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Why Member States and Donors Create Pathologies in International Organizations

Together with my colleague Vytautas Jankauskas, I have blogged over at the E-IR blog about our research on the United Nations. The article is titled “How Well-meaning Donors Create the UN Machinery They Don’t Like“.

For me, this blog post condenses a few of the ideas that have evolved in my head over the past five years of research in the DFG Research Unit “International Public Administration“.

For the past 20 years, there has been talk about the “pathologies of international organizations“, notably their bureaucracies. But I think the focus is wrong. The longer I study international organizations, their politics, and their administrations—in particular all aspects related to their financing and resource mobilization— the more I am convinced that a lot of what’s “wrong” with IOs results from member states and donors own pathologies, not the international administrations.

Until 2014, I spent a lot of time investigating all corners of EU institutions and EU politics (see for example “The European Union Intergrity System“), and the most problematic domains were the ones dominated by member states, e.g. the Council and European Council. Since 2015, I’ve done a lot of field research on the UN, ILO, IOM, UNESCO, UNHCR, UNRWA and WHO and looked into many more UN organizations from my desk at Geschwister-Scholl-Institut in Munich.

And wherever I look, most domains where these agencies are said to fail to deliver, or to reform, or to be accountable, member states and donors are not far. Whether individual states or all of them collectively in often arcane intergovernment decision-making bodies, they are usually at the heart of systemic failures. At best, it’s a combination of member state and bureaucratic failure, as we have shown in the case of UNESCO’s budget crisis.

The sub-title of my book “Managing Money and Discord in the UN” (Oxford University Press 2019, with Klaus H. Goetz)— “Budgeting and Bureaucracy“—captures this realization. In my research on UN budgeting in New York, it became obvious pretty quickly that it’s micro-managing member states in the UNGA’s Fifth Committee and the weird politics of the ACABQ that produce a lot of unnecessary bureaucratic work for the UN administration.

In other cases, such as the World Health Organization, the dependence on voluntary contributions requires the setting up of entire fundraising departments. Those existing also UNHCR, UNRWA and many other UN agencies (see an overview in this conference paper from 2015. At the same time, evaluation units and all kinds of evaluation procedures blossom in the UN in response to every increasing accountability requirements as new research from my colleagues Steffen Eckhard and Vytautas Jankauskas shows.

Thus, bureaucracy increases because of member states financing, their urge for micromanagment and the resulting reporting obligations for UN bureaucracies. The challenge is that there’s no simple solution to all of that. But it’s clearly not the UN’s administration that can address existing pathologies alone.

In our blog post, Vytas and I conclude that fixing the so-called “broken” UN bureaucracy therefore can only be solved by ultimately fixing multilateralism – not by re-arranging just a few funding practices that have evolved over the past 70 years and then hoping that everything will be fine. However, I’m not sure the 190+ states and their political leaders are up to the task of ending their pathological reign on the system of international organizations.


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