Remembering Johnston Birchall

News | 02 June 2021
It must have been in 2002 when I meet Johnston for the first time. The International Labour Conference had just adopted ILO’s Promotion of Cooperatives Recommendation No. 193. We wanted to keep the momentum through a book on the role of cooperatives in reducing poverty. Johnston was willing to help. He visited us in Geneva, studied our documentation and published "Rediscovering the cooperative advantage - Poverty reduction through self-help" a year later in 2003. The book was an immediate success, so we asked Johnston to write an even more ambitious book, expanding from the first Millennium Development Goal on poverty reduction to cover all eight MDGs. "Cooperatives and the Millennium Development Goals" was published in 2004, and is still frequently cited even though the MDGs have expired.

Johnston was not only an expert in his field, but also a believer in the subject: cooperatives. Always friendly, always modest, always in a good mood - that is how we will remember him. His works will continue influencing ILO's work on cooperatives for many years to come. We will miss him.

Juergen Schwettmann, ex-officio, ILO

I was a fan of Johnston’s work long before I got to meet him. The first publication of his that I read was on Resilience of the Cooperative Business Model in Times of Crisis, co-authored with Lou Hammond Ketilson in 2009. I got a chance to meet him during the International Year of Cooperatives in 2012, while working on 'Resilience in a Downturn: the power of financial cooperatives'. I noticed how easy it was to talk to him and how engaging, curious and down to earth he was. Across the years, every time read his work, I was always struck by how accessible it was, and how he always made complex matters easy to understand. In 2017, I got to work with him again around the Use of statistics on cooperatives in national policy making. A year later he wrote with his news of retirement and his health troubles. He promised he would let me know when his children’s book was published. In 2020, as we were marking the centennial of ILO’s Cooperatives Unit I wanted to interview him. By then he was not doing so well. Although he may be gone, I have no doubt in my mind that his work will endure the test of time. I will remember him as a true scholar, who inspired me. Thank you Johnston for being such a wonderful inspiration to me and so many others. May you rest in peace.

Simel Esim, ILO COOP Manager