Gilbert Houngbo, the former Prime Minister of Togo and the current President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, has set his sights on a new goal – to head the International Labour Organization (ILO). In this interview with Omar Ben Yedder, he explains how his life-long quest for social justice has provided the moral compass that shaped his career.
Gilbert Houngbo, like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at the World Trade Organization, Makhtar Diop at the International Finance Corporation, and Tedros Adhanom at the World Health Organization, is one of the growing number of African talents at the helm of major international organisations.
A seasoned professional, who combines, according to those close to him, attention to detail with rare teambuilding abilities, Gilbert Houngbo rose swiftly within the UN hierarchy to become Director of the UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Africa in 2005 under the then Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Three years later, Houngbo decided to leave UNDP, since Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbé had asked him to assume the duties of the country’s Prime Minister, a post left vacant by the resignation of former incumbent, Komlan Mally.
At this point in time, Togo’s government was in need of a pragmatic, modern and forward thinking leader as it embarked on a period of reforms; these were the credentials that Gilbert Houngbo had on offer.
He applied his talents to strategically repositioning his country, located between Ghana and Benin, as a reliable, agile and flexible business hub in the region.
At this time, the country had been lagging behind its neighbours, and the economy had stagnated. Houngbo responded to this challenge by inculcating a more business-friendly climate, and by starting Togo’s transformation into a regional logistics hub.
In doing so he argues that “reform and transformative change inevitably require you to set exacting standards and ensure that people are not satisfied with just the status-quo.”
He served as Togo’s prime minister for four years, before re-joining, in 2013, the UN as Deputy Director-General for Field Operations and Partnerships at the ILO. In this position, he oversaw the ILO’s global field structure, the organisation’s development cooperation programme, and its involvement in multilateral processes. Here, he was able to rely on his diplomatic skills and organisational qualities to find solutions where others only saw problems.
After four years at the ILO Gilbert Houngbo was, in 2017, elected president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). In this capacity, UN secretary-general António Guterres asked him to serve on the Advisory Committee of the 2021 Food Systems Summit. Gilbert Houngbo presides over IFAD until this day.
Given the formidable challenge at IFAD and in global agriculture today, why is Gilbert Houngbo now aiming to lead the ILO?
For Houngbo, both organisations share a similar mission: “Both agencies, IFAD and the ILO, pursue similar goals that both are close to my heart: the fight for social justice and the promise to leave no-one behind. IFAD targets the rural poor, the ILO targets the working poor; IFAD works through loans and grants, the ILO creates international law and provides advice and expertise.
“The ILO owns far less financial power than IFAD, but it has the mandate and competence to rewrite the rules of the world of work. I find this fascinating, as it has the potential to better the lives of all of us, and notably the poorest on the planet.”
Escaping the poverty trap
Gilbert Houngbo was raised in a rural village in Togo, and he attributes his success to a good education, to the right mentoring he received during his childhood, and to hard work. He never forgot the challenge to make ends meet in the rural environment where he grew up.
He recalls: “To reduce poverty in such a situation, we must enable the small farmers, the rural communities, to escape from the poverty trap in which they are permanently caught.
“We must keep in mind that 90% of the world’s poorest live in rural areas. If you consider Africa, 80% of the protein intake is produced by rural smallholders and yet they are the ones most at risk from food insecurity because they often must sell their meagre harvest to pay school fees or cover health expenditures. The rural poor, especially the women, are always the first to be affected by external shocks.”
“I cannot accept a situation where you witness people dying of hunger or deprivation even though they could survive even with the same resources they have,” he says. “That’s really where my drive to implement changes comes from.
“But let us not forget that poverty exists in urban areas as well, especially in the informal economy, which provides livelihoods to over half of the global population. Here, the mandate and expertise of the ILO comes to play.”
Jobs, jobs, jobs
It is a simple truth that national wealth must grow before it can be redistributed. But there is a need, Houngbo argues, to put rules, systems and institutions that guarantee the fair distribution of the nation’s wealth, so that growth enhances social justice.
“I have always believed that governments are not there to create jobs but rather to facilitate job creation. Jobs, essentially, have to come from the private sector.”
Whilst in government, his objective was to improve the country’s business environment to support both domestic and international investment.
Even at IFAD, he says “my mission has been to encourage investment and to create jobs for the youth – and the private sector was a key actor in implementing this strategy.”
“But the private sector must not get a free pass. Business must fully respect the ILO’s fundamental principles and rights at work,” he asserts.
