People, Hands

International organizations under pressure: Scholars and practitioners discuss solutions

Although they are key players in efforts to solve global problems, international organizations are currently facing intense pressure and having to repeatedly demonstrate their legitimacy. At a workshop we recently hosted in Geneva, international experts addressed the issues of how the legitimacy of these organizations can be evaluated and which means are available to strengthen it. The event was jointly organized with the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB) and the University of Stockholm.


Climate change, migration, terrorism – many of today’s problems can only be lastingly solved if countries work together. A key role in such efforts is played by international organizations, such as the United Nations (UN) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). At the same time, these organizations are facing massive pressure, including from populist governments that question the legitimacy of international organizations and thereby limit their ability to act. Nevertheless, there is a high degree of popular support for international cooperation: Of survey respondents, 83% are in favor of having countries team up to solve shared problems rather than going it alone. And a majority of them explicitly support international cooperation even if it requires their own national interests to take a back seat, at least temporarily. (More detailed information can be found in our Policy Brief, which analyses an international comparative survey on multilateralism and the G20.) 

Together for more legitimacy: Scholars and practitioners exchange ideas

But what does legitimate mean? And how can it be measured? These questions were the focus of a workshop that the Future of Democracy program, the WZB and the University of Stockholm jointly hosted in early October in Geneva. Experts from international organizations, their member countries, civil society and think tanks met with leading researchers in the field. Among the participants were representatives of the FAO, OECD, the OSCE, UNESCO, UNOG and WTO.    

The workshop had two goals: to identify methods that researchers and practitioners could use to measure legitimacy and, building on this, to discuss which measures international organizations can use to strengthen their own legitimacy and capacity to act.

The path to effectiveness: Making best practices visible and focusing on target groups

The event kicked off with the experts presenting their proposals for measuring legitimacy and providing an overview of existing research projects and results. These focused on four dimensions: the (1) authority, (2) institutional design, (3) effectiveness and (4) legitimacy of international organizations. When viewed together with two real-world evaluation examples (i.e., the UN Evaluation Group and the OECD’s Multilateral Organization Performance Assessment Network), it became clear that the results of such a measurement of legitimacy will only be effective in practice if two prerequisites are met: 

  • First, there needs to be a comparison of the various organizations that uses commonly agreed upon measurement criteria and makes best practices visible.
  • Second, the results must be well prepared for, accessible to and directly usable by all stakeholders.

Additional Information

More information on the Legitimacy in Global Governance program of the University of Stockholm can be found here. Information on the Global Governance department of the WZB can be found here