17 May 2016

New Project on UN Reform and Effectiveness


In the wake of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, there is a widespread and growing recognition that the organisation is in need of significant reform. While its core institutions and agencies have accomplished a great deal over the past 70 years, the UN today faces complex, new, global challenges. Its ability to adapt and reform to address them will determine not only its own fate as an institution, but also that of the peoples it represents. Understanding the nature and consequences of its varying abilities to reform can contribute to enhancing its effectiveness going forward. This is precisely what Thomas Biersteker, Professor of International Relations/Political Science and Director of the Programme for the Study of International Governance at the Graduate Institute, Professor Cédric DupontCecilia Cannon and Velibor Jakovleski propose to do in their new three-year SNSF-funded project, entitled “What Types of Reform Enhance an International Organisation’s Effectiveness?”.

Can you tell us more about the rationale for your project?

According to many international relations scholars, formal international organisations and the global cooperation they were designed to facilitate are failing. This “policy gridlock” can be seen in issue domains as diverse as security, trade, the global economy and, until recently, the environment. Just as states are increasingly turning to alternative governance arrangements to address shared concerns, scholars are also turning to examine these new institutions, such as public-private partnerships and the G groups. When presented with this trend, Geneva-based United Nations (UN) officials point to issue domains that have seen policy breakthrough and innovation, such as the UN human rights system’s 2006 reform. As states began to disengage with the highly politicised Commission on Human Rights in the years prior to 2006, the UN General Assembly abolished it, establishing the Human Rights Council in its place, with innovative procedures and mechanisms. By October 2011, the Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) had assessed the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States, with states demonstrating active engagement in the Council’s proceedings and high policy output.

Many regard this example as a successful case of reform, given the highly politicised human rights setting. As imperfect as it still may be, it suggests that formal, highly politicised international organisations (IOs) can adapt to better meet today’s challenges. But is there an observable relationship between the reform any given IO has undergone, and the effectiveness of that IO? Can the ability of an IO to break through policy gridlock be attributed to the degrees and types of reform it has undergone? Without disregarding emergent global governance arrangements, our project refocuses scholarly attention to assess the implications of IO adaptation under a changing environment.

In what ways is your project distinct from others on institutional reform?

This project offers five innovations, distinguishing it from previous studies examining reform and institutional change. First, institutional change has typically been analysed as the dependent variable, with the causes of, and conditions under which, institutional change/persistence occurs as the independent variables (the explanatory factors affecting change). This study will examine institutional change as the independent variable, and will examine the implications different degrees and types of institutional change have on an IO’s effectiveness – the dependent variable.

Second, the literature on UN reform has primarily focused on reform of the Security Council, and “wholesale” reform. This project will systematically map six dimensions of reform within six UN agencies and related organisations, across time: (1) mandate (scope and substance), (2) membership, (3) resource base, (4) operational structure, (5) process of decision-making, and (6) formal engagement with non-state actors. The six UN agencies and related organisations are: the World Health Organization, the World Intellectual Property Organization, the World Trade Organization, the UN Human Rights Commission/ Council, the International Labour Organization, and the International Monetary Fund. Cataloguing, analysing and explaining the various reform efforts across these different UN agencies is a major contribution of this project, and will permit in-depth case studies containing analysis of types and degrees of reform affecting IO effectiveness.

Third, little attention has been paid to the effectiveness of UN bodies. This study will assess the effectiveness of IOs at four levels: (1) IO procedures, entailing the IO’s level of engagement with states, (2) IO outputs, such as collaborative agreements produced (treaties, guidelines, etc.), (3) outcomes, referring to evidence of implementation at country levels intended to induce behavioural change, and (4) impact – problem solving. This will enable findings to show when an IO is effective in one area while being less effective in other areas. The World Trade Organization, for example, may score high in procedural effectiveness and some aspects of outcomes (states continue to engage the organisation and employ its dispute resolution mechanism), while simultaneously scoring low in effectiveness on other metrics, such as the production of collaborative agreements (ongoing gridlock evident in the Doha round of trade negotiations).

Fourth, this project will situate the literature examining the way IOs are granting formal access to non-state actors as a core element of institutional change.

And finally, where many international relations scholars are lamenting the failure of intergovernmental organisations and focusing attention on the emergence of alternative governance arrangements, the findings of this project will shed light on cases where IOs have demonstrated the ability to adapt and reform. The comparison of cases will show when certain types of reform render an IO more effective than other types of reform.

How will you ensure that your research has policy impact?

In addition to publishing our research findings in traditional academic publishing forums (journal articles and a book), we will write up the policy relevant conclusions of our research study in policy accessible language – particularly with regard to the types and degrees of reform that render IOs more effective. We will also explore innovative technological publishing platforms so that these conclusions and ensuing recommendations can be easily accessed by policy practitioners, without them having to wade through libraries, journals and lengthy books. We plan to work closely with policy practitioners in the undertaking of our research (in gathering material and conducting interviews with past and current UN representatives), and will hold workshops with both academics and policy practitioners during, and upon completion of, the research. The research findings will also go towards producing policy recommendations that we will disseminate through our broad network of contacts, both in academic and policy circles (Geneva-, New York- and Washington-based IOs).