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First African heads ILO

BY: Mary Mensah
Gilbert Houngbo
Gilbert Houngbo

A former Prime Minister of Togo, Gilbert Houngbo, has been elected the 11th Director-General of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and will become the first African to lead the UN agency.

After two rounds of voting, the ILO's governing body elected the 61-year-old to succeed the British trade unionist, Guy Ryder, who steps down as Director-General at the end of September, after 10 years in the job.

"You have made history," Houngbo told the governing body after the election. "I am deeply and absolutely honoured to be the first representative of the Africa region to be selected to lead the ILO after 103 years."

Ghana’s Mary Chinery-Hesse, OSG, an international civil servant and diplomat, is the first female Deputy Director-General of the ILO.

Five candidates

Houngbo was chosen from among five candidates and had been seen in a strong position after the African Union threw its weight behind him.

The four other candidates for the post of ILO Director-General were: Kang Kyung-wha (South Korea), formerly Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea, Deputy Director-General of International Organisations for Korea and UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Mthunzi Mdwaba (South Africa), formerly Employers’ Vice-Chairperson of the ILO Governing Body and Vice-President to the ILO; Muriel Pénicaud (France), currently the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of France to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and former Minister of Labour of France, and Greg Vines (Australia), who is currently Deputy Director-General of the ILO, with responsibility for Management and Reform, and former Minister (Labour), Australian Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva and Chair of the ILO Governing Body.

Houngbo contested as the current head of the Rome-based International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and enjoyed strong backing on the labour side.

He had previously held several high-level positions within the UN system, such as Finance Director at the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and Deputy Director-General of the ILO itself from 2013 to 2017.

Secret ballot, dramatic shift

The ILO, the oldest specialised UN agency, has 187 member states, which are, uniquely in the UN system, represented by governments, employers and workers, and its governing body counts 56 members, with half of them representing governments and a quarter each representing employers and workers.

The organisation said Houngbo received 30 votes in the second-round voting, securing the majority. Penicaud received 23, Kang two and Mdwaba one.

After the first round, Vines was eliminated.

Houngbo will take the ILO helm on October 1 and will have his work cut out as the organisation strives to adapt its norms to a world of work rapidly transforming due to evolving technologies.

His election marks a dramatic shift for the ILO, which has, since its founding in 1919, been led by men only from Europe or the Americas.

Rich symbolism

In his first address after the vote, Houngbo hailed the outcome, saying: "The outcome of this election carries a rich symbolism," adding that it "fulfils the aspirations of a young African, a young African boy whose humble upbringing turned into a lifelong quest for social justice".

"My election as director-general takes place during a troubled moment in history, at a moment of uncertainty for what the future may hold," he acknowledged, adding: "The world needs an ILO that is capable of solving real-life problems of the working people and the enterprises."

He said he would be the director-general of nobody and the director-general of everybody and promised to represent the voices of governments, employers and workers alike from all regions across the world.

“I commit to represent the voices of those who rely on us in the ILO,” he said.