The articles for the week dealt with the various approaches scholars have adopted to understand the nature and working of international organisations (IOs). Barnett and Finnemore (2004) compare IOs to bureaucracies, while Vogler (2003) maintains that regime analysis can be used to explain the multilevel governance provided regimes are treated as institutions. Saleth and Dinar (2004) use various institutional theories to explain IOs.
Barnett and Finnemore (2004) equate international organisations (IOs) to bureaucracies or autonomous actors to explain the power they have in shaping world politics today. The authors make convincing arguments for their constructivist approach against the stance taken by scholars of International Relations and Organisational Theory. By concentrating on the functional aspects of IOs and treating them as creations of states, the latter according to the authors, fail to look at the amorphous growth and development of these organisations which is independent of state mandates. It is interesting the way they build on their arguments and present a convincing case for the nature of IOs which have become larger than states themselves in most cases. They provoke the reader’s mind by asking questions like “Can IOs act autonomously from states and if so, how? How and why IO preferences diverge from state preference? What makes IOs authorities? What do IOs do with that authority?” The two readings present an interesting revelation to the understanding of how these IOs come to hold power over world affairs and how by ‘regulating’ and ‘constituting’ knowledge they are able to manipulate thinking and even manage to subjugate entire nations. By thinking of IOs in terms of their autonomy, authority, power and dysfunction or pathology, the authors force you to think about the negative and positive aspects that these can lead to and in their case studies they present empirical evidence of these aspects. While the readings helped me understand how these IOs come to power, use that power and hold on to that power, the revelation made me uneasy. How many of us realise the effect of this power of IOs on our lives or do we even realise that decisions taken by these IOs which seem far removed from us can directly impact our lives and livelihoods?
One point raised by Barnett and Finnemore (18) that I find difficult to agree with is the bureaucratic feature of ‘impersonality’ where they maintain that in a bureaucracy “the work is conducted according to prescribed rules and operating procedures that eliminate arbitrary and politicised influences”. To my mind all decisions taken by organisations are influenced to some level by politics whether global, local or even organisational.
Regarding the traditional regime analysis approach to study global environmental governance (GEG), Vogler (2003) points out that while these organisations themselves are social and subjective constructs they are analysed under the positivist lens, thereby creating a contradiction. He argues in favour of regime analysis and uses John Searle’s work on institutions to build his case. He maintains that if the international environmental organisations (IEOs) are treated as institutions, then the regime-analysis approach can be effectively reconstructed to study them. Searle used the terms ‘brute’ and ‘social’ facts, where the ‘brute’ facts are what exist while ‘social’ facts are constructs of our minds or intentional. Vogler sees the environment as a ‘brute fact’ which is also a social construct due to human activity. Using Searle’s ideas of ‘collective intentionality’ and ‘constitutive rules’ he presents a complicated explanation for GEG where “human agents are authorised or restrained by institutions, not only in the exercise of power over others, but also in exploiting the ‘brute facts’ of their physical environment.” An important point raised by Vogler (31) is related to the gap between regimes or the lack of coordination between IEOs and other international organisations. This is where he raises the issue of multilevel governance involving not only a vertical integration but also a horizontal integration of these organisations. His idea of the development of an institutional relationship between international, regional and local bodies should allow for the flow of information, knowledge and responsibility at all levels is significant. While the reading provided some useful insights for understanding GEG, it lacked lucidity. In the end I was left with doubts of having understood his proposed institutionalist approach at all.
Saleth and Dinar (2004) provide a critical review of literature on institutional economic theories. They start with defining institution and equate it with knowledge and information, which is then used to change or control behaviour of others. The authors make the important distinction between institutions (rules) and organisations (structures) where they show that the latter have the power to effect changes over the former. Each institution is affected by its past history and it has been noticed that informal institutions are more difficult to change than formal ones as they are ingrained in people’s actions and behaviours. The reading presents a very comprehensive picture of institutions and institutional analysis. However, I felt lost reading the many theories on institutional change. What stood out for me was that economics and / or markets have the greatest influence on effecting institutional change and this is followed by a crisis, which can be either related to economy, resources or natural disasters.
There seems to be a general consensus among the authors of the week’s readings that institutions are social or subjective constructs and thus not real or measurable. They may have been established following an agreement between states, but over time, they take on a nature of their own making, which is unfamiliar to even their creators. These subjective constructs are linked to the ability of these institutions to use information and knowledge to effect change in or control the behaviour of others. Barnett and Finnemore’s pathology of bureaucracies as well as Saleth and Dinar’s discussion on informal institutions have a common basis of the unwritten rules which become a part of that institution’s culture and most difficult to change.
Vogler (33) mentions that transnational technical communities are not the same as epistemic communities. In his explanation he says ‘they are composed of national civil servants’ – by ‘they’ does he mean members of the transnational technical communities? Could this point related to the difference between the two please be clarified, because as per international relations, epistemic communities are networks of knowledge-based experts who help decision makers define problems, frame policies for their solution and assess policy outcomes.
While reading Saleth and Dinar’s discussion on institutional change where they mention property rights, I wondered at the motivations for the global phenomenon of forest tenure reforms, an area of my research focus. What is the real reason behind these reforms and major institutional changes? Is it environmental justice; rights of indigenous communities; realisation of state failure; or to be cynical, some form of economic gain that will be later on derived from this?