ILO elects Gilbert Houngbo as its next chief

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

The International Labour Organization (ILO) on Friday elected Gilbert Houngbo, a development expert and former prime minister of Togo, as its next director-general, making him the first African to be appointed to the role in the organisation’s 100-year history. 

Houngbo, 61, was elected by the UN labour agency’s 56-member governing body in the second round, with 30 votes, against 23 for his main opponent, the former French Minister of Labor Muriel Pénicaud, who would have been the first woman to hold the role.

The other three candidates, South Korean politician Kang Kyung-wha, South African businessman Mthunzi Mdwaba, the ILO’s deputy director general, Australian Greg Vines, were eliminated in the first round.

The election for the ILO top job is a complex one as it requires a candidate that will meet the approval of the three social partners the organisation represents – governments, workers, and employers.

The ILO’s executive body is made up of governments (28), employees (14), and employer representatives (14) from its 187 member states, and makes decisions on ILO policy, its agenda, and its next director-general.

Houngbo said that while he was “thrilled” to be the first African to hold this role, it was an election based on merit. “This election was about the campaigns that were presented, the vision and experience of the candidates…” he told Geneva Solutions after the vote on Friday.

Currently head of UN’s Rome-based International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), with experience of working in several international organisations, for the Togolese government where he was prime minister, as well as the private sector, Houngbo said he most likely represented a “well-rounded” candidate for the job.

He is also no stranger to the ILO, after serving as deputy director for field operations from 2013 until 2017. Among his priorities as the next chief is engaging with ILO members on a “new social contract” to confront the deep divisions and social fractures the world faces today.

“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,” he told Geneva Solutions in an earlier interview this month.

“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,” he said.

He also highlighted the need to continue building on the work the ILO is already undertaking to eradicate child labour, which has jumped since the start of the pandemic, and also to address the impacts of climate change on livelihoods, as well as other complex challenges, like the digital transformation, facing the world of work.

He will take office at the beginning of October, swapping Rome for Geneva, and succeeding the British trade unionist Guy Ryder, who served two five-year terms as director general.