Our International Institutions Are Failing Us (Or Are We Failing Them?)
Our international institutions seem to be failing us. Just look around:
Economists, analysts and other writers who have long looked to the World Bank’s “Doing Business” report for key data on country rankings recently learned the numbers were manipulated. These were data irregularities, according to the World Bank. This is devastating news because its self-proclaimed mission is to “provide a wide array of financial products and technical assistance, and help countries share and apply innovative knowledge.” What’s worse is that the person who reportedly oversaw the manipulation of the rankings now heads the International Monetary Fund.
Then there’s the new head of the World Trade Organization, who is rumored to already be over the job and threatening to quit due to the inability of the organization to move anything forward. The mission of the WTO is to deal with the global rules of trade between nations. Its main function “is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.” Willing participants have signed on to eliminate tariffs on high tech goods and increase potential for market access in government procurement, but the most pressing trade issues of the current day—overfishing, intellectual property and cyber theft, and subsidies—seem beyond its reach.
Finally, there’s The World Health Organization. “Dedicated to the well-being of all people, and guided by science,” it seeks to lead and champion “global efforts to give everyone, everywhere an equal chance to live a healthy life.” Yet the organization appears incapable of even completing an investigation into the origins of a virus that has circled the globe, killed 4.55 million people (and counting), and continues to cripple the world economy.
But are the institutions themselves the problem?
An institution is made up of its members. And for it to work well, the members need to be committed to the mission and share a level of trust amongst each other. So maybe the more honest approach is for members to look in the mirror when considering the recent events.
Here’s more context on each:
The World Bank’s 18-year-old Doing Business report has been widely successful at providing data on the ease of doing business in 190 countries at a detailed level. A recent report into its data scandal reveals that the problem was rooted in a desire to appease China, one of the development agency’s largest members and donors.
The World Trade Organization has seen over 30 new members accede to the single global trade regime, including China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and other nations that do not always aspire toward lower trade barriers and greater transparency. WTO membership today covers 98 percent of global commerce, and tariffs and other trade barriers among members have come down since its inception in 1995. But Beijing’s persistent use of subsidies is broad and deep and distorts global markets, yet WTO rules may be too limited to provide a fix. So much so that the United States no longer sees the use of continuing with a dispute settlement system. Meanwhile, China’s practices of intellectual property and cyber theft—state-sponsored, no less—have led the United States to impose tariffs on Chinese imports with no end in sight.
Finally, the World Health Organization is credited with successful campaigns to combat or even eradicate smallpox, polio, Ebola, HIV-AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, among others. But its ability to study the most recent global communicable disease, Covid-19, has been hampered by China’s lack of cooperation, which is most unfortunate given the mounting scientific evidence that it originated there. Instead of being a team player and joining other countries in learning the origins and how to keep this from happening again, China has taken offense at the call for cooperation and is impeding members’ ability to move forward.
China is obviously the common thread across these failures, but that’s not really the point here.
Where exactly the fault lies does not matter for our institutions. But they need their members to trust each other and cooperate in order to carry out their missions. Without that trust and cooperation, any institution is doomed to fail.
Maybe it’s time to remind ourselves what we wanted out of our institutions in the first place and ask if we still want those things—whether it’s financing and research to end world poverty, helping countries set rules to facilitate international trade, or providing science-based work to promote global health and disease eradication. These goals were deemed worthy after World War II. Are they still worth pursuing?
In a recent piece, my colleagues and I explore a new approach that involves unconventional, decentralized solutions. We write that when national-level negotiations are ineffective, new avenues should be explored. Recently, the world witnessed the efficacy of open-source, collective brainstorming on the origin of Covid-19. That effort led to the publication of key findings that prompted President Biden’s call for an investigation by the U.S. intelligence community.
Whether we remain committed to the goals of our predecessors or wish to revisit them, present-day geopolitical realities call for new ways of sharing information to rebuild trust and advance common interests.