ILO: 10 things to know about Togo’s Gilbert Houngbo, defender of a new global social pact

By Charles Djade, in Lomé
Posted on Saturday, 14 May 2022 14:18

President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo talks during the World Conservation Congress (WCC) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) held in Marseille, France 3 September 2021. Guillaume Horcajuelo/Pool via REUTERS

Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo, a former prime minister in Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé's government, will take over as head of the International Labor Organisation (ILO) next October, with the ambition of establishing a sustainable balance on a global scale.

1. Rana Plaza

The first African elected to this position, Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo is the eleventh director general of the ILO. He will succeed Guy Ryder of the United Kingdom, in office since 2012, whom he knows as well as the organisation, having been its deputy director in charge of field operations.

In May 2013, he coordinated the ILO’s response to the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. It was home to five garment factories, and the disaster killed more than 1,000 people. He succeeded in bringing all parties together to sign an agreement for compensation for victims and improved working conditions in the garment industry.

2. Former prime minister

Between 2008 and 2012, Houngbo used his skills to serve his country, Togo, as prime minister. During his tenure as prime minister, Togo reached the completion point of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, which resulted in an 82% reduction in the country’s external debt, amounting to $1.8bn. According to our information, it was he who called into his government, in 2008, current prime minister Victoire Tomegah-Dogbe to occupy the newly created ministry of grassroots development. A man of dialogue, with a great capacity to listen, he has had to manage several political crises.

He also set up the Institut National d’Assurance Maladie, which will eventually allow all Togolese to benefit from access to quality health care. He has also helped Togo to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

3. Faure Gnassingbé

The end of his term as prime minister in 2012 was in no way a sign of any erosion of Faure Gnassingbé’s confidence in him. It was also thanks to the head of state that he was nominated for the presidency of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in 2017, a position to which he was reappointed in 2021.

To be elected to the head of the ILO, Houngbo also benefited from discreet lobbying by the Togolese president, whose actions were carried out on the ground by Robert Dussey, the foreign affairs minister. The latter held negotiations and meetings at the level of the African Union, which finally accepted Houngbo as the African candidate.

4. Native of Agbandi

Houngbo, 61, was born in Agbandi, in central Togo. This technocrat grew up there and likes to recall that he experienced the rigours imposed by extreme poverty in rural areas. Hence his ardent fight for social justice, decent work and equal opportunities for all, in all the positions he has held.

5. Skilled negotiator

With more than 30 years of experience in international development, he has extensive experience in the United Nations system, international financial institutions and organisations, and the private sector.

A skilled political negotiator and determined leader of institutional reforms and organisational restructuring, Houngbo is presented as a highly committed leader who combines a results-oriented work philosophy with strong personal integrity, according to those close to him and his former colleagues.

6. Interim at IFAD

Before taking the helm next October at the ILO, Houngbo will manage day-to-day affairs as president of IFAD. He took over in April 2017 as its sixth president, and was reappointed to a second term in February 2021. He had announced his intention to focus on climate-change adaptation and the fight to preserve biodiversity and promised that each year 40 million people would see their incomes increase by at least 20% by 2030.

To achieve these goals, he will have to draw on IFAD’s twelfth replenishment (IFAD12), which amounts to $1.55bn and will cover the period 2022-2024.

7. A Banker at UNDP

He holds a master’s degree in business administration from the Université du Bénin (now the Université du Lomé), Togo, and a graduate diploma in specialised accounting from the Université du Québec (Canada), and is a member of the Canadian Institute of Chartered Professional Accountants. He worked at the Banque Internationale pour le Mali, a subsidiary of the Moroccan group Attijariwafa Bank, as director of finance, then at Price Waterhouse, now PwC, in Canada.

He also worked for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) as controller and chief financial officer from 1998 to 2003, and as chief financial information and trust fund manager two years earlier. In this area, he has extensive skills in audit and compliance, internal controls and oversight, mergers and acquisitions, financial restructuring, and business case and viability analysis.

8. Kofi Annan

Ghana’s Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations who died in August 2018, was one of Houngbo’s supporters throughout his career. He appointed him in December 2005 as undersecretary general, assistant administrator of the UNDP and director of its regional bureau for Africa. The Togolese citizen, who had been UNDP’s chief of staff in New York since 2003, has been responsible for 1,500 staff members in 45 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

9. Development and governance

Since 2020, Houngbo has served as chair of the board of directors of the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI), a New York-based nonprofit organisation with the goals of promoting sustainable and inclusive development and supporting states in the governance and management of natural resources.

For the organisation’s president and CEO, Suneeta Kaimal, Houngbo’s selection was motivated by his “passionate belief that good governance in the extractive industries is essential to achieving sustainable development and an equitable energy transition.” She continued: “With his track record in the pursuit of equity and justice across Africa and around the world, Gilbert Houngbo is both an inspiration and a major asset to our cause at this critical juncture.”

10. A new social contract

The new ILO director-general will be the standard bearer for those who look to the organisation to work with governments, employers and workers to provide social protection for four billion people worldwide and to promote access to employment for the 200 million women and men who are deprived of it. Not to mention the mission to free the 160 million children forced to work.

“The progress made in recent decades in social justice must be preserved and protected, and global solutions to new challenges and opportunities must be centred on human, environmental, economic and societal values. In short, a new global social contract is needed,” he promised when he was running for the ILO’s leadership.

Through this “new social pact”, Houngbo plans to put in place a “socially sustainable” anti-crisis mechanism in conjunction with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He hopes to ensure that institutional support programs fully integrate all dimensions of social justice, particularly in times of crisis.

He also intends to defend a universal social protection programme, as well as an initiative to support businesses in their transition to a green and digital economy. Finally, the creation of a support mechanism within the ILO for countries negotiating social provisions in the framework of trade and investment agreements has been announced.

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