Fair globalization gathers momentum at the United Nations: An interview with ILO Director-General Juan Somavia

Article | 01 October 2004

UNITED NATIONS, New York – At a recent special event at the United Nations in New York, some thirty heads of State welcomed the report of the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, which was released earlier this year and calls for more effective multilateral action to reshape globalization to work for people. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, French President Jacques Chirac, and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva were among the world leaders who responded to the invitation of Commission co-chairs Presidents Halonen of Finland and Mkapa of Tanzania to give their support to the Commission's recommendation that globalization be made more socially fair and politically sustainable. Moderating the event in the packed ECOSOC chamber was Juan Somavia, Director-General of the ILO, which created the Commission and is coordinating the follow-up to the report. Mr. Somavia spoke with us on what's upcoming in terms of follow-up to the Commission report.

Q: Mr. Somavia, how important was the special event to the cause of creating a fairer globalization, and do you think it was a success?

A: Oh, absolutely, it was a major success. It was yet another step in following-up the Commission's report underway since it was first released. We are finding that the report is attracting a great number of people from all walks of life – from social activists, unionists and business leaders to heads of State – who have been looking for a way out of the polarized discussion and polemics that have characterized the debate on the globalization issue for many years now. From the initial positive reaction, the interest in the report's conclusions has continued to grow this year as discussions are held in many countries. This week at the UN, we were delighted to be able to discuss with world leaders the need for a fair globalization to implement the commitments made at the 2000 Millennium Summit. A key issue was finding better ways to make monetary, trade and financial policies converge on the delivery of opportunities for decent work. It is essential that the multilateral system starts to connect to the needs and aspirations of people. Not an easy task, but we made a good start, significantly right on the eve of this year's UN General Assembly as it makes preparations for the high level review of the Millennium Declaration next year.

Q: What did you think about the Secretary-General's comment that many people "feel that they are the servants of markets, when it should be the other way around"?

A: Well, he's exactly right. And that is precisely the reason the ILO convened the World Commission in the first place. It is clear that the vast majority of the people today believe globalization isn't meeting their aspirations for decent jobs and a better future for their children. In its report, the Commission has tried to move the globalization debate beyond markets and begin talking about it in terms of how it affects people.

Q: What was the main message of the special event?

A: It was very clear, in my view, unless we can make a decisive shift in reshaping the global rules and policies of trade and finance toward a fair globalization – where employment and decent work for all are placed at the heart of social and economic policies – we will quite simply fail to achieve the poverty reduction goals enshrined in the Millennium Declaration, not to speak of the risk of rising social tensions. I believe the global decent work deficit is the most pervasive security threat the world is facing.

Q: You mentioned the "follow-up" process to the report. Can you provide more details?

A: First, the ILO, the Commission members and particularly its co-chairs, Presidents (Benjamin William) Mkapa of Tanzania and (Tarja) Halonen of Finland, have undertaken to publicize and build widespread awareness of the report, as well as support for its proposals and objectives. Having already made great strides toward that objective, I see us moving now into a new phase, which is to discuss and initiate action to change the current process of globalization in line with the policy recommendations of the report. I think this week's meeting at the UN has helped greatly in moving us into that new, action-oriented phase – because the UN agencies and instruments, as well as coordinated actions among member states, are going to be critical to moving forward toward a fair globalization.

And this comes hard on the heels of the Extraordinary Summit of the African Union in Ouagadougou in September which endorsed the Commission's recommendations as a central feature of the continent's poverty reduction strategies towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals. The report is being used in a number of other regional contexts, the Organisation of American States is another example, to help develop dialogue about shaping a social dimension to globalization.

Q: What kinds of actions and changes are you thinking about?

A: Well, for one, we have to move toward making international organizations more democratic and more accountable to people. We have to ensure that the globalization process gives countries sufficient opportunities to meet their own development goals in ways that they determine work best for them. And I think it is very clear from the Commission's report that we need to move toward greater policy coherence in the multilateral system so that we can bring about a convergence in economic and social policies at the global level and more balanced support to meet national needs.

Q: To many, the term "policy coherence" might sound more like something that would be limited to trade and finance. Can you explain further what you mean?

A: Sure. What we're talking about is different. The agenda set forth in the World Commission's report focuses on achieving policy coherence at both the national and international level, around clearly defined national development objectives such as revitalizing local economies and communities, full employment and effective social protection systems. Another way of expressing this is that we should be striving to make sure that all policies converge on the goal of poverty reducing employment growth. You can see this happening in Africa now, where as I just mentioned, the heads of State at the African Union Summit in Burkina Faso earlier this month, decided to put employment at the centre of economic policies and poverty reduction strategies. A background paper on this was prepared for the Summit by 15 international agencies. This is potentially a major overhaul of the traditional way of approaching the issue of poverty eradication. It's the direction that the Commission envisioned in its report. We will follow up this recommendation of the Commission by building partnerships with other agencies to identify and exploit policy synergies.

Q: Why is this so important?

A: Look, the main failure of globalization thus far is that it is not delivering jobs where people live. If globalization is to avoid collapsing under its own weight, countries and international organizations must make employment their central policy focus. We just cannot afford to ignore the widespread call "give me a fair chance at a decent job". As well as a matter of global solidarity, entrenched poverty and unemployment is a pervasive security threat.

Q: How is the ILO supporting this agenda?

A: In a number of countries, we are embarking on pilot projects on national policy responses to globalization, including the establishment of decent work programmes at the national level, or strengthening the ones that already exist, and undertaking social and labour impact assessments of economic, trade and financial policies. Examining the social implications of these policies is indeed a key recommendation of the World Commission's report to achieve the greater goal of shifting the focus from markets to people. So we are setting out to help countries do that. But that is only the beginning of a follow-up agenda that the ILO will pursue in the years to come. Thank you for your time.