He feels that the best instrument to advance social justice and ensure responsible business practices is social dialogue.
“Through social dialogue, which involves governments, employers and workers, we can promote both – economic growth and job creation, while ensuring rights at work and human rights in general. The issue of job creation – ensuring access to decent work for all women and men – is central to our global efforts of tackling poverty, as called for by the SDGs.”
A modernised book of rules for the world of work
When asked what changes he would make at the ILO, Houngbo says that currently the organisation is set up for problems relating to the old work.
“The organisation is at a turning point right now, with a profound shift in what constitutes work and how we work. My vision for the ILO is very much anchored in the need to find innovative global solutions to the changes that occur in the world of work.”
Hs says that The ILO has developed numerous conventions, recommendations and protocols, but whilst some are up to date many have been made obsolete by the changing world of work.
He is referring to the platform economy, the rise of digital technology and automation, teleworking arrangements, and ever more complex supply chains. He feels there is a void which the ILO is in a unique position to fill by creating a new set of, modernised, labour instruments.
“The rule book is being rewritten and ILO needs to be at the centre of this conversation to ensure that workers and enterprises benefit from these new instruments.”
A global social justice coalition
Houngbo thinks that the next major project is to lay the foundations for a global social justice coalition that will drive the struggle against inequality, exclusion and marginalisation. Of chief importance in this effort is the establishment of a universal social protection scheme where every citizen is guaranteed a minimum package of social security.
“We need to have minimum packages for social protection, be it guaranteeing primary school education to all girls and boys; or minimum healthcare for all. We also have to safeguard women’s and men’s equal access to health care, including women’s access to maternal healthcare,” Houngbo argues.
He also feels he’s got what it takes to ensure that the developed and developing world work in synch.
“Covid-19 showed us once again the gap between developed and developing countries, and the difference in firepower they each had in terms of supporting populations as economies closed down; I believe developed countries spent 16 or 17 trillion dollars to cushion the impact of Covid whereas low income countries barely spent four trillion” he recalls.
“The ILO has a key role to play in putting in place universal social protection so that anyone who needs protection can access it at any time, thus closing the social protection gap between countries with high and low income levels” he argues.
“This requires innovation, creativity and cooperation with other multilateral organisations such as the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, the WHO, and the regional development finance institutions. This is, in a nutshell, what I mean by global social justice coalition.”
Does Houngbo still believe in multilateralism?
“Actually, I am very optimistic,” he stresses. “Let me give you two points. The first is that multilateralism remains indispensable to secure international peace, international security and international sustainable development. To succeed in an interconnected world we must cooperate and we must give importance to both social and political dialogue. And the way to do it is through the multilateral system.”
But he adds that it is important that the multilateral organisations should not just be a place for negotiation or discussion, but a place where decisions are taken and an instrument for action.
Citing the issue of vaccine inequity, he says that the multilateral system needs to show that it can be the vehicle for greater international co-operation, and for a “system that ensures social justice at the global level.”
He then comes to the second point, that of transparency and accountability: “We also need to review the way the multilateral organisations currently operate and ask ourselves what we can do better, how we can be more effective. Taxpayers have a right to know.”
Across the globe including Africa we have seen in the last two years rising social unrest; is he worried where we are heading?
“I honestly think that the world needs a new social contract and that the ILO, with its unique tripartite structure that comprises the actors of the real economy – governments, employers and workers – has an important part to play in formulating this contract, whose objective is to advance social justice.”
The overwhelming challenge of our day is, of course, climate change which is impacting the poorest most. As with everything else, it requires a holistic solution, hence the importance of a multi-stakeholder, multilateral approach.
“Unless we look at these problems holistically, there will be greater inequality and this will inevitably lead to greater social unrest,” he adds.
“Right now, many indicators are going in the wrong direction in terms of inequality; we must stop and reverse this trend. For example, the unrest in the Sahel is largely caused by hunger, poverty and desperation, which, to a large extent, are exacerbated by climate change. We need a multi-pronged approach to address these challenges.”
Houngbo nevertheless remains optimistic that Africa can replicate the successes of other continents in lifting their populations out of poverty.
What will be critical, for Africa and the world at large, he concludes, “is that you need to create a conducive environment for growth and sustainability. And that will require a new and reinvigorated social contract to provide coordinated stability and shared prosperity. In brief, to reinforce the fabric of our societies. The ILO is ideally placed to lead this effort.”