Election Must Not be Another Charade*
21st 2012, Jayati Ghosh
this month, the governing body of the International
Labour Organisation is due to elect a new director-general.
This election has not received as much attention as
the recent appointments of other institutions like the
IMF and the World Bank. Even so, it could have important
consequences for the world and most of its population.
The candidacy of Jomo Kwame Sundaram represents an important
chance for the ILO to move to centre stage in developing
strategies to counter the global turbulence and move
towards more stable, equitable and democratic paths.
The past two decades have not been particularly kind
to workers almost anywhere in the world. As corporate
capital has become much more mobile, it has been able
to shift bargaining power in its favour to a significant
extent. The threat of capital mobility has restrained
wages and other demands for workers' rights, as fear
of unemployment has become an ever-stronger disciplining
force on labour.
Workers in the global north have felt threatened by
actual and perceived competition from those in developing
countries who work for much lower wages and in much
worse conditions. Meanwhile, the workers in poorer countries
have been prevented from seeking to improve their own
conditions by the possibility of losing their jobs to
the millions of other workers available if capital shifts
location. Quite often, actual movement has not been
necessary to make this threat effective: just the sheer
possibility of capital moving elsewhere, where workers
are more "pliable" and less "demanding",
makes it harder for workers even to insist on their
legal rights in that country.
In most cases, this process has been accentuated by
changing patterns of state involvement. Governments
- themselves facing the disciplining power of capital
markets - have been reluctant to emphasise workers'
rights and fiscal pressures have led them to cut back
on public provision of essential goods and services,
even as they have had to bend over backwards to create
conditions that make their economies "attractive"
to private investors.
There is growing evidence that this strategy of profit-led
global accumulation has run its course. It is not only
that the recurrent and prolonged financial crises continue
to wreak havoc with real economies across the world.
It is also becoming clear that trajectories of economic
expansion that suppress the purchasing power of most
of the people, or enable it only through the expansion
of debt, are unsustainable. The social contract that
enabled such a trajectory for more than two decades
is breaking down: consider the recent political transitions
in Latin America, the Arab Spring, the convulsions in
So a new social compact is required, not just within
nations but internationally. For economies across the
world to be on viable and sustainable paths of growth,
they must be based more on inclusion, which means greater
concern for the expansion, stability and conditions
of employment and respect for employment rights. This
obviously requires new thinking. The good news is that
to some extent this is already happening, in several
areas of the developing world through governments and
social movements, and in public responses in the developed
We are in a time when some international institutions
can play a more significant role in creating and forging
genuinely viable alternative economic trajectories.
In fact, the International Labour Organisation is uniquely
positioned among the multilateral organisations to play
an extremely important role in forging a global consensus
around such viable alternatives. Its unusual tripartite
structure (with representation on the board from governments,
workers' organisations and employers' organisations)
allows it to become not just a forum for discussions
on such matters, but a platform for proposing and promoting
strategies of economic justice that are both productive
and socially acceptable.
That is why the leadership of the ILO is a crucial issue
for the global community. The ILO must be led by someone
who understands the complex issues around global finance
and real economic policies, has ideas about how to address
the concerns of both developing and developed countries,
and is familiar with the complexities of future problems
like climate change and demographic changes.
Fortunately, there is such a candidate among the nine
who have put themselves forward for the elections on
27 May at the ILO's governing body meeting. Jomo Kwame
Sundaram from Malaysia is currently the UN assistant
secretary-general for economic and social affairs. He
is also a widely acclaimed economist whose publications
are respected across the world, and a policy adviser
who has addressed macroeconomic issues and development
issues in many countries.
All these features will be vital if the ILO is to move
beyond "business as usual" to take on contemporary
challenges and play a productive role. Jomo's vision,
experience and commitment make him ideally suited to
take the ILO forward, adapt it to the rapidly changing
times and allow it fulfil the role that is so badly
needed in the world today.
His election would be desirable from another perspective
as well. He is from a developing country, and is extremely
familiar with the concerns of both emerging markets
and least developed countries.
We have just been through two processes of choosing
heads for two global institutions (the IMF and the World
Bank), which were effectively reduced to charades in
which the north - or rather the US and Europe together
- succeeded in pushing through their own candidates.
If most people in the world are to be represented in
such global organisations, the leadership should also
reflect this through geographical origin. This is not
just of symbolic importance: it is going to be much
harder to achieve any global consensus when the vast
majority of countries consider the dice to be so loaded.
In the case of the ILO, the best and potentially most
effective candidate - Jomo - is from a developing country.
Surely, in this election, we can hope that the result
will be different?
This article was originally published in the Guardian
on 18 May 2012 and is available at