Candidates for ILO Director-General on Multilateralism

Here are the summaries of my perspectives on how the five candidates for ILO Director-General addressed the issue of multilateralism in their January 2022 interviews.

Gilbert Houngbo

On multilateralism, Mr. Houngbo’s views and platform are very fully laid out. I have the impression that this is where he is in the forefront among the five candidates. In his opening statement, he referred to the need to “redynamite multilateralism”. In his platform, he proposes that the ILO should launch a “Global Coalition for Social Justice”. The ILO would presumably be in the lead to promote the prioritizing of social justice, but the grand coalition would “bring together” the ILO, the UN agencies, the international financial institutions, civil society, development partners, multinationals and private foundations, the academia and other stakeholders (quite a long list) – to “pursue” this as the coalition’s “overarching goal”.   The proposal came up several times in his public dialogue, but mostly in terms of how he would ensure the inclusion of ILO’s social partners. On this point, he affirmed the importance of capacity building and advocacy for their involvement, not only in this “Global Coalition” but also in UN programs, especially at the country level.  Otherwise, his platform listed several other specific partnering ideas, but the only one of these that came up in his interview was for the ILO to have a systematic role as the arbiter of ILO standards in trade agreements. In his closing statement, he emphasized his independence – i.e., not affiliated with any groups, south or north, public or private and that through his experience at the UN and the IFIs, he can do lots of partnering for the benefit of the ILO.

Kang Kyung-wha

In her interview, Ms. Kang was very skillful in describing the ILO role as one that is at the very center of multilateralism. She once again praised the D-G and the ILO for their participation in the SDGs at the UN and building good relations with the international financial institutions. Her suggested next steps would include the ILO leveraging its solid record in social justice, human dignity and vulnerable groups to be more impactful in these areas and “institutionalizing” the well-established relations with the IFIs at a routine working level. In general, the ILO should, she said, seek out partnerships for policy coherence and for more involvement of the ILO’s constituent partners in New York and in the field. She thus reflected a familiarity with these multilateral institutions while complimenting the accomplishments of the current ILO leadership. And this was further reinforced on the issue of climate change, in particular, where she showed an in-depth knowledge of the UNFCCC processes while emphasizing how COP 26 has opened up the opportunity for a new dialogue on climate change that needs the ILO’s involvement “to ensure that the transition is just”.  And through her work as Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, she appreciated the importance of both human rights and workers rights. The issue of multilateralism was clearly her strong point in the interview.

Mthunzi Mdwaba

On this issue, Mr. Mdwaba did make references in his interview to working with the UN and especially the Sustainable Development Goals, but he offered no specific proposals on multilateralism in his written statement.  He did at one point indicate that he has given a lot of thought to how the ILO could have more impact in the UN family and especially on behalf of its tripartite constituents at ECOSOC or UNDP. There was a question on climate change on how to promote a just transition in the world of work, to which he replied that the ILO must collaborate with other entities. But the point he made even here was that the ILO needs to focus on working with the different circumstances for a just transition with people on the ground, rather than with any other multilateral institution globally. But taken from this different angle on multilateralism, Mr. Mdwaba also suggested that the ILO could look for new ways of financing “ILO delivery”, including with the private sector. This, too, was in the context of a discussion on climate change but also with regard to the exponential growth since the pandemic on the developmental needs for something like SDG 8!

Muriel Pénicaud

Ms. Pénicaud’s articulation of her perspective on multilateralism is strikingly different from the stated perspectives of the other candidates. What she emphasized more than anything was the challenge of moving beyond “silos” to a “new global momentum of solidarity” for social progress. She described the need for a “global Alliance for a human-centered development, a “stronger collective commitment”.  The absence of any reference to competition among international organizations or, to defining the ILO mandate as distinct from any other mandate was noticeable. Yes, she confirmed, the ILO is at the center to decide which norms make sense for today and tomorrow, while other places are working on climate change or taxation or the like, but the priority for all, including the ILO, should be on advancing coherence of multilateral policies for a human-centered approach. A just transition to climate change, she said, is necessarily human-centered; and access to health and safety is human-centered.  But we are in the midst of a third “systemic crisis”, as she saw it (1919 and 1945 having been the first and second of these crises), calling once again for a “new social contract”.

Greg Vines

Let’s see. Here are the points to consider. First, I would have expected Mr. Vines to defend the current state of multilateral relationships, but in reality, it was more Ms. Kang who did this (while also describing how to build on it). What we heard from Mr. Vines, in contrast, was a specific criticism that the ILO’s multilateral relationships are “too ad hoc” right now. And yet, what that seems to mean, as he elaborated further on how to build “partnerships for success” as he put it in his written statement, is that the future work of the ILO needs to be more strategic, which is to say, more focused on world of work issues. Secondly, the implication here is that the ILO has been drawn into relationships on a lot more than just these world of work issues. His remark, to focus on world of work issues and “not anything else” even came up in the context of distinguishing collaborative from competitive action on climate change. And yet, thirdly, he also acknowledged that climate change does have a “most direct impact” on the world of work, that the ILO is under-resourced in this area and that the ILO should be increasing its resources on climate change. Elsewhere in his remarks, my fourth point, he spoke about the fact that many other international organizations are “working in parallel on our issues”, and the problem is competition for scarce resources. He specifically committed, then, to sitting down “with the heads” of these other international organizations to “fix this” problem. This does not mean, though, that everything is to be narrowed down to an existing world of work mandate. Mr. Vines does include that more collaboration is needed in support of ILO priorities and that includes building “new partnerships to support research, policy development and ILO action on the ground”. But on the whole, one has the impression that he wants to pull the ILO back from overly zealous partnering with other multilateral organizations, in contrast to some of the other candidates.

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