Back to the future for International Organisations? By Michael Davies and Richard Woodward

October 6, 2015

Author Articles, textbooks

Headquarters of United Nations (UN) in Geneva, Switzerland

Image Credit: Istockphoto

How have international organizations developed and what will their role be in the future?  Michael Davies and Richard Woodward argue that in their composition and structure many international organizations are returning to their 19th century roots.

Many of today’s international organisations (IOs) trace their ancestry to the Public International Unions (PIU) that appeared in the latter half of the 19th century. Some, such as the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (born in 1875), retain their original nomenclature. Others would eventually be rebadged (such as the 1865 International Telegraph (now Telecommunication) Union) or absorbed into other organisations, for instance the various PIU which today operate under the guise of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). In seeking cooperative approaches to the technological and open-access issues arising from cross-border commerce and communications the PIU’s concerns were remarkably similar to contemporary IOs.

In other ways, however, they initially appear quite different. For example, these bodies were often conceived, staffed and piloted by private individuals or were public-private hybrids. Likewise private interests rather than those of nation states predominated. In this blog we argue that this appearance is deceiving. During the past 20-30 years especially, private actors have once again started to play more prominent roles in the governance structures of IOs. Indeed many IOs appear to be on a journey back to the future where they increasingly resemble their 19th century forbears.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century a host of previously private industries and concerns including communications, postal services, intellectual property, weather forecasting and social issues such as labour standards were colonised by the state. Reflecting this advance of the frontiers of the state, government interests and representatives steadily eclipsed private actors in the funding, governance and decision-making structures of the bodies charged with their supervision while a nascent international civil service supplanted the national staff of PIU. States were also the primary movers and shakers behind the instigation of new international bodies. These trends reached their apogee in the phalanx of IOs that appeared in the aftermath of the Second World War. In short, by 1945 the hybrid form of the PIU had been displaced by intergovernmental organisations.

Private interests did not vanish entirely. Most organisations maintained mechanisms through which private actors could contribute to their deliberations. For example, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) founded in 1919, famously incorporated workers’ and employers’ representatives into its governance structures. Nevertheless ILO’s structure, which gives voting rights to non-government actors, is unusual. While IOs were happy to give private actors a voice (and sometimes a very important voice such as that of the financial institutions in the multilateral development banks) they were normally kept at arms’ length from the formal decision-making process.

During the last two decades however, the pendulum has swung back in favour of private actors. This is most noticeable in areas where, in the developed world at least, widespread privatisation has transformed the role of the state from owner to regulator. For instance, putting postal and telecommunications companies in private hands has implications for the IOs responsible for governing these industries. Because companies are now only indirectly under state control, government representatives are not necessarily the best interlocutors for fomenting international cooperation. Simultaneously IOs find themselves vying for influence with industry organisations.

For example, private sector postal companies have created the International Post Corporation, in some respects a rival to the Universal Postal Union (which has overseen cooperation in the delivery of international mails since 1874). These organisations are not only alternative vehicles for international cooperation they are often designed to forestall meddling by IOs. Such developments have generated powerful incentives for IOs to formalise previously ad hoc arrangements or to fabricate new mechanisms for soliciting the input of non-members.

The European Union’s (EU’s) semi-autonomous agencies which have exploded in number since 2000, mark another step back to the future. Many have conventional inter-governmental management structures but some, such as the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, have adopted the ILO’s tripartite structure. Elsewhere the European Medicines Agency and the European Maritime Safety Agency, have voting representation on their boards from interested sectors of civil society. The European Food Safety Agency’s management board has just one intergovernmental member with the remainder composed of delegates of industry and consumer groups chosen for their expertise rather than as national representatives.

In a handful of cases the re-emergence of private actors has been taken to its logical extreme with the outright privatisation of two IOs that manage global satellite networks: Inmarsat and Intelsat. Confronted with strong competition from commercial providers of satellite communication services Inmarsat’s member states decided in 1999 to privatise its assets and the business. Inmarsat continues to oversee its global satellite communication system including the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) which briefly led to the organisation hitting the headlines in the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. A residual organisation, the International Mobile Satellite Organisation, amongst other things ensures that Inmarsat meets it public service obligations in respect of GMDSS. Intelsat another provider of satellite communications facing similar private sector pressures underwent a similar metamorphosis between 1998 and 2006.

Given the stress on IO budgets and the ideological predisposition of leading states for market solutions, the examples of Inmarsat and Intelsat are unlikely to be the last. The scientific IOs, especially those such as the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility and the European Space Agency, that possess large non-governmental user groups, are the likeliest candidates for full privatisation. The spiralling costs of scientific research compel states to seek private partners who will demand a greater say in decision-making in exchange for sharing the risks. Organisations with income streams independent of states could also be freed from state control. For instance, WIPO, the European Patent Organisation and the EU’s Community Plant Variety Office, which oversee regimes for intellectual property, derive almost 90% of their income from fees from the lodging of patents and trademarks. Likewise other organisations may sell off areas that are potentially self-sustaining to allow governmental resources to be targeted on essential activities. The International Maritime Organisation’s World Maritime University, and the consulting services of the UN Industrial Development Organisation are possible examples.

IOs have evolved in tandem with the international system and their members. Although their influence has waxed and waned, non-state actors have been ever-present influences on IOs and their governance structures. The predisposition of leading states for market-oriented solutions to social and economic problems has boosted the role of private actors in the governance structures of IOs. While it might be overstated to claim that they are returning to their 19th century roots, it is perhaps time to re-examine the state-centred image of IOs that populate international relations textbooks.

Michael Davies was an international civil servant for 33 years, working in various administrative capacities for the World Bank, the International Civil Service Commission, the Food and Agriculture Organization and latterly as Chief of the Compensation and Benefits Division of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

Dr Richard Woodward is a Senior Lecturer at Coventry Business School, University of Coventry.

Their textbook International Organizations: A Companion is available from Edward Elgar.

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4 Comments on “Back to the future for International Organisations? By Michael Davies and Richard Woodward”

  1. Richard Woodward Says:

    Reblogged this on richardwoodwardcoventry.



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