Louis Emmerij, 1934-2019

By Gerry Rodgers, Michael Hopkins and Rolph van der Hoeven (*)

Louis Emmerij, who died on 26 November 2019 at the age of 84, was for many years one of the leading figures in international development policy and research. Big Louis, as he was universally known, was at the centre of efforts by several major international organizations, and in his own country, the Netherlands, to address global poverty and inequality. 

Among these many contributions, probably the most striking and influential was his role in the ILO’s World Employment Programme (WEP), which he directed in the 1970s. The WEP was launched in 1969 as the ILO’s contribution to the second United Nations development decade. Big Louis took charge in 1971, and rapidly created one of the most effective programmes in the history of the ILO. He led an effort to transform thinking about employment and its connection with the major development issues of the time, developing and promoting ideas that are still relevant today. That included new perspectives on poverty, redistribution and the informal sector, which were built in collaboration with leading development specialists from the newly established Institute for Development Studies at the University of Sussex and elsewhere. As he said in 2019, “It had become more and more clear that there was an employment problem and a poverty problem, which was not solved by economic growth alone”. 

A series of major country missions to Colombia, Sri Lanka, Kenya and elsewhere, composed of both leading international contributors to development thinking and national experts, showed how employment goals could be integrated into development strategy, and how some of the new ideas developed in the WEP could be applied at national and local levels. And he put in place a large and productive programme of policy research in Geneva and in regional employment teams in Asia, Africa and Latin America, in partnership with universities and research institutes around the world. He hired many young researchers, and gave them whatever space they needed to develop innovative ideas. He raised substantial resources from international and national donors to make all this possible. The programme led up to the World Employment Conference in 1976, for which he was the chief organizer, where the ILO’s worker, employer and government members endorsed the goal of meeting basic needs for all, which became the dominant international development theme of the late 1970s.

Big Louis did not suffer fools gladly, and he didn’t hesitate to ride roughshod over vested interests and petty bureaucracy. To do that he had to protect the WEP within the ILO: “I built a fortress” he said in an interview that can be found in the ILO’s oral history records. That didn’t always make him friends, but with his strong personality and commitment to development goals he inspired and led those who worked in the programme, such that on the 50th anniversary of the launch of the WEP in June 2019 there was a substantial gathering of former WEP participants and others to celebrate its achievements, and to honour him for what he had done. 

He resigned from the ILO and returned to the Netherlands in 1976 to become Rector of the Institute for Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague for the next decade. During this period he was a constant presence in international debates on development, serving inter alia as President of the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes, where he was a driving force in its expansion. He was strongly critical of the hypocrisy of industrialized countries’ aid programmes, often designed to serve the political and financial interests of the donor countries themselves, and sometimes supporting authoritarian regimes. In any case, humanitarian assistance to the South was dwarfed by the financial flows back from developing countries to the North in interest and reimbursements of loans. He was also a strong supporter of permanent education, in the Netherlands and elsewhere.

He was appointed President of the Development Centre of the OECD in 1985. Although as an organization the OECD represented the interests of the North, he maintained a critical stance, for instance in his 1991 book Nord-Sud: La grenade dégoupillée (North-South: The unpinned grenade), where he sharply criticized the prevailing market fundamentalism, which left one third of humanity out of development, and argued instead for a middle road, an approach built on state intervention to ensure high levels of employment and a minimum of social services for all – and he continued to promote the idea of satisfying everyone’s basic needs as a development goal. He also aimed to widen international exchange on development, for instance bringing together Chinese and American economists at a time when Chinese academia was still rather isolated. In an approach that today looks utopian, he argued for a new world order to overcome the North-South fracture, beyond the UN and groups such as the G7, in which governments and institutions in developing and developed countries would sign up to a development contract, with reciprocal engagements to provide capital for development, shared knowledge and open markets. 

In 1992 he was appointed adviser to the President of the Inter-American Development Bank, Enrique Iglesias. Here too his aim was to change the development paradigm, looking for ways to redirect forces such as globalization and technological change towards the interests of the poor. He organized a series of major country studies in Latin America on social reform, and called for a return to redistribution with growth. And he continued to mobilize the international development community. In 1996 he organized a major conference that brought together many of the leading actors in development research and practice to debate existing ideas and experiences and build new approaches to economic and social development in the 21st century, with participants ranging from Amartya Sen to Irma Adelman, from Gert Rosenthal to Angus Maddison, and many others. This conference critically assessed the prevailing orthodoxy, and in particular the Washington Consensus and the adverse impact of market reforms on inequality, and sought a new pattern of economic growth which could reduce inequality and deliver both freedom and social development.

The financial crises of the late 1990s showed just how difficult a task this would be, and it remains unfinished business today, to say the least. But following the idea that we need to learn from history, after the turn of the century Big Louis worked as co-director of the UN Intellectual History Project, which reviewed the UN’s contributions to economic and social ideas, and co-edited several volumes, including Ahead of the Curve:  UN Ideas and Global Challenges and the final summary volume, UN Ideas That Changed the World.  The last, co-authored with Richard Jolly and Tom Weiss, concluded that the overall balance sheet of the UN was positive. There were some failures – the UN was late in reacting to the Washington Consensus and to neoliberal ideologies, did not adequately address cultural needs of development and the situation of the least developed countries, and did not pay enough attention to international and national inequality. But these negatives were clearly surpassed by the positives: promoting human rights, building national and international frameworks for development policy that highlighted employment, basic needs and human development, strengthening global statistics and setting global goals, changing the debate on trade and development and on the environment… And on many of these issues Big Louis was himself an actor and a contributor, a driver of change in thinking and action.

Louis Emmerij studied at the University of Paris, from where he received his Ph.D in the Economics of Education in 1970, at Columbia University, New York and at Johns Hopkins University, Bologna. During his career he published many other books and articles.

He is survived by his wife Vera and his daughter Karina.

As Sir Richard Jolly said at his funeral, “Big Louis was unforgettable, a giant of a human being, a leader of people and for people. The world is a better place for his life and his achievements”.


(*) All formerly researchers in the World Employment Prog.