Saturday, January 17, 2009

How to Understand Intergovernmental Organizations

I coordinate a graduate seminar focused on UNESCO. We seek to help students to understand the organization and its place in the complex, evolving and expanding web of intergovernmental organizations. If transportation and information technological development continues to drive improvements in global infrastructures, globalization will continue and global institutions will evolve in response to the trends. I believe people in their 20's will live in a world with a much more elaborate web of intergovernmental organizations. Here is a summary of a suggestion I made to the students:

There are many ways to understand UNESCO. You should find it useful in the future to consciously study organizations in which you work and with which you deal based on the different facets with which we view UNESCO.

Among the ways we can understand UNESCO are:

  • UNESCO’s Mission: UNESCO's constitution sets forth its mission, and nations join UNESCO accepting that constitution. UNESCO's governing bodies and Secretariat are bound by it. You will find that many components of UNESCO, such as the World Heritage Center, also have internationally agreed formal mission statements.
  • The Organization’s programs and budget: This information is publicly available, and you will not understand the organization without understanding the resources it controls and how they are allocated and used. It is especially important to understand the different sources of funding and the restrictions that they impose on the Organization.
  • UNESCO’s organizational structure and procedures: The standard methods of organization theory help in understanding the organization. UNESCO’s organization is quite complex; its procedures are similar to those of some other intergovernmental organizations but may seem quite strange at first if you do not have experience with United Nations decentralized agencies.
  • The staff and the norms of the international civil service: Think about a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic group of people, located in 60 different countries, with different professional backgrounds, working under a civil service system, and trying to get anything done!
  • The Organization’s governance: UNESCO has an especially unwieldy governance structure, which creates many problems. It was designed to have a powerful Director General elected by the member states, and not all Directors General have been great leaders.
  • UNESCO’s accomplishments and failures: You may learn even more about the organization by understanding where and why it has failed than by reviewing its successes.
  • The historic evolution of the Organization: UNESCO was not designed, it "grew like Topsy". It helps to understand when and how the accretions to its program occurred. Otherwise you will not understand how sports doping fits in the Social and Human Sciences program, why UNESCO rather that the International Energy Agency does UNESCO's energy program, or why UNESCO has a strong emphasis on HIV/AIDS rather than leaving that health problem to the World Health Organization.
  • The linkages to UNESCO's constituents -- the educational, scientific, cultural and other constituent communities both within member nations and on a global scale.
  • The politics of UNESCO within member nations: In the United States, UNESCO is politically controversial, and that is true in other nations. This is important in terms of the donors and in terms of developing nations where UNESCO's functions sometimes as a development assistance agency.
  • As one among many intergovernmental organizations: As the complexity of the web of international organizations has evolved, the role of UNESCO within that web has changed.
  • As affected by the great trends of history: UNESCO has changed with the Cold War, Decolonization, Globalization, the fall of Communism, etc.
  • In terms of the challenges that UNESCO faces in the foreseeable future, as its governing bodies and Secretariat seek to prepare the Organization to meet those challenges.


Dima said...

John, would it be possible to make the syllabus of your course available to the readers of your course? Thank you! Dima.

Dima said...

Sorry... i meant to say: "to the readers of your blog" :)

Glenn said...

I wonder where you would go to get under the surface of things at international organizations. How is the morale of UNESCO? Do people like working there? I believe the UN is a great investment. Even so, my experience working with UN organizations is that the bureaucracy is among the worst in the world. It seems like there are lots of people with "cushy" jobs. What could be done to improve the image of the UN, especially among Americans? As a graduate student, I was always impressed when the FAO reached out the finest US scientists to write their technical publications. I sense that this reaching out to the best professionals in the member countries has worked well, including the celebrities that help UNICEF...

John Daly said...

Great question. I know that the Smith affair injured the morale of the staff of UNESCO's education program.

But how do you measure morale for an organization as a whole? Indeed there are lots of intangibles about an organization that matter. How do you understand organizational culture? How do you understand the culture of the international civil service, and the effects of governments seeking to undermine that service by getting their nationals to serve national interests with the international bureaucracy?

I guess that the United Nations has saved mankind from a great deal of violence. Certainly the second half of the 20th century did not see the mass murder that occurred in the World Wars. But who knows for sure.

On the other hand, there seems to be no real alternative to regulation and coordination in a world where transportation and communications infrastructures have made national borders porous.

Certainly there are people who exploit positions in intergovernmental organizations. Certainly many of those organizations should be more efficient, more effective.

Glenn is right that many experts have donated their best efforts through the facilities offered by FAO, WHO, and UNESCO. The answer in part is to work harder to make these organizations work better.

Now is an important opportunity for UNESCO, as a new Director General is to be elected this year, and the Obama administration is to name a new Ambassador to UNESCO. Lets work to see that these are really good people!