Gilbert Houngbo from Togo was the first candidate to be interviewed. He started by explaining his perspective growing up with hardship and poverty in Togo and his determination to address the hardship and poverty of others. He touched on the current trends (pandemic, climate change, deglobalization) for which the ILO is well placed to mobilize people-centered action toward a “new global social contract”. He drew on his extensive experiences in the UN system specializing in development, his four years as a DDG at the ILO and his current leadership of IFAD, as well as his four-year tenure as a prime minister in his home country of Togo.
Mr. Houngbo spoke well about his experiences and perspective on this issue. First, he acknowledged that the ILO has done a lot of work in this area, for which a first step for him as D-G would be to use that knowledge base and to look at its “different dimensions”. He described what he did as prime minister in Togo, to organize the informal sector, for people in the informal sector to “have a voice” on policy issues and then to “harness the technology available” for it – as in Uber. Beyond that, he listed option of more incentives to encourage social protections and using tax policy in a “mindful” way – and, he continued, to “fight corruption” that increases informality! So I was impressed. Here is someone who understands the African context and the developmental challenges, who has worked at the UN and UNDP for several years, at the ILO (albeit briefly) and at IFAD, where he described the fight against inequality (and informality) in rural areas especially affecting women and child labor.
On gender equity, I was especially attentive to the nuances – or their absence. In the case of Mr. Houngbo, the issue came up primarily in terms of internal management. Although there is no reference to any specific work on gender equity in his biography or platform, he did respond to a question from the Barbados representative that he recognized that there are gender-related senior management problems in all four regions. He specifically cited the overall statistic that only 28% of P5 and above at the ILO are women, that at IFAD he has ensured gender parity at the senior levels and that he is committed to a parity goal for the ILO. He also specifically mentioned the importance of implementing the UN-wide policies against sexual exploitation. So fair enough. Other than that, he did make specific reference in his platform about decent work and social justice deficits affecting “Women and girls, especially in the rural sector”. And he spoke about the specific plight of women and child labor in the rural sector in his work at IFAD. One could hope for more, but OK.
On multilateralism, Mr. Houngbo’s views and platform are more 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.
The Normative Future
Finally, on the fourth issue, the normative future of the ILO, the Governing Body members naturally asked him a lot of questions – the “ceasefire” between employers and workers on the “right to strike” issue, the varied concerns about the nature and quantity of standard-setting, but also about their rates of ratification, implementation and oversight by the ILO’s supervisory machinery. Mr. Hounbgo’s response to the first of these questions was to agree that the right to strike was one of the issues that need to be brought to closure, without going into any further detail about this. One might conclude from this that he had not been directly involved in any of the debate on this issue.
Beyond that, his priority was on the implementation and ratification of standards rather than on either standard setting or the supervisory machinery. In this regard, he explained how he would start by “modernizing” the system, with his proposal on the ILO as an arbiter in trade agreements given as an example. Later, he spoke about modernizing the standards themselves, praising the current work on a review mechanism for cleaning up existing standards and supporting an integrated approach with Workers and Employers sitting together – but also drawing on the “three major pillars” of economic, social and environmental concerns for an “integrated approach”, but with no specific mention of the Governments. He gave as examples what is already an ongoing focus on biological and chemical hazards and perhaps also a new standard on e-waste management. He also mentioned the gig economy without elaborating further on what he thought about it. (The “digital” economy was, however, mentioned in his written statement as an area where new standards may need to be developed.) And in several other places during the public interview, he referred to the challenges of corporate accountability in forced labor and supply chains, and he specifically repeated the proposal in his opening statement for a special program on the “transborder” dimension of ILO Convention 29 on forced labor.
What stands out in his candidacy: A strong compassion for universal social protection, a commitment to “redynamite multilateralism” and a “Global Coalition for Social Justice”.