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Basic Income and the United Nations 


This page will be updated from time to time. Check back later to see more. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) require governments to maintain basic but adequate living standards for all their citizens.

In recent years, the United Nations Secretary-General and other United Nations senior officials, and various United Nations organisations, have publically supported Basic Income.


United Nations organisations supporting Basic Income include:

  • United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO);

  • United Nations Development Programme (UNDP);

  • United Nations Women (UN Women);

  • United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF);

  • International Labour Organisation (ILO);

  • United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UNESCWA);

  • United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (UN-ECLAC), and

  • United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO). 

 

Two international organisations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, also support Basic Income. 

On this page

The following are introduced or discussed on this page. Scroll down to read or follow links.

 

Human Rights

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). 

  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
     

UN Secretary General and UN Organisations - reports, papers, articles, and podcasts​

  • United Nations Secretary General (UNSG)

  • United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

  • United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

  • United Nations Women (UN Women).

  • United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

  • International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Human Rights

Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) require governments to maintain adequate living standards for all their citizens.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rghts states that:

Whereas the disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.

Articles 22 to 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) outline the right of all citizens to Social Security, work, rest and leisure, and an adequate standard of living. They are reproduced in full below.

Article 22  
Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.  

Article 23  

  1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

  2. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. 

  3. Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.  

  4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests. 

Article 24  
Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.
 
Article 25  

  1. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

  2. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.  

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) develops these themes further.

  • The ICESCR is binding on those countries that have ratified it and is enforceable under international law.

  • New Zealand signed the ICESCR on 12 November 1968 and ratified it on 28 December 1978.

  • Australia signed the ICESCR on 18 December 1972 and ratified it on 10 December 1975.

  • A full list of countries that have either signed or ratified the ICESCR is available here.

  • For further discussion on the ICESCR see the Wikipedia page.

 

Article 9 of the ICESCR requires states to recognize the right of everyone to social security while Article 11 requires countries to recognise the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families, including adequate food, clothing, and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.

The preamble to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) states:

Recognizing that, in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ideal of free human beings enjoying freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his economic, social and cultural rights, as well as his civil and political rights,

Articles 9 to 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) outline the right of all citizens to Social Security, work, rest and leisure, an adequate standard of living, and freedom from hunger. They are reproduced in full below:

Article 9
The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to social security, including social insurance.


Article 10
The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize that:

 

  1. The widest possible protection and assistance should be accorded to the family, which is the natural and fundamental group unit of society, particularly for its establishment and while it is responsible for the care and education of dependent children. Marriage must be entered into with the free consent of the intending spouses.
     

  2. Special protection should be accorded to mothers during a reasonable period before and after childbirth. During such period working mothers should be accorded paid leave or leave with adequate social security benefits.
     

  3. Special measures of protection and assistance should be taken on behalf of all children and young persons without any discrimination for reasons of parentage or other conditions. Children and young persons should be protected from economic and social exploitation. Their employment in work harmful to their morals or health or dangerous to life or likely to hamper their normal development should be punishable by law. States should also set age limits below which the paid employment of child labour should be prohibited and punishable by law.

Article 11

  1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international cooperation based on free consent.

  2. The States Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the measures, including specific programmes, which are needed:

(a) To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making full use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources;
(b) Taking into account the problems of both food-importing and food-exporting countries, to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need.


A Basic income would meet the obligations that governments face under the ICESCR.

However, many governments attempt to meet their ICESCR Article 9 and 11 obligations with standard welfare programmes which very often fail to meet these obligations.

 

Over the years, governments have faced calls to reduce taxation and minimise government expenditure, which can occur both during economic downturns and while the economy is doing well. In response, governments have attempted to minimise welfare expenditure with rigid or narrow targeting of welfare payments to those most in need. 

 

To minimise expenditure, governments have subjected welfare recipients to means testing so that not all people are eligible for welfare. Those who do receive payments are subjected to rigid monitoring, low thresholds above which high abatement rates apply, sanctions, and other restrictions. These severe or narrow targeting schemes and restrictions applied on an individual basis are administratively complex and expensive in practice, prone to error, punitive in nature, and generally create poverty traps that are counterproductive and work against the intent of Articles 9 and 11. 

In a
ddition, taxation schemes and government subsidies often favour the wealthy or very wealthy while penalising those with little or middle incomes and those with little accumulated wealth. Any scheme intended to meet a government's obligations under the UDHR and the ICESCR should ensure that the net transfer of money is from those who have the most to those who have the least. Tax schemes that transfer wealth from those with little to those with a lot should not be considered.

