There is often a lack of rural schools and teachers. Rural school attendance is variable even where children are not forced to work. Thus, there is a need for better coordination between resources and initiatives for rural education and the elimination of exploitive child labour.


There is still a long way to go to eliminate exploitive child labour. Much child labour is in what is commonly called the non-formal sector of the economy where there are no trade unions. Child labour is often related to conditions of extreme poverty and to sectors of the society where both adults and children are marginalized. Thus, the task of both governments and NGOs is to understand better the scope of exploitive child labour, its causes, the possibility of short-term protection of children and the longer-range efforts to overcome exclusion and poverty.


Protection in Armed Conflict


Children have always suffered during war and conflicts. However, today, in many conflicts, children are not the accidental victims of conflicts but are primary targets. To destroy what is of the highest value to someone is clearly among the most effective forms of terrorism imaginable; to kill and injure children is to rob a family of its future. What better way to undermine popular support for a cause than to attack the beings we love and value most in life?


Thus, there is growing attention to the impact of conflict on children, along with efforts to prevent the use of children as soldiers. There is a need to return to respect for the laws of war protecting civil populations as the impact of violence on children is deep and long lasting. We must remember that crises, conflicts, anxiety, fear and aggression belong to children’s normal development in all circumstances. War, however, changes the context and the meaning of these experiences for the children’s emotional health. Experiences of violence, losses and exploitation are interrelated and often strengthen each other, rotating in an extremely destructive and vicious circle. These experiences of war are very hard for children and result in three basic psychological reactions: fear, protest, and sorrow.


Healing for children marked by armed conflict is a way of restoration. Healing is also an art, whose mastery comes through practice and rigorous dialogue with fellow practitioners. Much of the work to be done with children harmed by war and violence is best done by trained professionals. However, such professional psychological social workers are often not available at all or in very small number in relation to the number of people uprooted in most current conflicts. Thus, there is a role which sensitive and caring persons can play if they can be organized and present in areas of conflict or in refugee camps. One of the most caring and healing ways to help children avoid the destructive burial of feelings is to have them express their deeply felt feelings of insecurity, anxiety, fear, terror, distrustfulness and unhappiness produced by the impact of major disruption, violence and other experiences of despair. Just as physical wounds need caring treatment through time, so emotional wounds need as much caring attention and time to heal.


The issue of children used as soldiers has become a concern of the United Nations. The United Nations Security Council established a comprehensive monitoring and reporting system to identify armed groups which use children as soldiers, sex slaves, spies and porters for war. A first list has been made public which includes the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the Janjaweed militias in Sudan, the Maoists in Nepal, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, and government forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar and Uganda.


The UN estimates that there are 250,000 children being trained for violence, rape, destruction and hatred. Tens of thousands of children are immersed in a culture of fear and hatred. At the heart of this growing phenomenon of mass violence and social disintegration is a crisis of values. Perhaps the most fundamental loss a society can suffer is the collapse of its own value system. Many societies exposed to protracted conflicts have seen their community values radically undermined if not shattered altogether. This has given rise to an ethical vacuum, a setting in which international standards are ignored with impunity and where local value systems have lost their sway.


The formation of persons with self-confidence, a capacity for trust, autonomy, initiative, competence, and intimacy is difficult enough in times of peace and in an orderly society. It is much more difficult in times of violence and war — especially in the civil conflicts most common now, when people who have been living together in relative peace kill each other to the point of genocide.


Children need encouragement and guidance from parents and caregivers to help them express their feelings in a protected and safe environment. Children feel a sense of protection when they are with adults who allow the spontaneous expression of their experiences and feelings and offer interest, acceptance and understanding of these expressions. Especially in times torn apart by strife, violence and disorder, children who have the opportunity to express their experiences become stronger and more resilient and can recover from the destruction caused by war. Children who are listened to and whose feelings are acknowledged by others begin to fell more secure, valued, loved and loving.


The Convention on the Rights of the Child provides a new opportunity to make respect for children’s rights and welfare truly universal. The Convention is an important aspect of World Law. We live in a world society bound through communications and economy to a common destiny. Thus today, there is a need for a universal ethic and a system of law that englobes all humanity. Of the collective norms, the clearest are those that touch the individual most directly such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.


*Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens



Making The Basic Needs Approach to Development an ESCAP Priority


The 1976 World Employment Conference of the International Labour Office placed the Basic Needs Approach to Development Planning directly on the agenda of governments and regional organizations such as ESCAP.


The Conference Report indicates a core element in the Basic Needs Approach : Basic Needs « include certain minimum requirements of a family for private consumption : adequate food, shelter and clothing, as well as certain household equipment and furniture. Second, they include essential services provided by and for the community at large, such as safe drinking water, sanitation, public transport and health, education and cultural facilities.


The Basic Needs Approach aims to come to grips directly with poverty in the fields of food, nutrition, health, education, and housing. »


The Basic Needs Approach stresses the importance of the household as a basic institution. It is the household which allocates among its members income earned by members who are employed for wages, and it produces goods and services for its own use. Moreover, household activities play a crucial rôle in converting education, health and nutrition into improvements in the quality of life of individuals. By stressing the household, the Basic Needs Approach comes close to reality and focuses on the family which has often been overlooked in development planning.


The Conference Report stresses the importance of popular participation in development policies, especially of rural populations which are the least organized of workers. The Report goes on to state «  It is imperative for rural workers to be given every encouragement to develop free and viable organizations capable of protecting and furthering the interests of their members and ensuring their effective contribution to economic and social development. »


Food, Education, and Popular Participation have been the major focus of the Association of World Citizens in promoting the Basic Needs Approach.