Volume 1 Number 10
The Director-General and the People Who Fall Off the Train
01 June 1988

As he nears the end of almost 40 years' service to the ILO, Blanchard looks back to a strange `chance' that has influenced his destiny.

From his tenth-floor office, looking down on Geneva with its lake and fountain and beyond to the eternal snows of Mont Blanc, Francis Blanchard, the Director-General of the International Labour Office, has a privileged view of the world.

Elected Director-General in 1974, Blanchard is now coming to the close of his third consecutive mandate at the head of this international parliament of labour. The ILO, founded in 1919, is the senior specialized agency in the United Nations family of organizations.

The ILO establishes conventions and recommendations relating to basic human rights, working conditions and industrial relations, and provides expert advice and technical assistance. An annual - meeting in Geneva brings together government, employers' and trade union delegates from 150 countries. If you've never heard of it before, perhaps that's because it runs well, does a good job, and shows few signs of waste or flab.

As he nears the end of almost 40 years' service to the ILO, Blanchard looks back to a strange `chance' that has influenced his destiny. His father, a modest civil servant, worked for Albert Thomas, French Minister for Munitions and one of the architects of France's victory in the First World War.

Blanchard and his brother were brought up on stories of this `man of action and extraordinary organizer'. Albert Thomas went straight from winning the war to building the foundations for peace as the first Director-General of the ILO. His example inspired his young compatriot. `From school on, and certainly from university on, I've been interested in these questions,' Blanchard says.

What strikes many about this Frenchman is a rare passion for the needy-the marginals and the rejects, as he calls them. `The priority needs to be given more and more to those who have fallen off the train, either because they've been pushed, or because they've wobbled and they're not strong enough to hang on, or because the train is too full and there are so many people hanging out of the doors that some are bound to fall.'

500 million unemployed
One of the springs of this passion is observation, an honest look at the world as it is. He talks of `the long march towards a whole, correct picture of the world that goes beyond what you are taught at school, beyond what the media may suggest to you'. He goes on, `Being involved in international life through an organization like this leads you to a very vivid picture of the realities of the world. I approach the end of my journey convinced that the problem for this organization, and increasingly for the international community as a whole, is to care, not for those who are provided for, but for those who are not.'

Any person who keeps their eyes open, and has a minimum of ability to think and act, should come to a similar concern for others, Blanchard claims. `The fact of being white or European shouldn't stop me or others from having this passion - rather the opposite,' he says. `As Europeans we belong to a continent with certain tragic elements in its history, but marked too by notions, a bit tarnished perhaps, of liberty and justice.'

A passion needs to be backed up with a certain stubbornness, by a vision of things, he believes. `Who today can claim to have a whole picture of the world or to have recipes for all its problems-The asks. Take unemployment: he notes that all the candidates in the French presidential campaign have said that there are no miracle recipes. `Ten years ago they would at least have claimed to have all the answers!' This is equally true for Mrs Thatcher and for Mr Gorbachev, he says. `There are no solutions set in the rigid concrete of ideologies, whether capitalist or marxist,' he continues. `Which means that we must look for solutions elsewhere.'

He is perplexed by the ambiguity of a world which is racing towards ever greater wealth and technology, but where ever larger numbers of people are forced to survive on the margins of society. In his 1986 report to the ILO conference, Blanchard highlighted the needs and problems of informal and unprotected workers. While unemployment -`that persistent cancer of our Western societies'- has `stabilized' at around 30 million in the rich North, in the Third World it has reached a 'giddying' 500 million, with a further 500 million under-employed.

For example, four years of research in Lima led the Instituto Libertad y Democracia to conclude that 65 per cent of the entire workforce in Peru is engaged full-time in the `alternative economy'. Organized workers on regular pay, protected by safety and health standards, are a small minority in the world, he notes. `Fifty years ago, we could ignore the rest: we only perceived them from a distance. That is no longer the case. Now we are faced with people whose existence we can't deny. We have to ask ourselves: "How do they live? What do they think? What do they want? How do they die?" - because many are dying.

`It's hard today in this gloomy climate for people to believe in the effectiveness of multilateral action,' Blanchard admits. Yet he remains an optimist, albeit a realist too. `The trend towards multilateral actions is an irreversible one. I've always been surprised at the impatience of Westerners. The Asians have a completely different understanding of time from us: the Chinese are already thinking for the year 3000 - that's what interests them. Westerners always want things to have been done by yesterday.'

Blanchard goes on, `I think it's extraordinary how despite wars and revolutions and pogroms, the world has succeeded in creating a structure for multilateral cooperation.' There are weaknesses and failings, he admits, but there are so many problems which have an international dimension to them. He cites the example of his Geneva neighbour, the World Health Organization: because of AIDS, everyone is now looking to them for help and advice.

He expresses shock that some governments, far from trying to mobilize public opinion in favour of multilateral action, denounce the international organizations. Public opinion is quick to seize on a scapegoat when one is offered, he notes.

Instead, he feels, governments should be stimulating public opinion in a positive way. `When it comes to famine or refugees, people are mobilized. We can find the money that's needed. But we miss out on dealing with other problems - children, the marginal people, the rejects. That's where there's much that needs to be done to stir things up.

There is no doubt that Blanchard stirred things up last November when he initiated a 'High Level Meeting' on the Third World debt and its social consequences (see For A Change, February). `There were people who thought that the ILO should be strictly limited to the questions of working conditions,' he says. `Some people would have been very happy to see us become a kind of documentation centre (which we are more and more). But I never accepted this. I felt this organization has an important role to play in the problems of development.'

The debt meeting was at least three years in gestation, and involved `a journey around the world and around my office', in Blanchard's words. He didn't see it as an attempt to `invade' the area of economics and debt, but rather as an effort to influence the approach of those international organizations who deal with these matters (the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, GATT, the OECD, UNCTAD...). `We have not only the right, but the duty, to evaluate the problems of the world of work and to try to quantify the social costs of adjustment policies.'

Asked to look ahead, Blanchard says, `I don't claim to be able to read the future. I live in the present. I'm very patient. I give impatient people who want to know why things don't move faster a rendezvous 100 years from now!' There were parts of France at the time of Louis XV that knew real famine, he says, as do people in Ethiopia or Mali today.

He would encourage young people starting out on a career to get to know the world. `Give yourselves your own training through contact with reality, not through books or through the international organizations exclusively,' he says. `Young people don't travel enough. I make a great mental investment in them, because we are all shaped by certain moulds. We are all conservatives - I am too - but we have to fight against this conservatism. I think that if the young are more hungry to know, more ready to commit themselves, there is a way ahead.'

He goes on, `There's great pleasure to be gained from books, even from the thousands of resolutions (which I deplore): there is a great seduction in words. But the real problem is to bring the words and the facts together.' He is deeply attached to certain freedoms, including the freedom to do nothing, he claims. `I am very lazy,' he says, to the laughter of one of his staff - his car is often among the last to leave the car park under the ILO's modern building. Now he's off again on another journey to study the problems of the poor `in the field', a favourite expression of his.

Such trips give him a chance to see how the resolutions work out in practice and to ensure that the texts reflect the real needs.

One remains puzzled by the tireless passion of the man. There is some hidden, transparent contact lens that brings the human problems of a needy world into focus for him - after all, many people travel and don't see. He has never been ambitious for himself, he says, only for his organization and what it can do. Perhaps this is the key to his discretion about himself and his deeper motivation. This year's ILO conference will almost certainly be his last, but it is hard to imagine this man exchanging his present view of the world for a more restricted vision.

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