The Reform Reformation

International Organizations and the Challenge of Change

The headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO) are pictured in Geneva, Switzerland, March 22, 2016.  Denis Balibouse / Reuters

The system of global governance has changed since the United Nations was established in the 1940s. International organizations have not only become larger, they have also grown in number. Now, these organizations are spun in a complex network that includes states, nongovernmental organizations, and other agencies that operate above the state level. 

Even so, international organizations continue to be deeply rooted in the historical events that gave birth to their rise. The World Health Organization (WHO), International Labor Organization, and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization  have grown in size and scope and interconnectedness—yet the way in which they operate has not changed much since their founding. In fact, decisions made during each of their formative periods still impact the way in which these organizations enact reforms, govern their field activities, and respond to changes in the system. This is called “path dependence.”

But this does not mean that these organizations have not sought to make meaningful reforms in response to a changing world, many of which have been based upon updated ideas about how organizations (and the people within them) should work. So as participating countries, private donors, and even international organization employees themselves place new demands on global organizations, these organizations are seeking new methods to improve the ways in which they function. 


A main promise during such reforms is to make the organizations less “bureaucratic,” since being a bureaucracy is no longer seen as something good. Global organizations try not to appear as impersonal bureaucracies with bloated overhead costs and ineffective operations, but they want to be perceived as dynamic actors that react quickly and effectively to new problems. Yet reform coalitions, which include state representatives as well as new organizational leaders, often claim that the processes international organizations use are labyrinthine and that the sheer size, multitude, and duplication of offices within them cause friction and reduce their impact in the world. As a result, most international organization reforms are accompanied

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