Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The accountability of the "international": is it really that bad?

Apologies that things have been a bit slow on here of late; the New York summer tends to make those of us from cooler climes somewhat sluggish. To get the ball rolling again, I just wanted to flag briefly an interesting discussion on the comment pages of The Guardian recently, involving columnist Simon Jenkins and a response from Robert Lloyd, projects manager for global accountability at the One World Trust.


Today the word "international" suggests tailored suits, tax-free salaries, white Land Cruisers and Geneva. The Eurovision contest is run by the European Broadcasting Union with 400 staff in Switzerland, with no risk of oversight or reform. It takes after the International Olympics Committee, which now charges its host taxpayers $20-30bn for two weeks of extravaganza in the name of bogus world brotherhood...

It may seem crude to leap from such mundane activities to world peace, but the ruling assumption is the same, that internationalism legitimises itself. It rises above (never below) the nation state and its rulemakers owe allegiance only to an ideal of global community, which means whatever they choose. The ever-more numerous world bodies to which the British Foreign Office subscribes need never pass the eye of any National Audit Office... It was only when America briefly withdrew from Unesco and capped its contribution to the UN that steps were taken to curb that organisation's waste and corruption, which culminated in Kofi Annan's obscene 2000 "poverty summit", which I watched as it gridlocked New York and emptied it of lobsters and champagne.


Many of the organisations which Jenkins criticised have developed innovative ways in which individuals and communities can hold them to account. The UN Development Programme has adapted the principle of a national freedom of information act and now has a policy grounded in the presumption of disclosure. The UN Environment Programme runs regional conferences with civil society organisations that feed into its governing council. The World Bank has a mechanism for project-affected communities to initiate investigations when institutional policy has not been followed...

While I agree that there is an "accountability deficit" in multilateral institutions, I disagree with the way he equates all international organisations with bureaucracy, waste and a lack of accountability... My worry is that unless we start grounding the debate on international organisations in an objective analysis of what they are doing, rather than relying on anecdotal evidence that highlights failure, we will give fuel to those people who seek to undermine multilateralism just when we need it the most.

Hmmm. While Jenkins is, of course, largely correct in much of his analysis of inefficiency and waste within international organizations, his proposed solution - "more accountability" - is neither new nor particularly helpful (for a critique of "accountability" as slogan rather than solution, and a more refined analysis of the concept, see this paper by Richard Stewart). Lloyd's response has the merit of acknowledging the problem and briefly identifying improvements that might be extended more generally - many of which, of course, have been studied in depth within the GAL project already.

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