Development expert emerges as one of frontrunners in race for ILO top job

Former Togolese prime minister Gilbert Houngbo is one of the frontunners for the ILO director general role. (Credit:Gilbert Houngbo)

While Europe’s most horrific war in decades rages in Ukraine, the race to appoint a new director general of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva is passing almost unnoticed. The next stage of the election process begins today, when the five candidates competing to replace the British Guy Ryder will be put to the test in a private round of hearings. 

The process is particularly important as the ILO is the only tripartite agency of the UN. It brings together not only the governments, but also workers and employers from each of its 187 member states, giving the ILO chief a much broader political constituency compared to the heads of other 14 UN agencies.

Leading the organisation over a five-year term and securing trust of all parties involved is no small feat. It requires political experience, understanding of developing and developed country realities, and fluency with multilateral political processes and negotiations.

The five candidates in the running for the post, which will be announced after a vote on 25 March are former Togolese prime minister Gilbert Houngbo, South Korean politician Kang Kyung-wha, South African businessman Mthunzi Mdwaba, France’s former minister of labour Muriel Pénicaud, and the ILO’s deputy director general, Australian Greg Vines.

Read also: ILO chief election race heats up: here’s who is in the running

A senior Western diplomat told Geneva Solutions that South Korea’s Kang’s candidacy is allowing her to regain visibility to present herself, at the appropriate time, as high commissioner for human rights. (Current chief Michelle Bachelet’s mandate ends this summer and it’s understood that she is not keen for a second term).

The same source said that Muriel Pénicaud, considered as President Macron’s candidate, does not have the support of French trade unions. The South African Mdwaba, who lost his country's support early in the race, is hoping for support from the International Organization of Employers, but the group is far from homogeneous in its choice.

After the January public hearings, those who clearly stood out were Vines and Houngbo, who both have experience at the ILO.

Houngbo is backed by the African Union. He is the current president of the UN’s Rome-based International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), former deputy director-general for field operations and partnership at the ILO, and ex-prime minister of Togo. He spoke with Geneva Solutions ahead of the vote.

GS News. Five candidates are competing with you. What makes you the most suitable candidate?

GH: My candidacy offers three comparative advantages: I have a professional background that brings together private sector experience, high-level responsibilities in three major, very different UN agencies, as well as a four-year term as prime minister of an ILO member state. The second is my personal life experience in the south and in the north, and thirdly, my non-affiliation with any of the social partners provides me with the necessary neutrality and objectivity that a director-general must possess and demonstrate.

What motivates you to run for the post of ILO director-general?

It lies in the quest for social justice. The ILO is the UN’s social justice agency. It has not only the mandate, but also the structure and the instruments to advance social justice, globally and in every member state. I believe that the ILO's "decent work agenda", with its four pillars, is a powerful concept that permits us to advance social justice and a human-centered world of work.

What changes would you make if elected?

I would like to engage the ILO in the discussion on shaping a new social contract. I think this issue should be put high on the global agenda, including discussions of the G7 and G20, during the Covid-19 recovery phase. For that purpose, I propose the creation of a Social Justice Coalition, which would pursue the overarching goal of ensuring that social justice is prioritised in global and national policymaking, in development cooperation, and in financial, trade and investment agreements.

By bringing together the ILO, other UN agencies, international financial institutions, civil society, development partners, private foundations, and academia, such a coalition would be able to accompany world leaders with solid research and evidence-based policy proposals.

What are the challenges on the global market?

The past two years have changed our perception of global challenges, by adding a Covid-19 lens. We need to remember that already before the pandemic, over 700 million people were in extreme poverty, some 150 million children obliged to work, and 68 million youths who wanted to work could not find a job. Covid-19 has added new obstacles to social and economic progress. It also laid bare the structural imbalances and social injustices in our societies. In addition, prior to the pandemic, our societies were undergoing a process of a profound transformation.

The onset of the digital revolution began to reshape the world of work, while the dramatic rise in inequalities and the crisis of the current economic systems had created distrust in policymakers. Young people – fed up with environmental inaction, limited opportunities, and instability of job contracts – began to increasingly channel their invaluable productive energy into demonstrating social discontent. The political temptations to respond by shifting toward “me first” approaches were clearly leading us nowhere, especially in the face of the biggest threat known to contemporary humans: climate change, caused by our own activities. Add to all of this the most recent collapse of multilateral solutions to conflict prevention, demonstrated by the dramatic events in Ukraine, and we end up with a really challenging global setup.

Do you believe in multilateralism?

I am a firm believer in the multilateral system and dialogue-based solutions. We need to use the current crisis to jointly redesign our highly interconnected world and get ready to hand it over to the next generations. We urgently need a fairer distribution of education and employment opportunities, a modern-age minimum social protection package for all, investment in full productive capacities of the youth, renewed methods of financing public services, and a set of international norms adapted to today’s realities and tomorrow’s progress.

What is the positive outcome of the pandemic?

Covid-19 has reinforced our understanding of the importance of social protection frameworks. We should pursue with full vigour the concept of a "social protection floor", with a special attention to universal healthcare and the possibility of an evidence-based minimum living income. I would like to ensure that the ILO can assist in combining technical solutions with broader aspects of international financing for development. We should rely on the existing research regarding cost estimates of different social protection packages in developing countries and the possibilities of applying financing instruments of international finance institutions for innovative solutions.

On what should the future of our societies be based?

A successful future should be based on the existing achievements, such as the international framework of human rights, including labour rights. The persistent and increasing levels of informality in the developing world, combined with the impact of technology on the character of jobs and employment contracts, call for a full mobilisation of smart policy options and tech-based solutions to ensure that all workers, regardless of their status, can access the benefits of legal protection and the support provided by the state and public funding. I would aim to increase the ILO’s role in shaping global debate and policies concerning these matters.