The headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO) are pictured in Geneva, Switzerland, March 22, 2016.
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 by pledges to “rationalize” their bureaucracies, making them more goal oriented rather than rule driven. Most reform efforts target “efficiency savings” by way of reducing staff, overhead costs, and administrative spending.

As a result, over the past several years, international organizations have dramatically changed the nature of their employees’ jobs, as well as the decision-making processes that govern which projects receive funding. In the past, the bureaucratic ideal of the continuity of office meant that employees were expected to act as impersonal cogs—representatives of their organization and of the established procedures and rules of their specific offices, rather than of their own expertise and experience in a given field. This model has since been superseded with a new, more entrepreneurial role for modern bureaucrats—one that is based on the expectation that people work best when they believe they are empowered to be “proactive,” mobile, and flexible. This also implies that global organizations increasingly work with short-term consultants instead of civil servants.

Some organizations, such as the WHO, have sought to create a staff of generalists by rotating their employees between their Geneva, Switzerland, headquarters and their regional and field offices. To forestall the risk of overspecialization and compartmentalization, major reforms such as the “One WHO” introduced by former Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland also involved a massive rotation between departments. And when it comes to decision-making and resource allocation, international organizations are tasked with making smarter, evidence-based decisions on which programs to fund. Many have begun to use computer modeling for planning, to counter the biases inherent in historical routines and political prejudice. For example, in the 1990s, the WHO and the World Bank implemented a measure of the “disability adjusted life years” (DALYs), which was used to determine which public health efforts had the most impact on people’s lives. This helped the WHO justify its funding priorities during a period of major reform. Other organizations have developed comparable techniques of evidence-based decision-making for the planning, implementation, and, if needed, adaptation of their operations.

A UNESCO World Heritage emblem outside the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, China, November 17, 2015.
A UNESCO World Heritage emblem outside the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, China, November 17, 2015.
Damir Sagolj / Reuters


Ironically, however, reform efforts themselves tend to become bureaucratized, even if their aim is to overcome inefficient bureaucratic cultures. The diffusion of the new bureaucratic “culture of change” can be observed at all levels of international organization reform, ranging from program formulation to human resource management. Organizations seek to replace routines with initiatives, continuity with flexibility, and rules with results. But in the process, these organizational efforts become highly formalized in their own right and, worse yet, can create more administrative bloat rather than less.

For example, when former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s reform efforts led to the creation of a Strategic Planning Unit, another layer of bureaucracy was born. The same could be said for Brundtland’s WHO reorganization efforts, which created the Evidence for Information and Policy Cluster. In fact, the One WHO reforms did not lead to a reduction of staff; rather, it caused an increase in headquarter posts for both short-term and permanent employees. 

Similarly, the implementation of so-called results-based management that was brought to the UN by Annan often means formalizing budgeting procedures that were once resource based. In this process, international organization employees need to spend considerable time on formulating strategic objectives, performance indicators, and scorecards. The managerialism that is meant to reduce overhead thus produces its own overhead. In other words, strategy making entails bureaucracy making, and this again creates the need for “rationalization.” Or, in the words of Stockholm School of Economics Professor Emeritus Nils Brunsson and University of Bergen Professor Emeritus Johan Olsen, “Reforms tend to generate reforms.”


Institutional leaders, together with the states that support them, should rethink the way in which they approach reform efforts if they wish to enact meaningful change in their organizations. Past reform efforts paint a grim picture. Even if few reform efforts have ever failed completely, many goals have never been attained, and new problems have been created through these very reforms themselves. In such situations, diversions are very tempting for those who are pressed to provide results to their stakeholders, who pursue smaller and “meta-level” managerial goals, which then come at the sacrifice of larger aims. Only hindsight can reveal whether reforms have been worth undertaking. And the dilemma that reformers should not overpromise on the one hand, but avoid sacrificing bigger efforts for the low-hanging fruit—such as attaining some formal indicators or implementing new managerial techniques—on the other, is difficult to deal with. 

However, some traps can and should be avoided if international organizations want to pursue meaningful reform. Reformers should resist the temptation to micromanage. Inventing a stream of intermediate goals may give the illusion of control, but this method also creates additional red tape. This also applies to the tendency of donor states and private donors to tightly “earmark” their contributions for very specific activities, a practice that has become paralyzing. Earmarks often make it impossible for organizations to allocate resources properly, undermining their results-based budgeting policies. Worse yet, earmarks often make organizations sit on unspent money, since restricted donations can be used only for very specific purposes. For example, some earmarks authorize departments only to buy equipment but do not finance a staff of personnel to handle it. Greater flexibility here could impinge on day-to-day financial oversight for donors but could help organizations become more efficient with their budgets. Reformers should also give up the illusion that “efficiency savings” can fix all of their problems. The WHO has encountered emergency situations as a result of overhead cuts, leading donors to finance the organization’s administrative budget to cover core running costs. Likewise, the outsourcing of certain services to low-wage countries may cut spending at first but slows down many activities and later on creates follow-up costs.

Finally, reformers must tackle the historical privileges that some departments enjoy within international organizations. These departments are often able to halt or even block reforms owing to their historical stature. It is here that history begets reform efforts—an overarching issue plaguing international organizations as they adapt to the challenges of the twenty-first century. To move ahead, groups must shed themselves of the ineffective policies of the past. The road ahead may be uncertain, but adhering to old models of reform proves that new efforts are needed. Now, it’s up to them to forge a way forward.

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