How international organizations can resist political shocks

4 February 2022, 0900 EST

As long as international organizations have existed their relationships with their member states have been conflict-ridden. States use numerous methods to influence international organizations according to their interests or to contest the authority and policies of international organizations, including by reducing financial contribution, threatening withdrawal, and by actually exiting. Between 2014 and 2020, the United States cut its contributions to numerous international organizations, several African states threatened to withdraw from the International Criminal Court, and the United Kingdom left the EU. This recent backlash against international institutions has called into question the sustainability of the global governance arrangements that have defined our world since 1945. It reminds us not to take international organizations for granted.

In fact, we now know that international organizations do not live forever but may cease to exist, especially during periods of geopolitical crises. Young, small, and/or decentralized organizations in particular are more likely to “die” during times of crisis. What makes some international organizations more likely to succumb to such pressures where others manage to survive or even thrive? And what can international organizations do to become resilient and withstand existential challenges? The example of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) demonstrates how even a small organization with no enforcement power can strengthen its ability to survive challenges from its member states.

The United Nations Population Fund’s response to political contestation

UNFPA has faced budget cuts three times over the course of its existence, first during the Reagan administration, second under G. W. Bush, and for a third time under Donald Trump. At the time of the first cuts, UNFPA was a very small organization with little bureaucratic autonomy, whose mandate had shifted from technical concerns with demographics to the highly politicized topic of promoting sexual and reproductive health. Moreover, having existed for only 15 years when the first cuts hit, the organization faced a significant challenge early in its lifetime. Nevertheless, UNFPA not only survived but even expanded its influence despite facing severe contestation by various U.S governments over the past five decades.

When the Reagan administration cut U.S contributions to UNFPA through its “Mexico City Policy”, the U.S government still made 25 per cent of all contributions to UNFPA’s core budget. These cuts took the organization and its other members by complete surprise. When it became clear that the U.S government would not change course, UNFPA increasingly focused on professionalizing its fundraising activities.

Under the leadership of Rafael Salas, fundraising was already one of the core tasks of the executive director, which generated an annual budget of $142 million from 13 major donors in 1984. When Nafis Sadik became executive director in 1987, a fundraising office was set up at headquarters level. As a result, UNFPA managed to double contributions from other donors within the next ten years. By shifting attention to other donor states, this strategy provided the basis for a first diversification of resources after the U.S’ budget cuts. This was crucial in determining UNFPA’s development throughout the 1990s and its ability to handle future reductions in funding.

By the time the G.W. Bush Administration reinstated the Mexico City Policy, support for UNFPA among other member states had grown. UNFPA could thus rely on the united position of the other donors to isolate and shame the U.S government within the executive board. The organization’s leadership made it a point to emphasize that it’s work was supported by a great majority of states and even Afghanistan, a lower income country, contributed a hundred dollars to its budget.

Furthermore, UNFPA established a new liaison office in Brussels to mobilize funding, especially from the European Commission. Moreover, UNFPA built up a new funding base that included numerous private foundations. It also increasingly embraced private contributions that resulted from the campaigns of two American women who asked 34 million U.S citizens to compensate for the loss of U.S contributions. Through its Washington DC office, already established in 1994, UNFPA built a strong network with U.S-based NGOs working in the same sector.

At both headquarters and field levels, UNFPA started to professionalize its external communication to pre-empt and manage misinformation campaigns. The organization established media offices in several branches and trained its staff in dealing with communication crises. These processes of proactive resilience-building proved crucial when UNFPA faced the most recent period of budget cuts, enacted by the Trump administration.

At this point, UNFPA was prepared. Even before the cuts were announced, UNFPA’s leadership had secured the support of other important donor states. In response, UNFPA headquarters focused on building a strong network with civil society and private actors, alongside early coordination with other donor states. It established the Strategic Partnerships Branch to engage to private actors and, through its “individual giving strategy”, even individuals as potential funders. Additionally, UNFPA significantly expanded it’s staffing in these areas, hiring staff with private sector backgrounds and communications experts. Overall, the organization built up significant further resilience.

Thus, UNFPA has managed not only to survive existential challenges but has successfully grown further in recent decades. The activities of the organization’s bureaucracy were crucial in building this resilience. Ultimately, even the bureaucracy of an international organization with little autonomy has an important role to play in securing its survival when facing political contestation from its member states.

The role of international bureaucracies in building resilience

In sum, there are several ways the bureaucracies of international organizations become more resilient in the face of political challenges. Shaming member states is a fairly common practice through which bureaucracies attempt to rhetorically delegitimize contestation, and thus prevent others from engaging in similar behaviour. Shaming works as a strategy that can lead to reputational damage for the contesting member state, both internationally and domestically.

In addition, international bureaucracies build relations with peer organizations, non-state

actors, and like-minded states to gather support when confronting contesting states. Bureaucracies also connect with civil society, media organizations, and subnational actors in efforts to shift public opinion in favour of their organization. Through this coalition-building, international bureaucracies can build up resilience in anticipation of potential future challenges.

Finally, international bureaucracies can improve their ability to survive political disputes by professionalizing their communication channels, particularly their fundraising. Changes in funding rules and assessed contributions usually require the consent of member states. However, organizations with a large base of voluntary contributions may enhance their independence by expanding these sources of finance. Knowing this, you shouldn’t be surprised when you see solicitations for private donations from organizations like UNFPA in your mailbox.

This post is based on “International Organizations’ Responses to Member State Contestation: From Inertia to Resilience,” International Affairs, Volume 97, Issue 6, November 2021, Pages 1963–1981.