• Kyay Mon

COVID-19: A Testing Time for International Organizations

The years leading up to the 2020 global pandemic witnessed renewed attention and concern regarding the crisis of the liberal international order (Kagan, 2017; Haass, 2018; Ikenberry, 2018; Mearsheimer, 2019). Multilateral institutions were criticized for their inefficiency in dealing with dynamic global challenges such as climate change, inequality and conflicts, primarily due to the outdated institutional structures and power politics among member states (Stephen, 2017). Furthermore, the rise in nationalist and populist sentiments across the world saw countries shifting away from multilateralism and adopting protectionist policies. Notable events such as Brexit and the U.S. withdrawing its membership from key UN institutions[1] showed a trend of states turning away from internationalism and international organizations (IOs) (Bernes et al., 2020).

Given this context, the current pandemic is a crucial event that can reaffirm or undermine the role of IOs in fostering international cooperation during global crises. This article will examine how the pandemic has posed both opportunities and challenges for IOs by looking at the responses of leading IOs in health, economic and political spheres: World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank Group (WBG) and the European Union (EU).

Delays and missteps in the early stages of the pandemic While there have been global health crises before, the scope and impact of COVID-19 pandemic occurred on an unprecedented scale (Pazarbasioglu and Kose, 2020). As a result, IOs have been thrust into uncharted waters as they grapple to help countries cope with the immediate and long-term effects of the pandemic. In the early stages of the pandemic, institutional shortcomings that existed before the pandemic hampered their efforts to deal with the crisis in a timely and appropriate manner (Van Hecke et al., 2021). Welsh (2020) points out that the WHO’s International Health Regulations, its main policy instrument to manage pandemics, lacked the appropriate compliance monitoring mechanisms, surveillance and response systems which impeded its speed and accountability. Furthermore, the WHO’s susceptibility to political pressures also led to accusations of the institution downplaying the risk of COVID-19 to cater to the Chinese government’s interests (Babones, 2020).

Meanwhile, the EU was criticized for its failure to formulate a coordinated response among member states in the early months of the pandemic (McGee, 2020). The phenomenon of EU member states adopting nationalistic policies in pursuit of their own self-interests has even prompted academics create the new term called “coronationalism” (Bouckaert et al., 2020). As for the WBG, critics have pointed out that the slow disbursement of loans and short-sighted debt suspension initiatives are not sufficient to support low-income countries (Goodman, 2020).

These IO inefficiencies in responding to the pandemic can be explained by the limits of their “bureaucratic autonomy”, a concept introduced by Bauer and Ege (2016). “Bureaucratic autonomy” consists of two components: autonomy of will (an IO’s ability to develop its own preferences independently) and autonomy of action (its ability to translate preferences into actions). Limits on IOs’ bureaucratic autonomy can stem from their dependency on member states’ will, resource constraints and governance structures. For instance, the WHO’s lack of legal authority to impose decisions on member states, budget constraints and decentralised organisational structure made it harder to coordinate and limited its autonomy of will and action. Similarly, for the EU, health was not a key policy area. Hence, it had limited budget and influence in coordinating member states’ responses to the pandemic in the early days (Van Heck et al., 2021).

Stepping up to lead the global fight against the pandemic

Nevertheless, IOs have also stepped up to fulfill their mandates during the crisis and led efforts to formulate a coordinated global response to the pandemic. They have also used the pandemic as an opportunity to expand their scope of action and policy instruments (Van Hecke et al., 2021). The WHO has helped countries around the world tackle the pandemic through various activities such as helping countries prepare and respond to the pandemic, providing accurate information and fighting misinformation, supporting frontline health-workers with medical supplies and technical expertise, vaccine development and protecting the most vulnerable population (United Nations, 2020). As of October 2021, more than US$256 million have been raised through its ad-hoc COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, which has funded the aforementioned activities (COVID-19 Solidary Response Fund, n.d). Furthermore, the WHO has expanded its actions to global supply chain management in partnership with the World Food Programme (WFP) (World Food Programme, 2021).

In the case of the EU, its policy response improved after some initial misgivings. For instance, the establishment of the “rescEU” framework resulted in improved coordination in sharing medical resources among member states. Additionally, a 750 billion euro fund was set up through joint debt by member states for economic recovery (Euronews, 2021). According to Debre and Dijkstra (2021), the EU was able to increase “its policy scope into the areas of health and social policy while using existing and newly developed policy instruments”.

Meanwhile, the WBG has focused its COVID-19 policy responses to saving lives, protecting the poor and vulnerable, building sustainable economies and strengthening institutional mechanisms (World Bank, 2021a). To date, it has committed over US$157 billion towards fighting the pandemic, which includes IDA loans and grants to developing countries, financing vaccine supplies and supporting governments’ social protection policies (World Bank, 2021b).

The aforementioned achievements were made possible by one of the characteristics of IOs – their ability to pool resources and technical expertise. Abbot and Snidal (1998) describes IOs as “vehicles for pooling activities, assets, or risks” that can reduce transaction costs and improve efficiency of international cooperation. For instance, IOs like WHO and WB are able to achieve economies of scale by pooling financial and technical resources to support their global operations. Furthermore, IOs also have experience and networks that can be valuable in crises. Van Hecke et al (2021) highlights the EU’s experience in crisis management, existing legal frameworks and coordination mechanisms that could be used to address member states’ concerns.


The pandemic has shed a spotlight on the important role that IOs play in fostering international cooperation. As can be seen by the current health crisis, it is evident that in order to tackle global crises that cross borders, countries need to work together. IOs, with their experiences, multilateral networks, technical expertise and financial resources, can provide guidance and incentives for states to engage in collective efforts that would benefit the greater good instead of pursuing narrow, short-term interests. At the same time, the past year has highlighted how current institutional structures can limit IOs’ autonomy and undermine their ability to respond to global crises efficiently and effectively. Moving forward, IOs can draw on the lessons learned from COVID-19 pandemic to help them better capitalise on their strengths and implement reforms so they can be better prepared for future crises.


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[1] The United States withdrew from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2017, and from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2018, citing the institutions’ bias against Israel.

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