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International organizations: More flexible than we thought

World Bank Annual Meetings CSO Townhall1

Civil society representatives at World Bank meeting in Istanbul, October 2009

Blog comment by Daniel Béland and Mitchell A. Orenstein

Much has been written about the role of international organizations in public policy advice. In both public and academic discourse, a central tendency is to depict them as having fixed policy preferences. For instance, both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are typically defined as firm proponents of “neoliberalism” and instruments of US hegemony. In this perspective, such organizations reflect the will of a small set of dominant actors and promote the same basic policy preferences across time and space. This perspective, however, obscures the potential instability of their policy preferences over time.

Fortunately, the forthcoming special issue of Governance on the IMF co-edited by Cornel Ban and Kevin Gallagher breaks from this simplistic understanding of international organizations. As Ban and Gallagher say, the contributors to this special issue “find extensive evidence that the Fund has … experienced a significant recalibration of its policy advice and supervision since the 2008 crisis and attribute this outcome to staff politics, the rise of the BRICS’s or shifts in the economics profession.”

These findings are crucial because they challenge the common wisdom about the fixed nature of international organization preferences outlined above. More important, as the editors make clear, their special issue stresses factors that may have triggered change within the IMF, including the crucial issue of staffing. Simultaneously, the editors recognize the existence of genuine internal and environmental obstacles to change within the IMF. In reality, as they point out, “not all changes in policy doctrine traveled into the IMF’s policy practice. Moreover, deeper shifts in policy doctrine were largely tempered by the nature of the institution and the powerful interests that control its governing structure.”

To sum up, this subtle understanding of change within international organizations breaks with the common wisdom while acknowledging the limits to change and not portraying change as easy to achieve. Change within international organizations is a constant struggle, something policy scholars should keep in mind.

Our own findings about the role of the World Bank in pension reform since the 1990s complement the findings of this Governance special issue on the IMF. In an article published in 2013 titled “International Organizations as Policy Actors,” we review the changing nature of World Bank policy advice on old-age pensions. Going back to the story we told about the World Bank is especially useful in light of the new special issue of Governance, as it suggests the need for a more comparative perspective on the behavior of international organizations as policy actors.

In our study of the World Bank’s stance on pension privatization, we found that the organization’s approach to pension privatization changed significantly over time. Changes in Bank policy were particularly pronounced in comparison to the rigid stability of advice from ideologically-driven think tanks such as the Cato Institute, which also is based in Washington, DC. The World Bank went from having no position on pension privatization in the early 1990s to becoming its most powerful advocate after the 1994 publication of Averting the Old Age Crisis, the Bank study that launched a global campaign for pension privatization. But then the Bank retreated from this campaign after much internal controversy and the appointment of a new director of the Social Protection unit. Meanwhile, the Cato Institute maintained its strong support for pension privatization throughout, and showed no signs of serious internal debates or discussions.

We have argued that the role of evidence-based research and changing perspectives in international organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank must be compared to other organizations to be well understood. The special issue of Governance illustrates some of the important pathways that the IMF may learn from events, such as changing academic and expert debates, changing trends in academic training, and politics within a large and complex organization. However, we require a comparative lens to fully understand how the IMF learns. This means, comparing the IMF to other international organizations like the World Bank, the European Union and the OECD, as well as to non-governmental organizations such as think tanks and policy networks.

When we make this comparison, we will likely discover that the IMF and other research-based organizations like the World Bank differ significantly from ideologically-driven organizations or networks in the extent to which their policies are influenced by trends in academic and policy research, as well as internal debates and struggles among experts. In fact, these international organizations are “open systems” that are subject to a wide range of influences in a complex international political economy. For example, it is not the case that these organizations are simply pawns of the wealthiest or largest states. We have found that their policies can also be shaped by states with dissenting opinions, and by the fastest-growing or “model” states.

International organizations are also open to influence from non-governmental actors and networks. As an illustration, the anti-landmines campaign changed the policy of the United Nations (UN) and shifted state behavior. Likewise, the vast and growing importance of non-governmental actors on World Bank thinking was institutionalized in the 1990s with the formalization of consultation with an NGO Committee on the World Bank that integrated civil society organizations into eighty percent of country assistance strategies by 2009. The IMF, in particular, may have been influenced in its thinking by other international organizations, such as the European Union, with whom it cooperated frequently during the global financial crisis. Sometimes, international organizations are even influenced by individual policy entrepreneurs or break-out academics, such as Thomas Piketty, the author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

In summary, we believe that it is important to look at international organizations not only as servants of strong and entrenched interest groups, but as “open systems” that allow for a wide variety of interests and ideas to be expressed and considered and felt. Some of these influences catalyze important changes, which is why scholars should play closer attention to them in a new comparative analysis of international organizations.

This contribution draws on the following article: Daniel Béland and Mitchell A. Orenstein. 2013. “International Organizations as Policy Actors: An Ideational Approach,” Global Social Policy, 13(2): 125-143. http://gsp.sagepub.com/content/13/2/125.abstract

Daniel Béland is Canada Research Chair in Public Policy (Tier 1) and Professor at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy and a Part-Time Professor at the University of Southern Denmark. A political sociologist who studies public policy from a comparative and historical perspective, he has published 12 books and 90 peer-reviewed journal articles.

Mitchell A. Orenstein is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Northeastern University in Boston and an associate of both the Center for European Studies and the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. He is the author of Privatizing Pensions, winner of Governance‘s Charles H. Levine Prize.


Citation for this web comment: Béland, Daniel, and Mitchell Orenstein, “International organizations: more flexible than we thought,” The Governance Blog, December 29, 2014.  https://governancejournal.net/2014/12/28/international-organizations-more-flexible-than-we-thought/

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December 28, 2014 at 6:39 pm

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