Early View Article - Making global public policy work: A survey of international organization effectiveness

Making global public policy work: A survey of international organization effectiveness

Do international organizations (IOs) actually help address global problems? This question is of major concern for global governance scholars and policy makers, yet few existing studies review issues of effectiveness across a range of different issue areas. This paper generates comparative insights on IO performance across seven policy domains, namely climate change, development, finance, investment, migration, security, and trade. Based on a detailed expert survey, we consider how key IOs in these issue areas perform across three different measures of effectiveness: constitutive effectiveness, compliance, and goal achievement. We also investigate causal claims on effectiveness, exploring how IO institutional design – and in particular measures of authority – influence their ability to shape policy outcomes. Taking stock of the distribution of authority across issue areas and policy functions, we ask whether highly formalized, deeply constraining institutional arrangements have a consistently stronger impact on state behaviour or whether less formalized institutions with fewer discretionary powers can also contribute to the effective implementation of internationally coordinated policies. Finally, we identify key cross-cutting challenges for global governance effectiveness, including political conflict and politicization, concerns related to legitimacy and representation, and growing problem complexity.

Policy Implications

  • Improving our understanding of what conditions the effectiveness of international organizations (IO) is key to enhancing our collective ability to address pressing global problems. More comparative analysis is needed to clarify the effect of institutional design on IO effectiveness across different issue areas, with a particular focus on how the level and distribution of formal authority influences the ability of IOs to shape policy outcomes.
  • States have been reluctant to relinquish formal competencies to IOs, especially across policy functions such as compliance monitoring and enforcement. However, IO performance often depends on de facto and not de jure authority, which provides possibilities for IOs to explore alternative pathways towards effectiveness that do not depend on formal, prescriptive regulation and direct enforcement.
  • In some issue areas, a shift towards more facilitative implementation approaches promises to open up such indirect pathways of influence, for example, through greater reliance on transparency mechanisms or efforts to catalyse broad-based action by non- or sub-state actors (‘orchestration’). Moreover, IOs can use their comparatively strong agenda-setting powers to establish themselves as a focal node within a given issue area. However, this will require consistent high-level leadership within the organization as well as support from sympathetic states, including the provision of reliable funding.
  • There is no ‘one size fits all’ blueprint for institutional design. Those seeking to reform international institutions need to pay careful attention to context, such as problem structure, the risk of politicization, or the degree of regime fragmentation. Often a careful balancing act will be required to ensure IOs continue to enjoy legitimacy and broad-based support while also being able to deliver ambitious global public policies.


Photo by Ann H