After 3 deferments, ILO finally decides on tobacco industry-funded projects

The headquarters of the International Labour Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo by: Dominique Nicolas / U.S. Mission Geneva / CC BY-ND

MANILA — The International Labour Organization will no longer rely on tobacco-industry funding for its projects to end child labor and promote workers’ rights in select tobacco growing communities — at least in the short term.

The ILO governing body reached the decision Thursday, upon the conclusion of its 334th session in Geneva, Switzerland. The governing body instructed ILO Director-General Guy Ryder to continue the organization’s “ongoing project-based efforts to eliminate child labour using Regular Budget Supplementary Account funds and other public funds in the short term” and “continue efforts to mobilize various sustainable sources of funding from the public and private sector with appropriate safeguards.”

This means ILO will no longer renew its public-private partnerships with the tobacco industry, but will need to look for other sources of funding for ongoing projects on addressing child labor and tobacco workers’ rights.

Anti-tobacco organizations welcomed the decision, albeit with notable caution.

“The ILO decision sends a strong message that the tobacco industry can no longer exploit this [United Nations] agency to promote its discredited charity. The tobacco industry’s handouts on child labour have not solved the more fundamental problems that force children to the fields and trap farmers in poverty, such as low tobacco leaf prices and harmful working conditions,” said Dr. Ulysses Dorotheo, executive director of the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance, in a news release sent to Devex.

ILO has long been receiving tobacco industry funding for some of its projects. The latest were two PPPs: one with Japan Tobacco International, ending next month, and the other with the tobacco-funded nonprofit Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation, which concluded in June.

The funding for both, worth $15 million in total, was aimed at ending child labor and promoting workers’ rights in tobacco-growing communities in Brazil, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.

Proponents of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, however, have called on ILO to cut its ties with the tobacco industry by no longer taking funding from them.

They argued the organization’s continuous engagement with the industry goes against the 2016 U.N. model policy issued by the U.N. interagency task force on tobacco control, of which ILO is a member. That policy includes measures such as rejecting partnerships, joint programs, nonbinding or nonenforceable agreements, and other voluntary arrangements with the tobacco industry; not granting the industry permission to use U.N. entities’ names, logos, and emblems; and avoiding conflicts of interest by not accepting payments, gifts, services, hospitality, monetary, in-kind, and research funding offered by the tobacco industry.

While nonbinding, policies have been established by several U.N. agencies to align with the “model policy,” as Devex has previously reported.

In the policy document discussed at this week’s meeting, ILO acknowledged that based on their analysis, their current PPPs with the tobacco industry run “counter to certain key provisions” in the U.N. model policy, and suggested it would “not be appropriate to renew the PPPs with the tobacco industry after their expiry in 2018.”

There was discussion of the establishment of a fund for agricultural development with necessary safeguards in place to prevent industry interference in ILO decision-making and in using ILO’s logo and name in promotion materials, but it didn’t receive enough support.

ILO is having “consultations” with different financing institutions, such as the World Bank, on potential alternative sources of funding for its projects, according to the policy document

“Today's decision is a step forward that effectively ends the ILO's financial partnerships with the tobacco industry and affirms the ILO's commitment to ending child labor. Come 2019, it will be the first time in at least eight years that the ILO will not receive direct funding from this deadly industry,”  said Taylor Billings, press officer for Corporate Accountability, a nonprofit campaigning for corporate social responsibility.

“But, the decision contains no safeguards to insulate the ILO from industry interference in the future. While the decision does say its future projects should be safe, it's entirely unclear what those safeguards are, what the process will be, or when those safeguards will go into place,” she cautioned.

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  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.