A Basic Incom
e inherently has no targeting as it is paid equally to all, but when it is paid as a taxable amount in conjunction with an appropriate tax scheme that applies equally to all, broad targeting may be archived, lowering the total cost of the scheme. This combination of a taxable Basic Income and an appropriate tax will always provide a better solution than the administratively complex and fault prone alternative of narrow targeting leading to a just and equitable distribution of wealth.


A Basic Income paid to everyone equally is a better alternative than traditional narrow-targeted welfare systems.

  • A Basic Income combined with an appropriate tax will automatically achieve effective negative taxation for those on low incomes with a smooth and automatic transition to positive taxation for those with higher earnings with no administration costs.

  • A Basic Income can achieve sufficient or effective targeting, also described as broad rather than narrow targeting, when the payments are combined with an appropriate tax regime – a tax regime designed to ensure that those with the greatest need receive the greatest benefit from the payments.

  • Broad targeting ensures that expenditure goes to those most in need while lowering the overall cost of a scheme making it easier for governments to fund and implement a Basic Income scheme. 

United Nations Secretary General and United Nations Organisations


In 2020, the United Nations Secretary General proposed using Basic Income. A number of United Nations organisations have looked at Basic Income and published press releases, articles, papers, and podcasts recommending Basic Income.

 

While United Nations publications often refer to a Universal Basic Income rather than a Basic Income, they are stressing the universal nature of a Basic Income, paid to all equally, and are not excluding additional payments for those with special or additional needs. Used in this way, the terms "Universal Basic Income" and "Basic Income" are interchangeable.

These UN organisations have stressed the value and advantages of using a Basic Income to meet Human Rights obligations. Here is a brief summary of some of the points they cover or emphasise.

  • The value and advantages of a Basic Income in meeting basic Human Rights. UNESCO, UNDP, UN Women, UNICEF.

  • The value of a Basic Income for the support of women and children. UNESCO 17 April 2020, UN Women 2021, and UNICEF 2020. 

  • The use of a Basic Income in recovery from natural or manmade events such as earthquakes, flooding, pandemics, or from economic depressions and war. UNESCO 3 June 2020.

  • The importance of considering how a Basic Income is financed, sources of income and funding mechanisms.  UNESCO 12 February 2021.

  • The need for a Basic Income to meet universal basic needs with additional payments for those with additional needs. Also referred to as a 'Basic Income with add-ons' or 'selectivity within universalism'. UNICEF 2020.

  • The need to consider "Broad targeting" rather than "Narrow targeting" as a way of ensuring that Basic Income expenditure reaches those most in need without the high compliance costs and the high error rate of narrow targeting. This can be achieved by coupling a Basic Income with an appropriate tax scheme. UNICEF 2020.
     

The options discussed on other pages on this web-site align with United Nations papers and recommendations.​

Scroll down to read more about United Nations statements and publications and for links to these items. The items linked below do not include all UN statements and publications.

United Nations Secretary-General (UNSG)

  • On 18 July 2020, the United Nations Secretary General proposed using Basic Income in:

Tackling the Inequality Pandemic: A New Social Contract for a New Era

On 18 July 2020, the UN Secretary General António Guterres gave the annual Nelson Mandela Lecture during which he said:
 

A changing world requires a new generation of social protection policies with new safety nets including Universal Health Coverage and the possibility of a Universal Basic Income.

Watch the full video (1h 32m) or read the full text here.

Reported by Malcolm Tory on the Basic Income Earth Network website here

  • In July 2023, the United Nations Secretary-General published: 

Our Common Agenda Policy Brief 9 - A New Agenda for Peace​

In July 2023, the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), António Guterres, launched his New Agenda for Peace, a landmark initiative for the UN and national governments to better respond to today’s challenges of international peace and security. (BIEN Executive Committee)

Under: action to accelerate the implementation of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development to address the underlying drivers of violence and insecurity, it is recommended that:

  • Accelerate implementation of proven development pathways that enhance the social contract and human security, such as education and health care.

  • Consider new and emerging ways to protect livelihoods and provide social protection in communities emerging from conflict and in post-conflict countries, such as through temporary universal basic incomes, which can promote resilience and social cohesion and break the cycle of violence.

  • For international financial institutions, align funding mechanisms to help address the underlying causes of instability through inclusive sustainable development.

Read or download the full document here. (pdf 40 pages)

Read: Reflections on the UN Secretary-General’s New Agenda for Peace as part of Our Common Agenda reportby the BIEN Executive Committee August 2023 here. (pdf 2 pages)

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has shown significant interest in Basic Income with the production of podcasts and the publication of articles and papers. A summary of these productions with links to the UNESCO web pages is provided below.

.

 

Authored by Guy Standing.

