Conference report: The Eleventh BIEN Congress

Cape Town University, Cape Town, South Africa, November 4-6, 2006

by Karl Widerquist

The Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) held its Eleventh Congress in Cape Town, South Africa, last November. This was BIEN's first Congress since expanding to a worldwide Network in 2004. Until then BIEN had stood for the Basic Income European Network. However, because BIEN was the only international basic income network, national networks outside Europe had been asking for membership of BIEN since the late 1990s. This has now happened

Most members of the new BIEN agreed that South Africa was the best place to have BIEN's first conference outside of Europe because a grassroots movement for basic income has been growing in South Africa since the fall of Apartheid. Many of the churches, trade unions, HIV activist groups, and other progressive organizations, support basic income in South Africa, although most of the leadership of the ruling African National Congress remains opposed to the idea. Ingrid Van Niekerk, of the Institute for Economic Policy Research in Cape Town, organized the Congress.

Cape Town proved to be a good venue for the Eleventh BIEN Congress. Several basic income activists from Southern Africa participated, including Thabisile Msezane, Senior Vice-President of the South African Council of Churches; Zackie Achmat, of the Treatment Action Campaign; and Tovhowani Josephine Tshivhase, Member of Parliament for the ANC. One of the Congress's most dramatic events was when Bishop Zaphania Kameeta, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, slammed his hand on the podium and said 'Words! Words! Words!' Kameeta argued that people should begin to create a fund from private donations that could eventually grow large enough to finance a basic income in a developing nation.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who won the Noble Peace Prize for his work in the anti-Apartheid movement, was unable to attend the Congress in person because he was out of the country at the time. Instead he addressed the Congress by video tape, in which he strongly endorsed the basic income movement. Archbishop Tutu's address can be seen on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gf3n-L5FDy0.

The Congress proved to be a boost to the basic income movement in South Africa. The event was followed by a large amount of discussion of the proposal in the South African press, and the day after the Congress the ANC Minister for Social Development gave his personal endorsement to the policy.

The prospect for basic income in other developing countries was also widely discussed at the conference. Claudia and Dirk Haarmann discussed basic income as a strategy for economic empowerment in Namibia, Maria da Silva discussed the Scholarship Family Program as a step toward basic income in Brazil, and Pablo Yanes suggested that the Universal Citizen Pension in Mexico City was an opportunity to open the debate on basic income in Mexico, where, despite booming trade with the United States, 40 million out of 100 million citizens live in extreme poverty.

Other presentations at the Congress examined diverse aspects of the basic income debate. Michael Howard, of the University of Maine at Orono, won the Basic Income Studies essay prize for his proposal for a resource dividend for the NAFTA region (Canada, the United States, and Mexico), and Shamshad Begum Sayed, Head of Women Affairs Human Rights Foundation in Johannesburg, discussed the Islamic case for basic income. According to Sayed, one of the pillars of Islam is not voluntary charity but rather the mandatory redistribution of wealth from rich to poor. Other presentations by Philippe Van Parijs (Belgium), Robert Van Der Veen (the Netherlands), Senator Eduardo Suplicy (Brazil), Daniel Raventos (Spain), Jennifer Mays (Australia), Julieta Elgarte (Argentina), Eric Patry (Switzerland), and Guy Standing (Great Britain) gave the Congress a rounded, international perspective.

After the Congress, BIEN held its Eleventh General Assembly. The first item on the agenda was a series of proposals to completely overhaul the statutes that have served BIEN with minor alterations since 1988. All of the proposed amendments were approved unanimously and the new rules seemed to work well as the meeting went on to more contentious issues such as a proposal to endorse specific government proposals. The Assembly approved Dublin as the venue for the 2008 BIEN Congress. All of the members of the Executive Committee who stood for a further term were re-elected. Jurgen de Wispelaere decided not to stand, and was replaced by Louise Haagh, of the University of York (UK). Eri Noguchi, Ingrid Van Niekerk, Karl Widerquist, and David Casassas retained positions on the committee. Sean Healy, of the Council of the Religious of Ireland, was later added to the Executive Committee as the representative of the local organizing committee of the Dublin Congress. At the close of the meeting, and following their re-election as BIEN's co-chairs, Senator Eduardo Suplicy and Guy Standing made a joint announcement that they would retire as chairs when their new terms expire in 2008.