GSO Intern Report — ILO Conference 22 June 2011, by Christina House, University of Denver

Attending the 100th ILC was a unique experience because issues surrounding trade and labor typically lie outside of my area of expertise. Following the economic crisis, I had become increasingly interested in the relationship between security and the market. As the Arab Spring demonstrated, food security, commodity prices, and socio-economic conditions could unite to form a powder keg which, when stressed, explode into revolution. While initially I believed that the ILC would be narrowly focused around trade and labor relations, I was surprised at the depth of analysis and the discussion put forth throughout the conference. The three main issues that I took away from the ILC were: the notion of trade as a vehicle for development, the rising problem of youth unemployment, and the policies states implemented to mitigate crises effects. The focal point of the 100th ILC was whether trade could be a viable vehicle for development and if so, whether that development would be sustainable and green. The recent global economic and financial crisis highlighted how inter-connectedness has increased market volatility and vulnerability, especially in commodity markets. Since LDCs rely on commodities for the majority of their revenue, they remain most vulnerable to market swings. Following the global financial and economic crisis, LDCs have emerged as leading figures in the economic recovery and key players in development. Throughout the ILC, LDCs spear-headed a movement to utilize trade as a vehicle for sustainable development; focused on creating sustainable employment and environmentally considerate business practices. However, this new strategy was met with resistance by developed countries such as the United States who insist that the current strategy of trade liberalization, where trade functions as a product of development, should hold. However, the paradigm shift put forth by LDCs approaches north-south relations in a creative manner and also incorporates the challenges put forth by climate change and resource strain into a developmental model. This shift was present not only throughout the ILC, but also in UNCTAD and the World Bank’s Global Trade Strategy.

Unemployment was a prevalent theme throughout the ILC. Youth employment, however, dominated discussion due to its role in the Arab Spring as well as the aftermath of the global crisis. As many panels discussed, youth unemployment currently hovers at around 20% globally and up to 40% in specific countries. This increased sharply following the crisis and has impacted calls for a new trade regime emphasizing sustainable development. Lack of viable job options has had sincere consequences, as demonstrated by the revolutions throughout the Middle East which were driven by dire economic conditions and led by youth. Accordingly, the ILC hosted multiple panels discussing economic challenges facing the Middle East as it begins to rebuild. The challenges presented were mighty, but the discussion put forth was up to the task. Panelists emphasized the need for sustainable jobs, increased healthcare benefits, and secure access to food and clean water as the cornerstones for the new socio-economic system. Inherent within this discussion was the importance of social protection and state duty to implement and protects its workers. While many panels recognized that the transitions were state-led, none discounted the role of the international community in leading the change. As recognized by the ILO, issues of employment and sustainable development must be addressed on a global level if we wish to decrease the overwhelming poverty rate. Currently 25% of the world lives below the base poverty line and this is only increasing as resources become scarcer. A new regime without social protection is, therefore, an inadequate option moving forward from the 2008 crisis. The Arab Spring has provided a platform for social protection and sustainable development to define the emerging trade system. It has also offered international institutions a chance to change policies and habits, and create a new vision of the global order that is environmentally conscious and sustainable.

Given the challenges posed and ideas presented throughout the ILC, it was clear that the 2008 global economic and financial crisis represented a break with the current system of trade liberalization and consumption. However, the threat of a renewed crisis still looms and given the nature of politics, is an urgent priority. Therefore, I thought that it was appropriate for the ILC to include a diverse set of heads of state to speak about their country’s experience throughout the economic and financial crisis as well as discuss policy actions they took to mitigate its effects. For example, in anticipation of the crisis, Germany took steps to coordinate its policies on each level of governance to ensure cohesion and strengthen the state’s ability to implement reforms. These steps reduced job losses and damages to benefits, and allowed Germany to recover faster than any other developed nation. In Indonesia, prior to the crisis the government had placed job creation as the top financial priority. As a result, Indonesia experienced the fewest number of job losses in the world and was able to recover quickly. The array of policies presented, as well as diversity of countries present, represented a major strength for the ILC overall. Not only did the high-level figures increase the ILO’s credibility as a leading actor in international trade policy, but their speeches provided an opportunity for countries to learn from the experiences and policies of others. Discussions by the heads of state also encouraged countries to explore changes at the policy level that could prevent future crises and manage crises effects.

While the ILC encompassed a broad array of topics, the contemporary nature of issues presented provided a lens in which to view the global economic transition. The conference emphasized how society is inter-connected now more than ever and, as a result, forums facilitating discussions and multi-lateral agreements will become increasingly necessary as we tackle global issues. I thoroughly enjoyed the ILC and was pleased with its multi-disciplinary approach. The experience enhanced my own understanding of globalization and reinforced the importance of having a business when approaching a subject.