 

"A basic income system is not just desirable as a response to the coronavirus pandemic and associated economic crisis. It is essential, in both rich countries and developing countries."

Read the article here. (2 page pdf)

  • On 3 June 2020, UNESCO released a podcast: 
         
    Universal Basic Income and beyond — what are our options for recovery?

This podcast discusses inequality, COVID-19, and inclusive recovery with Balázs​ Horvath, Chief Economist for UNDP in Asia and the Pacific.
 

This forward-looking conversation looks at policy shifts needed for such a recovery. Key points covered are:

  • What policy pathways are likely to bring about a more equitable recovery?;

  • If or how should a Universal Basic Income be built into the COVID-19 recovery packages? Can we afford it?;

  • What policy experiments and data are there to guide us?; and

  • What forms of inequalities and groups we should particularly worry about now – both on the research and on the policy side?

The podcast may be listened to and downloaded here. (33 minutes)

  • On 4 June 2020, UNESCO published:

     The two faces of income inequality: who’ll be hardest hit by the pandemic?​

An article authored by Diego Sánchez-Ancochea.

"Several pandemics have in the past contributed to the reduction of income inequality. “Disruptive global events have…precipitated shifts towards a more equal distribution of income and wealth” explained recently The Economist. In his bestselling “The Great Leveller”, Walter Scheidel showed that health crises, wars and economic depressions have often triggered progressive redistribution by hitting the wealthy and strengthening the economic bargaining of the working class."

Read the article here.

  • On 27 October 2020, UNESCO released: 
         Basic Income – deciphering the promises and the data 

 

Hosted by John Crowley, UNESCO's Chief of Research, Policy and Foresight, this three-part expert podcast on universal basic income (UBI)debates UBI’s potential to alleviate the immediate effects of COVID-19 and to put countries on an equitable track in the longer run.
 

UNESCO's expert is Ioana Marinescu, Assistant Professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania and faculty research fellow at the US National Bureau of Economic Research. 

The three parts are:

  1. UBI and the bigger policy puzzle - 22 minutes

  2. Financing - 16 minutes

  3. Knowledge and policy - 21 minutes

Read more or listen to and download the podcasts here

 

An article by John Crowley and Iulia Sevciuc.

What we have

First, the good news.

  • Trials show how UBI performs in both stable and volatile settings. 

  • UBI is not a developed country issue, despite what is sometimes assumed.

  • Financing is front-and-centre in any talk on sustained UBI. And it should stay there. 

  • Evaluations of UBI trials are available and they contain a wealth of data. 

 

What we’re missing

Critical things are absent.

  • Alternative and adjacent policy ideas need serious exploration. Think of Universal Basic Services or universal social protection as alternative approaches, and carbon price-and-dividend as adjacent, to UBI. 

  • Key gaps exist in the understanding of UBI as part of a system rather than a stand-alone game-changing solution. 

  • Paths to scale-up remain unclear. 

  • Data on UBI exists but it has loopholes and its quality is inconsistent. 

  • And lastly, as so often, much work remains to be done to connect the worlds of knowledge and policy on UBI if the intent is to move ahead smartly. The former holds data, the latter holds the power of acting upon it.

 

Read more here.

This policy paper is concerned with the use of basic income as:

(a) an emergency response to weather the immediate effects of the COVID-19 crisis, and

(b) a standing policy tool to put countries on an inclusive track in the longer run.

 

The paper discusses:

  • Basic income – core concept, interplays with the rest of the policy space, potential in different contexts;

  • Performance of basic income – policy trials, data that exists, and data that is missing;

  • Financing basic income – traditional, emerging, and mixed options;

  • Green basic income – connections with the climate and the equity agendas;

  • Adjacent and alternative ideas – policy instruments to consider in conjunction with basic income.

 

The paper, 28 pages, may be read and downloaded here

United Nations Development Program (UNDP)

  • On 2 August 2017, UNDP China office published: 

     Universal Basic Income: A Working Paper.

 

This paper looks at the possibility of introducing a Universal Basic Income in China with the intention to:

  • eliminate remaining levels of poverty and growing inequality

  • counter the possible loss of jobs due to technological advancement

  • provide an answer to socio-economic challenges

  • stimulate thought and discussion on Basic Income and its potential for China

  • provide insights into the possible use of Basic Income.

The paper, 41 pages, may be read and downloaded here

  • On 10 July 2020, UNDP published:

     The case for a universal basic income

An article by Kanni Wignaraja, UN Assistant Secretary-General and UNDP Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.
A new social contract needs to emerge from the pandemic crisis that rebalances deep inequalities that are prevalent across societies. To put it bluntly: The question should no longer be whether resources for effective social protection can be found – but how they can be found. UBI promises to be a useful element of such a framework.
Read the article here.

