Katherine Hagen’s ILO Election Notes – as published in The Geneva Observer Briefing, 31 March 2022
Congratulations to Gilbert Houngbo. His is an historic accomplishment: the first African to be 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.
As I observed in a commentary that I wrote about all five candidates for the position before the election (available here), all 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 just two rounds of voting.
Four issues were of particular interest to me: informality (the informal economy), gender equality, multilateralism, and, without dwelling on it here, the normative future of the ILO. On all four issues, Mr. Houngbo rated well—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 need to say that the best articulation on gender equality came from the two female candidates, former French Labor Minister Pénicaud and South Korean politician Kang Kyung-wha. One can always hope that a wholehearted embrace of gender equality does not depend on the gender of the candidate. But there is still a story of gender discrimination, including in the world of work, and thus we have witnessed more women than men taking an activist role on the subject over the past few decades. 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. Both of the female candidates for the top job had comprehensive records on advancing gender equality.
Mr. Houngbo might not have as much of a record on gender equality as the others, but 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.
The Best Choice
On the other issues (and in general), 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. The fact that he garnered only one vote on the first ballot is not a reflection of his credentials, but only a signal that he had essentially dropped out of the race, given the geopolitical dynamics among the members of the ILO. If one takes into account the need for the ILO to be moving in new directions in the future, Mr Houngbo was better suited than Greg Vines.
So, onto the three other issues I chose to highlight. First, informality 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. I also think that his African experience will play an important role in where the ILO goes on this issue—given that the increase in informality or precarious employment, along with the blurring of informality with the precariousness of micro- and small enterprises and the like, are relevant concerns for everyone.
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” and for the ILO to be the “arbiter” of labor standards in trade agreements, including at the WTO. There is also the matter of other non-state actors here: the tripartite structure makes it difficult for the ILO to work with other non-state actors. 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 in South Korea). But these days, it is time for the multilateral world and the abundance of multi-stakeholder actors to be more fully united.
There is the matter of geopolitics as well. Australia and France were both bound to encounter 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 would have had some reservations with either Mr. Vines or Ms. Pénicaud—and even with Ms. Kang, for that matter.
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 health and safety, and climate change that are looming for the ILO. I also trust that he will reach out in different ways to each of his competitors—all of whom can help strengthen his tenure.