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Improvise, Adapt, Overcome

Can Our International Organisations Survive Contemporary Challenges?

By Shimona Mohan

At the onset of the post-war period, a collaboration of major powers, mainly the US and several countries of Europe, arose into a cooperative alliance system to ‘reverse incipient divisive nationalist trends on the continent’, in the words of Dean Acheson. [1] In the seventy odd years since then, the seeds sown in the form of mainly security alliances and aid networks have grown into a number of international and intergovernmental organisations across the globe. But have these IOs grown so much that they cannot grow any more? Some political scientists believe that they have lost track of their true purpose and exercise power autonomously in ways unintended and unanticipated by states at their creation. [2] So now, one of the biggest challenges that these IOs must overcome is how to adapt and stay relevant in a rapidly changing world, both with respect to their foundational purposes as well as in relation to current realities.

Socially, it is essential for IOs to understand what kind of issues they should be focusing on. Alleging to work for the betterment of the world without a clear idea about what people actually expect from them is an exercise in futility, and undermines both the IOs’ measures as well as their level of reliability perceived by those whom they claim to have helped. Regular surveys and data collection from areas where IOs believe they may be required to step in is a necessity, and should be coupled with research about the best ways to tackle the situation at hand. The United Nations, for instance, as it advances into the 75th year of its establishment, has planned to initiate a ‘global conversation about the future of the planet’ via dialogues that will be held in various social settings around the world from January 2020, ranging from classrooms to parliaments, from boardrooms to villages. [3] Their aim is to collate issues that matter the most to everyone into a world vision for 2045, and spark innovative solutions to them. While a great initiative in theory, the hope is that it will be just as impressive in practice as well.

Economically, IOs are at the risk of facing considerable funding cuts as most nations begin to value their own nationalistic interests over global interests. This is amplified if the major economies of the world do not see eye-to-eye on a number of issues, and would thus rather spend their money on their own policies than invest in a global policy that could in any way benefit their rival. Moreover, IOs like the UN spend an inordinate amount of their funds on their offices and staff [4], so much so that the funding cuts forced them to reduce on services like liquor, water pitchers, room service, etc. before anything else. [5] The change that seems most apt in this context is a thorough revision of the budget of IOs, so that less is spent on frivolities and opulence and more on their mandates. If countries, especially big contributors like the United States, halt or reduce their funding to these IOs because of their enormous budgets, there is a good chance that the IOs will lose their undisputed authority and become optional service routes for powerful nations instead of representative platforms for at least most, if not all, nations.

Politically, the policy gridlock faced by a number of IOs is a huge source of hindrance for them in acting to their full potential. According to late political scientist David Held, the causes for this impasse include the emergence of multipolarity in the world order, reluctance to take equal responsibility for major transnational problems, institutional inertia and fragmentation. [6] In a manner of speaking, the world seems to be going backward instead of forward in terms of transnational cooperation. He pointed out that the paths to change would have to involve pressure from either social activism by the people, from the heads of powerful states, or from the IO’s own authority. [7] However, the road to this change would also have to be mapped out, specific to the context in which they are to be applied. Furthermore, I believe pressures from within the organisation should be the preferred modus operandi, because any other method leads to some amount of diminution of the IOs’ authority and autonomy of action.

Formal intergovernmental organisations have been around for the better part of a century, but they have always been dynamic entities. Limitless conjectures can be made about the possibility of their change for better or for worse, which is also hard to do because there is no objective ‘better’ or ‘worse’ that encompasses all nations within its fold. Thus, IOs turning into Frankenstein’s monsters for some nations is a real possibility. [8] On the flip side, I imagine the malleable characteristic of IOs is what has kept them around and valuable for so many years. As long as they keep improvising, adapting and overcoming contemporary global challenges, their future, and from an optimistic perspective our future, should be secured.


[1] Ikenberry G.J., After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars (2001)

[2] Barnett N.M. and Finnemore M., The Politics, Power, and Pathologies of International Organizations (1999)

[3] We need to talk: UN gears up for 75th anniversary with Global Conversations
https://news.un.org/feed/view/en/story/2019/10/1049961

[4] UN wasting money https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/4CHcY4XzKFrTy2BDJrbk40V/un-wasting-money

[5] On the Wagon: U.N. Cuts Back on Liquor, Interpreters, and Water Pitchers

[6] Global gridlock: how to overcome the crisis in international institutions https://medium.com/funda%C3%A7%C3%A3o-fhc/global-gridlock-how-to-overcome-the-crisis-in-international-institutions-8f692b78d4b7

[7] Ibid

[8] Guzman A., International Organizations and the Frankenstein Problem, (2013)

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