Gilbert Houngbo: Meet the first African to head UN labour body

Houngbo started his term as director-general of the International Labour Organization on Saturday, taking over the ILO leadership from British trade unionist Guy Ryder

The former Togolese Prime Minister, Gilbert Houngbo was on Friday (30 September) given ceremonial keys to the International Labour Organization (ILO), making him the first African to head the organisation.

Houngbo started his term as director-general of the International Labour Organization on Saturday, taking over the ILO leadership from British trade unionist Guy Ryder, who is stepping down after 10 years.

“It is indeed a proud yet humbling experience to stand here as the first African recipient of these three keys,” Houngbo said after Ryder handed them over marking the change of leadership.

“It is testimony… to the unfaltering determination of an entire region that the ILO should continue its struggle to make decent work a global reality,” he added.

The ILO is unique in the U.N. system in that its 187 member states are equally represented by governments, employers and workers.

Three keys, for that tripartite nature, were needed to open the gates of its first purpose-built headquarters in Geneva. Houngbo, 61, was elected by member states in March.

“I take up office at a difficult moment in history. A moment of unparalleled uncertainty for our generation and deep-felt doubt for what the future might hold,” he said.

Headquartered in Geneva, the ILO aims to promote rights at work, encourage good employment opportunities, enhance social protection and strengthen dialogue on work-related issues.


Gilbert F. Houngbo was born in Togo in 1961 and has spent more than 35 years working to improve the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people, using his extensive experience in political affairs, international development, diplomacy and financial management.

He obtained an advanced degree in business management from the University of Lomé, Togo, and a degree in accounting and finance from the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (Canada). He is a member of the Canadian Institute of Chartered Professional Accountants.

Gilbert F. Houngbo joined Price Waterhouse in Canada in 1986 and worked with them until 1993.

Between 1994 and 1996 he served as Director of Finance at the International Bank of Mali, before moving to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), where he held several posts, including as Head of Financial Reporting and Trust Fund Management, Comptroller and Director of Finance and Administration, Chief of Staff, and Assistant Secretary-General and Regional Director for Africa.

In 2008, Gilbert F. Houngbo was asked to serve as Prime Minister of Togo, a position he held until 2012.

He returned to the United Nations System in 2013 as Deputy Director-General for Field Operations and Partnerships at the International Labour Office.

In 2017 he was appointed as the sixth President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), based in Rome, Italy. He was re-elected to the post in 2021. He also chaired UN-Water, which coordinates the efforts of more than 30 UN entities and international organizations working on water and sanitation issues.

In 2021, he was invited to become a board member of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), and to chair the Board of the Natural Resource Governance Institute.

In March 2022 Houngbo was elected by the ILO’s governing body as the organisation’s 11th director-general, becoming the first African to hold the position. He took up the role on 1 October 2022.

Houngbo is married and has three children.

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