Why We're More Together Than We Think - The Story of IGOs

"More than ever before in human history, we share a common destiny. We can master it only if we face it together. And that is why we have the United Nations." - Kofi Annan

The First World War in 1914 was supposed to be the war to end all wars; the world was terrified by the slaughter that disrupted the geopolitical balance of powers. To avoid repetition of such events, global powers took it upon themselves to create an international organization that would resolve disputes and maintain world peace. The League of Nations was created in the neutral country of Switzerland in 1920, signed by 42 founding member countries. However, it did not keep the world from having another devastating World War that brought yet another destabilization to the 20th century.


While the world strived for global peace, it was not until 1945 that nation-states were ready to set the world in motion towards successful measures of global security. The creation of the United Nations in 1945 was modeled after the League of Nations but it took the idea of global collective measures of security, negotiations, international law, and human rights to another level. At its time, it was a one-of-a-kind institution that strived to achieve a balanced world structure, securing peace and setting international norms. Ever since then, the international organizations that came out of these wars have been creating and redefining international standards and values.


The end of two world wars—combined with emerging security threats and greater global communication channels—initiated an upsurge of international organizations. The Union of International Associations (UIA), a research institute based in Brussels committed to monitoring and researching international organizations and associations, has information and statistics on over 68,000 international organizations. Just think about it: there’s an international organization created to study international organizations!


No two international organizations are the same. The way we categorize international organizations depends on the purpose and membership criteria for a given organization. But we can all agree that regardless of the purpose, most of the organizations emerged because: a) there was a crisis that needed international attention and response, and b) we started to see a new layer of influence forming around international organizations. With greater awareness comes greater networking. Even if there are limitations to how much international organizations can influence national policies and state behavior, any action is still an opportunity for a better future.


To start, it’s important to distinguish the kind of membership an international organization can have. An intergovernmental organization (IGO)— as defined by the UIA— is an organization where states are participating members through a formal instrument of agreement with a formal secretariat. The Charter of the United Nations serves as a great example of a formal agreement among states to strive for world peace and protection of all human rights.


The United Nations is a unique IGO that has universal membership, meaning every “peace-loving” state can join the organization that is willing to commit to the values outlined by the Charter. There are few other international organizations whose membership is open to all countries around the globe.


There are also regional IGOs that are limited to regional actors willing to create a formal agreement. The first example that comes to many minds is the European Union (EU), created to discourage nations from mobilizing for war through an economic cooperation of coal and steel industries. As we all know now, it has evolved into so much more.


An IGO that cannot go unnoticed and is truly one-of-a-kind is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Formed in response to ongoing threats of the Cold War, NATO is an intergovernmental military alliance organization of 29 states. Members that join the alliance are committed to collective defense against an external enemy.


This leads us to discuss organizations that have a specialized function and a purpose behind its existence. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are a primary example of such organizations. Membership criteria of an NGO are highlighted in the name; it’s a non-profit organization independent of participating governments, open to those who wish to promote an issue that they care about and improve the lives of other people.


This is not to say that IGOs don’t focus on specific areas of expertise, but NGOs tends to specialize in one area of the international order. NGOs are usually focused on issues like climate change, human rights, land conservation, migration, children, poverty, etc. One of the examples I’ve mentioned in my previous article is the International Organization for Migration (IOM). An organization that was created in response to the migrant crisis in Europe, IOM focuses on providing safe and orderly migration to anyone who is leaving their home in hope of a better future.


Human Rights Watch is a nonprofit NGO that focuses on highlighting violations of human rights around the world, using public pressure to ameliorate these situations. With roughly 400 staff members, the organization is a “fact-finding, impartial reporting, effective use of media, and targeted advocacy” organization that wants to fight against human rights violations.


The advocacy networks that are formed through interactions of many international actors is what has created an international world order that we are familiar with now. If only it was as easy as it sounds on paper to promote the values we strive for.


This brings us to the continuous troubles behind the international world order that scholars spend lifetimes studying and researching. There’s a gap between the objectives and the capacities of international organizations to achieve the desired world order, one that “secures peace, advances human rights and provides the conditions for economic process.” At the end of the day, capacities of IGOs to promote international peace and prosperity are constrained by the willingness of member states to act.


By definition, a state is an entity that is independent of foreign control—or sovereignty— and has supreme authority over the citizens of its territory. If a state is not willing to cooperate, there’s very little independent autonomy that IGOs have to effectively address an issue on the table, not to mention the need for an operational budget. What self-interested autonomous state wants to not only give up sovereignty AND pay up?


NGOs are nonprofit organizations that rely on donations of international donors, states, and individuals to cover the costs of their objectives. Humanitarian crises like mass migrations, civil wars, and environmental disaster require a massive budget that is not always at their disposal. Then again, it all goes back to the issues of sovereignty: states reserve the right to kick out an organization if it doesn’t want help in a crisis. For example, recently the government of Libya temporarily suspended the operations of the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders. In addition, the government requested water rescue groups assisting with the migrant crisis to have a specific authorization from the Libyan government if traveling in Libyan waters.


With these limitations in mind, we cannot forget about the important role that international advocacy networks play when discussing international order. International organizations of any kind serve greater purposes that—despite downfalls—does in fact matter. They set norms and provide informational support to national policy makers. The research, data gathering, and networking of international organizations create a dialogue that can impact the lives of many.


I don’t want to sound like a hopeless romantic lusting after the idea of international world order, but rather I want to highlight the importance of the informational role that international organizations play. They get us thinking and they inspire people to act. They keep us informed and I think it’s worthwhile to have hope in the international system.


"About." Human Rights Watch, Accessed 30 Aug. 2017.

Ahmad, Nafees, and Saurabh Sharma. "Extenuating The Institutionalization For Modernization Of International Organizations – Analysis." Eurasia Review, 27 Aug. 2017, Accessed 30 Aug. 2017.

The Associated Press. "Doctors without Borders Suspends Migrant Rescue Patrols off Libyan Coast." New York Times, 12 Aug. 2017, Accessed 30 Aug. 2017.

Gardner, Richard N. "The Hard Road to World Order." Foreign Affairs, Apr. 1974, Accessed 30 Aug. 2017.

"How Many International Organizations Are There?" Union of International Associations, Accessed 30 Aug. 2017.

McKenna, John. "The African Union Is on a Mission to Transform the Continent by 2063. This Is What You Need to Know." World Economic Forum, 5 May 2017, Accessed 30 Aug. 2017.

"The Role and Functions of International Organizations in the Field of Migrant Workers." International Labour Migration, Accessed 30 Aug. 2017.

"Welcome." Greater Lansing United Nations Association, Accessed 30 Aug. 2017.


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