Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Leaders in International Organisations

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Leaders in International Organisations

Article excerpt

The first Secretary-General of the United Nations, Trygve Lie, offered the best description of the position of leaders of international organisations - 'the most impossible job on this earth' (Urquhart 2007:15). Indeed, heads of all international organisations (IOs) have an impossible job to do and an impossible role to play. They are expected to lead IOs, but are not allowed to do so unless member states give them permission. They are expected to have an overarching vision and a long-term strategy for the organisation; yet any vision and strategy are subject to careful scrutiny and often to revisions by member states. They are expected to be technical experts and also political animals whose spirit is tightly controlled by member states; and they head organisations where member states want to put their feet both on the accelerator and brake while moving forwards and backwards at the same time. The mantra, 'a member-driven organisation', was initially adopted at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) when it was created in 1995 but has now been endorsed in all IOs. 'What does it mean?' asked one senior official of the World Health Organisation (WHO) rhetorically. Most IOs have a membership of 180-190 states that jealously defend their 'sovereignty'; would 'member-driven' lead to any decisions at IOs? Would anyone be able to lead such 'member-driven' organisations? It is thus not a surprise to hear the comment that the director general (DG) of an IO is neither a director nor a general.

Despite the inherent difficulties in leading an IO, many seasoned politicians, including former prime ministers, and talented, experienced diplomats, try very hard to obtain the position whenever there is a vacancy. Competition to lead IOs is fierce and governments back their nationals seeking such positions with political and financial promises. However, once they take office, heads of IOs represent their organisations, not their country of origin or the government that has supported them for the position. They become recognisable public figures in the world arena, speaking on behalf of the IO, promoting and protecting the interests of their IO as they see fit. They steer, and occasionally may change, the course of their IOs' operations; they manage diverse and often dispersed international bureaucracies; and most importantly they are obliged to facilitate multilateral cooperation among member states who can hardly agree on anything. Their job has become much more difficult recently when political leaders in some countries have turned their attention inwardly on domestic issues, when private institutions provide attractive opportunities for the talented, and when resources have to be spread among an increasing number of private as well as public multilateral institutions.

To understand the paradoxes faced by leaders of IOs - an impossible job vs. pursuit of the job, need to lead vs. authority to lead, individual standing vs. collective interest - this paper discusses four issues: How do the leaders of IOs obtain their job and maintain the legitimacy? How do they facilitate multilateral cooperation among member states (as politicians)? How do they pursue the collective interests in the international arena (as diplomats)? And finally, how do they manage IOs as international bureaucracies (as managers)?

The latter three questions are about the functions that all leaders of IOs must undertake, whether they are the Secretary General of the United Nations, the president of the World Bank, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or directors-general of other IOs. These functions are mandated by their initial treaties establishing the organisations but which nonetheless do not have specific job descriptions for their leaders. Indeed, member states expect IO leaders to take on all three functions and do them well, yet each state has its own expectations on how their performance will be assessed. Flexibility provides IO leaders with opportunity to exercise their skills but within changing political environments. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.