In this post, GG2022 fellow Tana Johnson calls for governments, international bureaucrats, and the public to have a frank and proactive discussion about whether and how personnel from the UN and other organizations should be involved in designing new international institutions.
In our complicated and interconnected world, the need for international institutions is obvious: someone needs to coordinate policymaking for problems that transcend national borders. But the shortcomings of international institutions are just as obvious. Often, those shortcomings are artifacts of institutional design: because international institutions change slowly and rarely die, the way in which they are first set up will shape how they operate for many years to come.
One of the most important factors is who has a say in how institutions are first set up. For example, a recently released GG2022 report notes that the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) is the world’s main institution for coordinating international energy security and consumption – and yet China, India, and other major consuming countries are not IEA members. This omission stems from the way the IEA was designed during the international oil crisis of the mid-1970s. Industrialized countries needed a quick way to set up a new international institution to respond to Arab oil embargoes, so they agreed to create the IEA in collaboration with staff from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). As a result, a country must be an OECD member in order to be eligible for IEA membership. But because OECD membership has always been limited to industrialized democracies, the IEA’s membership has been limited in the same way. Although the International Energy Agency does reach out to countries such as China and India, its formal interactions with non-democracies or developing countries are still constrained by the way the IEA was linked to OECD staff in the midst of a crisis 40 years ago.
Artifacts of institutional design are not always problematic – but they always matter. For instance, when international bureaucrats from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) helped to create the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the 1980s, they insisted on a central role for their partners in the scientific community. Similarly, when personnel from organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) crafted the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in the 1990s, they made sure that civil society activists had a voice alongside member-governments in the new organization’s governing board. Today, this means that the reputation of the IPCC or UNAIDS depends on how favorably policymakers and the public view climate scientists or AIDS activists. When that view is positive, the institution commands authority. But when that view sours – as it recently has in the US and elsewhere – wary policymakers will try to sidestep or even undermine these international institutions.
This is part of a wider problem. When the international community becomes dissatisfied with international institutions, it rarely musters the energy to tackle the tough job of revitalizing or dismantling them. Instead, we overcome inertia just enough to pursue modest tweaks (such as allowing the IEA to reach out to non-member countries) or to build yet another institution. Often, inertia is overcome only during crises – hardly providing ample time for reflection and careful experimentation in institutional design.
It is no wonder, then, that the expanding ranks of international institutions never quite have the resources they would need to solve all the problems we heap on them. It is also no wonder that UN personnel or other international bureaucrats often step in to help craft new pieces of international bureaucracy. In fact, a staggering 65 percent of international intergovernmental organizations were not crafted by national governments alone, but instead were designed with input from unelected international bureaucrats employed in the United Nations and elsewhere.
This has to make us stop and think. We know that institutional design matters, because how things are built has a lasting impact on how they will operate far into the future. In addition, observers already worry that “democratic deficits” plague global governance structures, since international institutions are far removed from the attention and control of the general public. Now, we discover that unelected international bureaucrats have a widespread (but often overlooked) role in designing new international institutions. In pursuit of democratic ideals and better global governance, must this trend be stopped?
To answer this, here are three things that governments, international bureaucrats, and the public must consider.
First, the involvement of international bureaucrats in institutional design is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, governments face more and more problems that require policy coordination across national borders, and international bureaucrats often possess relevant expertise and experiences. Furthermore, because people working in the UN and other organizations are not subject to the demands of a narrow electoral constituency, they are well positioned to take actions on behalf of a wider transnational public.
Second, their involvement does lengthen delegation chains, and that complicates accountability and effectiveness. True, international policymaking tasks are handed off from national publics, to national governments, and then to an intricate web of international intergovernmental organizations. But what is less recognized is that these tasks are then passed around within that web, as international bureaucrats in pre-existing organizations participate in crafting and delegating to new organizations. These bodies are hard to change or eliminate, so the web expands. With an expanding web of international institutions, the need for resources and oversight grows, even while the supply of resources and oversight dwindles.
Third, there are ways to curb or enhance the proliferation of international intergovernmental organizations. Generally, such organizations are rooted in treaties, charters, and other legal documents. Such documents are notorious for vague wording that can accommodate diverse interests, and they rarely contain passages that speak to international bureaucrats’ envisioned role in institutional design negotiations. Even if governments do not have the wherewithal to amend existing charters, they can begin inserting clauses in new charters. On the one hand, to prevent international bureaucrats from advocating and influencing the creation of offshoot organizations, governments must outline rules about whether and when international bureaucrats can have a say in institutional design. On the other hand, to guarantee that international bureaucrats’ expertise or experiences are brought to bear in institutional design negotiations, governments must specify the institutional design rights and responsibilities of personnel from pre-existing organizations.
Either approach would move away from charters that are vague or silent about the involvement of international bureaucrats in institutional design. And this would compel governments, international bureaucrats, and the public to have a frank and proactive discussion about how international institutions could be designed better– not just in larger numbers.
Tana Johnson is a GG2022 fellow and a faculty member in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. She is writing a book about international bureaucrats’ role and impact in institutional design. This column is part of a series from the GG2022 fellows. For more information on the GG2022 program, please see here.