Congratulations to Gilbert Houngbo

The International Labor Organization has a new Director-General-elect who will succeed Guy Ryder on 1 October 2022. Congratulations to Gilbert Houngbo for winning on the second round of voting in the ILO Governing Body on Friday, 25 March 2022! This is indeed an historic occasion for the ILO, and I personally welcome its significance for the future of the ILO.  Here is my commentary in full on the significance of his election.

It is, of course, an historic accomplishment to be the first African elected to this position at the ILO – an organization that was established over 100 years ago without the participation of any African government, as he himself pointed out in his acceptance speech. This is undeniably a significant landmark for the organization, and congratulations are due to the effective campaigning – what he acknowledged as “the relentless effort” – on his behalf by his government of Togo, and by the African Union and African Commission. But it is also heartening that he will be joining historic African breakthroughs for leadership positions at both the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization, all significant parts of International Geneva.  And it happened surprisingly quickly, on the second vote in the ILO Governing Body. (See the vote tally below at the end of this commentary, along with excerpts from the initial ILO press release on his election.)

Above and beyond this celebratory news, however, one should also recognize that the ILO Governing Body actually chose wisely and well. As I observed in a commentary that I wrote about all five candidates for this position before the election (available here), all five were credibly qualified candidates, each in their different ways. It is the combination of Mr. Houngbo’s credentials (experience both within the ILO and in other international and domestic settings) that took him over the top in a way that bodes well for the ILO.

As a former Deputy Director-General myself, I had listened to their public interviews with the Governing Body in January, and I had reviewed their biographies and their campaign statements. In the process, I found four issues that were of particular interest to me – informality, gender equality, multilateralism and the normative future of the ILO. My personal assessment of the five candidates reinforced the competitive nature of the election. Each of them had the potential to bring qualified leadership to the ILO. On all four issues, Mr. Houngbo rated well, and especially so, from my perspective, on at least two of them (informality and multilateralism) and credibly well on the other two.

The Gender Equality Issue

Although I had treated gender equality as the second most important issue (after informality), I do want to start this follow-up commentary here with a review of my assessment of the candidates on gender. First, I would have to say that I did dismiss one of the five candidates (not Mr. Houngbo) early on because of his remarks on gender. The candidacy of anyone who says “We can’t have world peace if our women are not happy” has got to be scratched off. “Our” women?  So on that issue, at least, there were only four qualified candidates.

Then, there is also point that the best articulation on gender equality came from the two women candidates. One can always hope that a wholehearted embrace of gender equality would not depend on the gender of the candidate. But there is still a history of gender discrimination, including in the world of work, and thus we have all witnessed a more activist role in the past few decades among women than among men. It is noteworthy on that point, by the way, that all three of the spokespersons for the ILO’s Governing Body’s three constituent groups are currently women. And they, too, like me, had to recognize that there were differences among the candidates on this issue.  Both of the female candidates, Muriel Pénicaud and Kang Kyung-wha had comprehensive records on advancing gender equality, and if that had been the only priority, one of them should have prevailed. But there were other factors in play.

One final point on gender: Mr. Houngbo, thank goodness, did not disappoint. He might not have as much of a record on gender equality as the others (excluding the one who really missed the boat here), but at least his views and record were respectable. After all, as the head of IFAD, he displayed an appreciation for the gender-related concerns of women in the rural sector, where the poverty-related travails are the most severe – for both women and men – and, for that matter, children, too. In my earlier commentary, I did say one could hope for more affirmation of gender-related concerns, but OK. He did not offend. And in his acceptance speech, he did specifically refer to “women and men” regarding both unemployment and discrimination. That is good.