  • On 23 July 2020, UNDP published:

     Temporary Basic Income, Protecting Poor and Vulnerable People in Developing Countries​

"As the rate of new COVID-19 cases accelerates across the developing world, it exposes the potentially devastating costs of job losses and income reversals. Unconditional emergency cash transfers can mitigate the worst immediate effects of the COVID-19 crisis on poor and near-poor households that do not currently have access to social assistance or insurance protection. This paper provides estimates for a Temporary Basic Income (TBI), a minimum guaranteed income above the poverty line, for vulnerable people in 132 developing countries."

 

Read more and download the booklet, 27 pages, here

 

United Nations Women (UN Women)

  • In 2021, UN Women published:

     Universal basic income: Potential and limitations from a gender perspective​

"Over the past decades, universal basic income (UBI) has repeatedly been put forward as a means to address increasing labour market precarity, jobless growth, and rising poverty and inequality. Most recently, proponents have argued that UBI could provide much-needed protection in the face of economic, environmental, and health crises, such as COVID-19.

The implications of UBI for gender equality have received insufficient attention in these debates, despite the fact that feminists have long discussed its pros and cons. Some feminists hold that an unconditional income independent of paid work would enhance women’s agency in families, households, the workplace, and the community, with particular benefit for those facing multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination. Others caution that, in a climate of fiscal tightening and austerity, UBI could be used to justify the rollback of state responsibility and funding for other essential support measures, including care services, housing, education, and health care.

Building on their contributions, this policy brief discusses the potential and limitations of UBI from a gender perspective and points to some of the specific design features that policymakers need to consider to make UBI work for women and transgender and gender-diverse people."

The policy brief is available to download and read here. (7 pages pdf)

 

United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)

Originally known as the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund, UNICEF is now officially the United Nations Children's Fund.

  • In June 2020, UNICEF published a report:

     Universal child benefits, Policy issues and options​

From the briefing document.

 

Key messages:
 

  • Internationally, child poverty remains high, with persistent overrepresentation of children in poverty compared with older age groups. This is despite clear evidence of the effectiveness of well-designed social protection in tackling child poverty
     

  • Universal child benefits (UCBs) play a critical role in reducing child poverty while promoting social cohesion and public support for social protection. In countries with established UCBs, they constitute a cornerstone of national social policy systems and have proved effective in scaling up social protection in times of crisis.
     

  • UCBs are a cash or tax transfer paid to households with children, unconditionally and on a regular basis. They are typically part of a wider package of policies. The design details of specific child benefits, and the broader tax-transfer systems within which they operate, incorporate varying degrees of universalism and selectivity that influence how benefits work in practice and their impact.
     

  • Key issues policymakers consider when introducing or adjusting a child benefit, including UCBs, are:

    • compliance with child rights

    • child poverty reduction effectiveness

    • the dignity of children and their carers

    • political economy considerations

    • financial cost and affordability.

The policy priorities, options and trade-offs for individual countries vary depending on their demographic and poverty profile as well as their administrative and fiscal capacity.
 

  • Theory and evidence both highlight the advantages of approaches that are universalistic and in which some form of selectivity is used to direct additional benefits at particular disadvantaged or vulnerable groups – referred to as ‘selectivity within universalism’.
     

  • The comparatively simple and broad categorical targeting of Universal Benefits, combined with their unconditional nature, have advantages over narrowly targeted and conditional transfers.
     

The briefing document, 10 pages, is available here. The full report, 219 pages, is available here.

International Labour Organisation (ILO)

  • In 2018 the International Labour Organisation (ILO) published a report:

Universal Basic Income proposals in light of ILO standards: Key issues and global costing

This paper reviews proposals for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) in light of ILO standards.

  • Some UBI proposals have the potential to advance equity and social justice, while others may result in a net welfare loss.

  • The ILO Social Protection Floors Recommendation (No. 202) includes a number of principles that are highly relevant to guide the debate on UBI, namely:

  1. adequacy and predictability of UBI benefits to ensure income security, set at least at the national poverty line;

  2. social inclusion, including of persons in the informal economy;

  3. social dialogue and consultation with stakeholders;

  4. enactment of national laws regulating UBI entitlements, including indexation of benefits;

  5. coherence with other social, economic and employment policies, and

  6. sustainable and equitable financing.

  • The impact of a UBI on poverty and inequality depends on the level of benefits and the source of funding.

  • Based on these principles, the paper shows that some models of UBI can be in accordance with ILO standards, while others are not.

Download the full report here. (pdf 66 pages)

IEND

Revised. 21 July 2023, 21 Aug 2023, 24 August 2023, 12 September 2023.

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