IPE-ID Clash 2: States and International Organisations

Back in late 2009 during the early stages of my Mphil Development Studies course, I got to work on a group presentation on the power of International Organisations (IOs). My specific section was whether IOs were organs for which states direct their influences or whether IOs had an autonomy. One of the readings was the classic constructivist-centred journal articles by Barnett and Martha Finnemore (1999). Of course, constructivism in the field of Political Science has developed extensively, as will be showed below. The problem was that, being trained in IPE and having incorporated IPE approaches in my undergraduate dissertation, I wasn’t just going to talk about constructivism but also include the principal-agent (PA) theory used in IPE. Somehow, not many in the class understood the relevance of PA theory for the issue at hand. And surprisingly, the lecturer couldn’t get the idea from Professor Catherine Weaver about “organisational culture”. Oh well…

The main thrust in this post is that theorists in ID have long focused on states’ actions/influences in IOs and ignored the fact that today’s development arena is also shaped by IOs themselves. Of course easily this leads into the basic thrusts of PA theory (drawn from the PA model in economics) that states delegate tasks to IOs (see for example Hawkins et al, 2006: 100. Delegation occurs because the “principal” or the state in this case in unable to solve the problem unilaterally/with another state or faces negative returns if it does so. IOs like the Bank on ther other hand specialise in the tasks at hand and can help overcome the externalities (Pollack, 1997: 103-104; Hawkins et al 2006: 13, 15, 16).

Thus authors like Chang (2003; 2006; 2007: 13-15) and Stiglitz (2002: 49, 91; 2006: 276-284;) argued that is it the industrialised countries or the “West” that have shaped the major IOs’ rules and positions. In some sense this holds through [1]. However, they vastly ignore the fact that IOs themselves have their own autonomy and have set the development norms and ideas. IOs or specifically those that deal with development do have some position of authority to frame issues (Immergut, 14-19; Barnett and Finnemore, 2004: 6).

IOs have not only shaped but diffused norms which have altered state behaviour (Alderson, 2001: 421). Because each IOs have a certain degree of speciality, they thus present to their audience their version or angle an thus legitimise their actions [2]. Third, constructivist thought points out that IOs, especially the large ones like the World Bank and the IMF, have a strong bureaucratic culture/organisational culture [3]. Any new demands for change, whether internal or external, will be implemented if they conform to the existing culture of the Organisation (Barnett and Finnemore, 2004: 64). If the change does not match the existing culture, change may occur but will be shaped to fit the organisation’s culture. Bureaucratic culture is high path dependent, therefore any change within the IO will not be so straightforward [4]. Development theorists and activists who ignore the constructivist approach may thus be arguing much without results. You can fore example push for more democratic representation in the World Bank or IMF, but actual change may not occur unless the in-depth culture is altered.

But IPE’s PA theory, while stemming from rationalist thought, does provide another angle in the analysis. This again is ignore by development economists and activists It explains that IOs do have some degree autonomy (as constructivists would say so) and thus they would act against the wishes of “principals” or here states. This is termed as “agency slack”. However, “principals” do have a range of “tools” to keep IOs in check. These include defining the rules for the IO, requesting for ex post reports, screening and selecting officials and IO policies, maintaining “checks and balances” as well as “sanctions” (Hawkins et al 2006: 26-31) [5]. The possibility of “agency slack” is always present especially with the autonomy of the IO. Furthermore, with so many principals delegating tasks to IOs (and thus setting their individual wishes), slack is most definitely going to occur as the agent can actively/passively play off agents and/or hide their actions/intentions [6]. This is why PA theory is relevant in the case of explaining the power of IOs.

Ok so far we’ve established that in International Development, constructivism is not addressed and that the issue o agency slack and the extent of principal control is not looked at. This may thus divide the PA (traditional PA) model and the constructivist school of thought. Well, Dr. Liam Clegg brought bought PA and constructivist approaches together in what is termed the “morphogenic approach”. This was the addressed in his recent PhD thesis and his articles–Clegg (2010a, 2010b). Take a look at them.

Thus, it’s not so straight forward in state-IO relations. Yes, states may delegate tasks to IOs and may use their leverage (if they are the powerful states) to shape IOs towards their interests. Yet IOs are not simply empty organs but have autonomy and thus are able to construct norms and diffuse them. With IO autonomy, IOs have some existing culture (from years of operation) and thus change is not immediate and exact unless it is within the IO’s organisation culture. Agency slack is some not always addressed in International Development too but shows the ability of states to move IOs.

This entry is not meant to be a seminar lecture of any sort.

[1] These are not the only authors who argue that the major states control the IOs. Furthermore, there are more examples within the books that I’ve cited.

[2] Barnett and Finnemore (1999)’s article gives a clear overview on IO’s specialities and thus ability to frame and shape norms. Personally, the example they give are alright but of course there some missing–for example (and one of my pet topics) the UNDP.

[3] IOs here indicate the “large” IOs–World Bank, IMF, to some extent the UNDP. The WTO for example is not exactly an IO. With its structure, it is more a forum although powerful states have shaped the WTO’s policies.

[4] See Weaver (2008) and other constructivist IPE/IR scholars on bureaucratic/organisational culture.

[5] There’s a wide range in the IPE literature on “agency slack”

[6] This is termed as “multiple principals” which of course is the reality in all IOs.

Alderson, K., 2001, “Making Sense of State Socialization”, Review of International Studies, 27(3), pp.415-33

Barnett, M.N. and Finnemore, M., 1999, “The Politics, Power and Pathologies of International Organizations”, International Organization, 53(4), pp.699-732

Barnett, M.N. and Finnemore, M., 2004, Rules for the World: International Organizations in Global Politics, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press

Chang, H-J., 2003, Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Theory in Historical Perspective, London: Anthem Press

Chang, H-J, 2006, The East Asian Development Experience: The Miracle, the Crisis and the Future, London and New York: Zed Books

Chang, H-J, 2007, Bad Samaritans: The guilty secrets of rich nations & the threat to global prosperity, London: Random House Business Books

Clegg, L., 2010a, “In the loop: multilevel feedback and the politics of change at the IMF and World Bank”, Journal of International Relations and Development, 13(1), pp.59-84

Clegg, L., 2010b, “Our Dream is a World Full of Poverty Indicators: The US, the World Bank, and the Power of Numbers”, New Political Economy, 15(4), pp.473-492

Hawkins, D.G. et al, 2006, “Delegation under anarchy: states, international organizations and principal-agent theory” in Hawkins, D.G. et al (eds.) Delegation and Agency in International Organizations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.3-40

Immergut, E., 1998 “The Theoretical Core of the New Institutionalism”, Politics and Society, 26(1), pp.5-34

Pollack, M.A., 1997, “Delegation, agency, and agenda setting in the European Community”, International Organization, 51(1), pp.99-134

Stiglitz, J. E., 2002, Globalization and its discontents, London: The Penguin Press

Stiglitz, J.E, 2006, Making Globalization Work, New York and London: W.W.Norton and Company

Weaver, C. E., 2008, Hypocrisy Trap: The World Bank and the poverty of reform, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press


This entry was posted in Ha-Joon Chang, IMF, International Development, International Political Economy, IPE, Joseph Stiglitz, Posts, UNDP, World Bank and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to IPE-ID Clash 2: States and International Organisations

  1. Pingback: So do large states really control International Organisations?

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