The Best Choice

On the three other issues (and in general, too), I would say that Mr. Houngbo was clearly the best choice. They all had their strengths, to be sure, and I should note here that one of his most serious competitors on these three issues, Greg Vines, ultimately ended up being a non-contender. As I had noted in my earlier commentary, Mr. Vines even said “I know the ILO and the ILO knows me” in such a way that he stood out as the most knowledgeable candidate about the ILO itself. The fact that he garnered only one vote on the first ballot is not a reflection of his credentials. It was only a signal that he had essentially dropped out of the race, given the geopolitical dynamics among the members of the ILO. And, in any case, Mr. Houngbo was the better candidate between the two, especially if one takes into account the need for the ILO to be moving in new directions in the future, which I personally believe is necessary and requires a bit more independence from the past than was the case with Mr. Vines – or even Ms. Pénicaud, for that matter. And Ms. Kang was clearly there as an outsider waiting in the wings if no one garnered a majority in the early rounds.

So, onto the three other issues I chose to highlight. Here is why I think the majority in the Governing Body did well by electing Mr. Houngbo. First, on informality, for goodness’ sake, this is the most fundamental issue for the ILO in the future and it is an issue on which Mr. Houngbo has clearly grappled with the challenges. He illustrated this with his descriptions of transitioning efforts in Togo when he was Prime Minister, and I do believe that the African context is relevant for an understanding of this issue. Fair enough, Mr. Houngbo has emphasized that he is committed to representing no particular group or region and being a leader for all of the ILO’s membership. But I also think that his African experience will play an important role in where the ILO goes on this issue. And given how informality – or precarious work in more and more of the world of work – along with the blurring of informality with the precariousness of micro and small enterprises and the like – are relevant concerns for everyone, he is the right one to take the ILO into this hornet’s nest. I am especially appreciative of how he mentioned the “real life problems” of both working people and enterprises in the oral version of his acceptance speech on Friday. Good for him.

On the issue of multilateralism, Mr. Houngbo also brings the right balance of credentials to take the ILO in new directions without necessarily disrupting the old patterns. I know that some critics were uncomfortable with his enthusiastic embrace of collaboration with different stakeholders, but I personally liked his proposal for a multi-stakeholder “Global Coalition for Social Justice”. I also liked his proposal, somewhat ambitious, to be sure, for the ILO to be the “arbiter” of labor standards in trade agreements, including at the WTO!  And there is also the matter of other non-state actors here, something that has concerned me for some time, and I know that he will need to work well with the tripartite structure that makes it so difficult for the ILO to work with other non-state actors. But I wish him well on that score. Clearly this protectionism didn’t help the other candidates, including either Ms. Pénicaud (with her willingness to work with multinational enterprises directly, which seemed to upset the Employers Group) or Ms. Kang (with her strong record with human rights organizations which didn’t help her with the Workers Group, given the poor record on labor standards of her own government of South Korea). But it is time for the multilateral world, and the abundance of multi-stakeholder actors, to be more fully united these days. And so, my best wishes to Mr. Houngbo on that matter.

Finally, on the normative future of the ILO, it seems to me that the divisiveness of the whole controversy over the right to strike has isolated the Employers Group and sent it off into defensiveness positioning. Why they had to support one of their own members, whose government wouldn’t even back him, is too bad. They had another candidate with business credentials in Ms. Pénicaud, but it seems that they do have their problems with the whole matter of multinational enterprises not fitting so well into nationally based employer organizations. And then she encountered a disruptive French labor environment despite her having made a deliberate effort when she was President Macron’s labor minister to work on his reform initiatives. She truly did try to engage in open and constructive consultations with all the French unions but did encounter troubles with the most extreme among them and specifically with their political advocate Jean-Luc Mélanchon. The glee with which Mr. Mélanchon, a current candidate in the French presidential election, proudly announced the active (and apparently successful) opposition of his party (and the union associated with it) against her candidacy, tells me that his actions must have hurt her. Although the governments of the European Union stood firmly on her side, she seems to have lost any chance of the Workers Group support because of his opposition to her. (One wonders, too, how many employers voted for her, since she only gained nine more votes in the second round and at least two of them probably had gone for Ms. Kang in the first round.)

That would appear to deviate from the point about the normative future of the ILO – but  not really. Ms. Pénicaud, as it turned out, was Mr. Houngbo’s main competition. I have not been privy to any of the internal deliberations among the groups, but I would speculate that the Workers Group really liked Greg Vines and would have been inclined to support him but for the fact that he was not as strong with the governments as one might have expected. Again, this is just speculation. But there is the matter of geopolitics as well. Australia and France both had to have their challenges with the spill over from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Take a look at the UN resolution on that issue, after all. The vote there was 141 to 5 with 35 abstentions and 10 not voting. I would assume that the negatives and abstentions (including China, India and Pakistan) on that vote had to have some reservations with either Mr. Vines or Ms. Pénicaud – and even with Ms. Kang, for that matter. They, the Workers, might have supported Mr. Vines but for the absence of support for him beyond his home government of Australia, and then perhaps  Ms. Pénicaud but for the Mélanchon glitch. The Workers Group decision to back Mr. Houngbo instead of Mr. Vines or Ms. Pénicaud basically guaranteed the final outcome. At least, it put Mr. Houngbo in the lead position on the first round and thus set the stage for his victory in the second round.

The normative future of the ILO will benefit from Mr. Houngbo’s future leadership role, not only in terms of moving beyond the right-to-strike issue but also in terms of the constructive work on informality, occupational safety and health and climate change that are looming for the ILO. I also trust that he will reach out to his competitors in different ways – all of whom can help strengthen his tenure. I would surmise that Ms. Pénicaud will continue to play an important role in French politics, where the prospective re-election of Emmanuel Macron in April should set the stage for yet another round of labor reform initiatives there. She was also very knowledgeable on climate change issues, as was Ms. Kang. Ms. Kang herself may well find her way to a significant UN position in human rights. I don’t have a sense of where the other two candidates will go, but I do think they all have their distinct expertise and that Mr. Houngbo will do well to drawn upon their perspectives as well as those of Ms. Pénicaud and Ms. Kang.

Concluding Observations

All in all, it would appear that Mr. Houngbo is ready for the job. In his acceptance speech, he spoke in all three of the main languages – French, English and Spanish. And he spoke with gravity about the challenges ahead – referring to the billions in informal work or lacking social protections, the millions in unemployment or child labor or facing discrimination, violence and harassment and yes, the enterprises disrupted by the pandemic, climate change and armed conflict. Congratulations, again, to Mr. Houngbo – and to the Governing Body for a competitive election and a credible outcome! And thanks, too, to the fine leadership of Guy Ryder. I wish them well, both Mr. Houngbo and Mr. Ryder, in this time of transition to the new administration for the ILO in October.


Here are the first and second round ballot tallies for the election of the next Director-General at the ILO Governing Body:

Gilbert Houngbo                    24                                30

Muriel Pénicaud                    14                                  23

Mthunzi Mdwaba                   13                                   1

Kang Kyung-wha                     4                                   2

Greg Vines                                  1

And I take note of an excerpt from the ILO’s press release (available here) showing quotations from Mr. Houngbo’s acceptance speech:

Speaking after his election, Houngbo said, “Although my origins are African my perspective is global. In an age, unfortunately of dividedness, my commitment to be a unifying Director-General stands firm… I will be the Director-General of nobody and the Director-General of everybody. Governments, Employers and Workers alike, from all regions across the world, can rely and should rely on my total readiness to represent and advocate the views of all tripartite constituents of the organization.”

“I commit to represent the voices of those who rely on us in ILO. I’m thinking about the four billion people around the world who do not have access to social protection. I’m thinking about the 200-plus million of women and men who face unemployment. The 160 million children in child labour. The 1.6 billion people in the informal sector. The enterprises, particularly the small and medium sized enterprises that are facing supply chain disruption or closure due to crises’ including the pandemic, climate change and armed conflict. I’m thinking about the women and men who face discrimination, violence and harassment in the workplace and elsewhere. These are all expressions of unacceptable social injustice that we are morally if not legally bound to address.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply