13 July 2020

The Crisis Management Efficiency of International Organisations – In Light of the COVID-19 Pandemic

"The WHO was also sending mixed messages to its members. While they recommended to China exit screenings at their international airports, it advised against the entry screening of people coming from China in other countries, despite admitting that the majority of the cases were actually detected through entry screening. This was the same with temperature checks which they recommended for people leaving China but not for entry screenings. Lastly, while the WHO was reasoning against travel and trade restrictions, its chief epidemiologist, Bruce Aylward was praising China for its successful lockdowns."

In at least the past seven decades we have been constantly taught and reminded by the proponents of transnationalism1 that in our more and more interconnected world nation states are no longer able to properly deal with global issues and challenges such as climate change or international pandemics. These are the issues that former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan famously called “problems without passports”.2 Therefore, as their reasoning further unfolds, nation states are increasingly obsolete and we need strong international organisations which are better suited to address these issues, of course as long as nation states surrender more and more of their sovereignty to them. This argument, since the fall of the Soviet Union, has become mainstream, and most academics, politicians and opinion makers accept it unquestioningly. Those who dare criticise this notion such remarkable figures as John Fonte or Yoram Hazony are at best branded fools or even fanatical heretics who should be silenced by the international community. Despite this, if we look at our current COVID-19 pandemic, we can clearly see that the claim that international organisations are better suited at dealing with global issues than nation states is dubious to say the least. As I will show in this article, most of these organisations were caught unprepared by the virus, acted rather slowly and in some cases actually even hindered the proper management of the pandemic. It was some of the more proactive nation states that successfully halted the spread of the virus, especially in East Asia and Europe.


dubious track record of international organisations is unfortunately true not only for the current crisis. If we look at the scientific research on the crisis management of international organisations, it is clear that the actual balance sheet is far from perfect. It might be harder to find successful projects than to find failed ones, and the successes are usually attributed to local factors and not the micromanagement of international organisations.3 The crisis response of these organisations is usually slow, inefficient and mired with scandals. Perhaps the most obvious examples of this are the peacekeeping missions of the United Nations (UN), among which the failed peacekeeping examples of Somalia and Rwanda are widely known. Some scholars actually argue that these operations have only succeeded in delaying conflicts but did hardly anything to resolve them.4 This sad fact was admitted even by the UN itself in the landmark report An Agenda for Peace published in 1992.5 In the document, the then Secretary-General of the organisation, Boutros Boutros-Ghali pointed out that since the birth of the UN, there have been about 100 conflicts which left around 20 million people dead, and also admitted that the UN had little power to properly address these conflicts.

Another good example might be the former UN Commission on Human Rights (CHR), which existed between 1946 and 2006 and for long had been considered to be the cruel joke of the whole UN system since its members included countries well-known for their abuse of human rights. The Muammar Gaddafi-led Libya, for example, was nominated to preside over the CHR in 2002, or in 2004, Sudan was selected to be its member, while its government was slaughtering people in Darfur.6 The CHR, because of sweeping international criticism, has since been replaced by the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), not much of an improvement as its members still include for instance China, Cuba or Saudi Arabia, countries that few would consider champions of human rights. The inherent bias of the CHR towards Israel is also well alive in its successor as it regularly condemns the Jewish state while it has nothing to say on countries like North Korea or Myanmar. This failing has been pointed out several times by the former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as well, but to no avail.7 It is no wonder that the United States refused to join the HRC at first, and only did so during the presidency of Barack Obama.

The UN and its specialised agencies offer ample and easy examples of the fallacies of international organisations during crisis situations, but it would be wrong to assume that only the UN is flawed. Almost all the major globally active international organisations have shown very unconvincing records in the past decades. The World Bank has for example long been accused of supporting projects which harm the environment and which do not respect basic human rights. The two most egregious and well-known projects date from the 1980s, such as the Northwest Brazil Integrated Development Program (Polonoroeste) and the Indonesian Transmigration Program.8 In the former, the World Bank has supported the massive influx of settlers and the relocation of indigenous people – who were also heavily hit by the diseases brought in by the new settlers and the deforestation of huge swaths of land. In the latter project, the organisation assisted Indonesia’s corrupt military regime in moving loyalist Javanese people from the inner islands to other parts of the country which had ethnic populations less loyal to the regime. The project, not surprisingly, resulted in violent conflicts, ethnic cleansing and also serious environmental ruin as tens of thousands of square kilometres of forest were destroyed. We could also mention the so-called structural adjustment loans given out by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as part of the famous strategy that was later dubbed the Washington Consensus by economist John Williamson. Several studies have shown that these loans at best did not have any positive effect on economic policies and economic growth of the countries in question, and at worst actually imposed further economic hardships on ordinary people and especially the poor.9

One could of course argue that these problems mainly affect global international organisations which have too many member states with a wide range of diverging cultures, values, governmental systems and national interests. Regional international organisations, on the other hand, have member states which have many more qualities in common and therefore are allegedly much more efficient and successful in solving crisis situations. Proponents of this argument are quick to point to the success of the European integration project as a good example. Looking at the academic literature there is some truth in this argument: regional international organisations do seem to fare better in conflict situations than global ones. But most of the success stories are in fact related to two of them: the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The track record of other regional organisations is much worse: one just has to look at the poor reputation of the Organisation of African Unity and its successor, the African Union, in dealing with the conflicts of the continent or its economic, political and other issues.

The EU itself, however, is far from having a perfect record. One just has to look at the Brexit process, during which the organisation lost one of its most important member states, or to consider how it has been unable to properly deal with the European debt crisis which continues basically unresolved since 2009. But one could also point to several other, perhaps less well-known cases, like the handling of the British mad cow disease crisis in the 1990s, the failed so-called Constitution for Europe project in 2004 and 2005, or how it is unable to properly address the autonomy aspirations of several of its ethnic minorities like the Basques and Catalonians in Spain or the Székelys in Romania.

The proponents of transnationalism are of course eager to pass the blame on nation states when they are confronted with the dubious track record of international organisations. They argue that these organisations are unable to play their proper roles because nation states are still too powerful and do not give enough support for their efficient operation. So they believe that if nation states gave up more of their sovereignty to international organisations, they would perform much better. There is an element of truth in this argument, no doubt. The UN, for instance, is regularly forced into inertia by some members of its Security Council and the EU, for its own part, is often slow to respond because the serious divides of interest among its member states.

Scholars of the realist and neorealist school of international relations argue that powerful states create international organisations purely as means to pursue their self-interest in maintaining or increasing their global or regional influence. Professor G. John Ikenberry has argued, for example, that states winning major wars in the 19th and 20th century created international institutions as a way to “lock in” their victory by creating a “favourable and durable post-war order”.10 But other scholars, mostly from the so-called institutionalist school of international relations, claim that international organisations are actually able to exert a much greater influence on state behaviour than realist scholars believe. In his work, Robert Keohane for example showed that through institutional norms, international organisations are sometimes almost unnoticeably able to constrain and influence the choices countries are able to make in the course of their diplomatic activities.11 So while nation states are still the most important actors of international relations, we should not underestimate the influence international organisations might wield.


if we accept the notion that the reluctance of nation states to commit themselves fully to international organisations might hinder their effectiveness, this does not automatically mean that they would work better with more subservient member states. On the contrary, the regular and manifold corruption and mismanagement scandals of these organisations clearly show how they are almost inherently flawed to be effective in crisis management. With time these organisations amass huge bureaucracies which become lost in their own organisational routines, and through organisational bias slowly become detached from reality.

One would of course assume that the more evolved and formalised an international organisation is, the more effective it is in responding to crisis situations. A very interesting piece of research conducted by Heidi Hardt, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, has shown that this is unfortunately not the case.12 Hardt looked at the response times of four regional organisations, the African Union, the EU, the Organisation of American States and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which have been most active in conflict management since the end of the Cold War. Her surprising evidence has shown that despite its superior capacity and highly formalised nature, the EU was the slowest among the four regional organisations to respond to peace operation demands and also the slowest in carrying out its mandates. Hardt believes that the overly formalised institutional culture of the EU actually hinders the organisation efficiency. This shows the puzzling dilemma that international organisations with higher resources, capacity and capabilities might actually prove to be less efficient in crisis management than organisations with lower capacities. This finding itself cast serious doubts on the legitimacy and utility of the top major international organisations.

Case studies of concrete crisis situations also question the institutional efficiency of international organisations. Let us for instance look at one of the most gigantic failures of the UN, the shocking Rwanda genocide. Although most research points the finger of blame at the United States and the Clinton administration, which after the Somalia fiasco was rather reluctant to engage in another conflict in the region, some researches have shown that at least part of the blame can be put on the UN. Michael N. Barnett, professor of international relations at the Elliott School of International Affairs, in his groundbreaking work about the genocide, while acknowledging the role of the Clinton administration also shows the moral responsibility of the indifferent bureaucracy of the UN.13

The Secretariat for example never informed the Security Council about the so-called “genocide fax”14 which showed clear evidence of ethnic cleansing and could have shored up public support for intervention in the early stages of the conflict. Partly because of this, the Security Council actually called for most of the UN troops in the country to be withdrawn. Barnett found that Boutros-Ghali’s leadership also left “much to be desired” since he did not educate himself in even the most rudimentary way”15 about what was going on in Rwanda, he did not cut short his trip to Europe either to properly preside over the crisis and generally appeared to be detached from the conflict where peacekeepers were killed. The overall responsibility of the UN institutions in the Rwandan genocide was also acknowledged by an independent commission set up later by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to assess what went wrong during the crisis.16 The report of the commission cast the blame quite widely and included in its criticism every part of the UN system, but it found that besides some member states, the Secretary-General and the Secretariat were most responsible for the inaction of the UN.

It seems therefore that international organisations have their own institutional and human vulnerabilities, which constitute shortcomings that cannot simply be explained by the reluctance of member states to surrender more of their sovereignty to them.




Looking at the current COVID-19 crisis we can once again clearly see these serious shortcomings. Most international organisations were, as one international commentator candidly remarked, absent without leave and did not deal with the virus until March 2020.17 The leaders of the G7 for example failed to meet until early March and even then did little more than acknowledge one another’s border closures. Perhaps the most surprising was, however, the almost total indifference of the UN and its specialised agencies, besides the dubious efforts of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Neither the Security Council nor the General Assembly provided any meaningful help. This might have happened also because China held the rotating presidency of the Security Council and blocked it from considering any resolution about the pandemic, arguing that public health matters fell outside the council’s influence. This is, however, not supported by the institution’s past record, as the body previously passed a resolution designating the Ebola epidemic a threat to international peace back in 2014.18

The only UN body which actually dealt with the epidemic, though in a most controversial way, was not surprisingly the WHO, and the organisation might have done more damage than good. It is now widely suspected that the WHO was either negligent in obtaining the necessary information from China or knew more than it showed but was too afraid to displease China, one of its biggest donors, so in turn it downplayed the severity of the virus. Perhaps the most important mistake from the WHO was the refusal to accept the necessity of border closures to contain the virus.

It was clear from the end of December 2019 from the reports of Chinese doctors that the virus had the potential to become an epidemic and that Wuhan hospitals were isolating patients and taking precautions against possible human-to-human infections. Not surprisingly, from early January, countries like Taiwan or Singapore started temperature screening at airports. This was, however, deemed an unnecessary overreaction by the WHO on 5 January. The WHO also falsely insisted that there was no evidence of significant human-to-human transmission and that no health care worker infections had been reported, despite international news on the contrary. This was a crucial mistake as it influenced many countries on their initial public health responses to the virus. Countries acting fast and implementing screenings and increased border controls could have significantly slowed the spread of the virus. The WHO eventually conducted site visits in Wuhan between 20 and 21 January and found that several health care workers had been infected. As a result, on 22 January the Chinese Centre for Disease Control at long last admitted that the virus was highly infectious. By that time, the virus had already spread from China to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand; two days later the United States reported its first case as well. On 30 January, the WHO finally declared the coronavirus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, but still recommended against any travel or trade restrictions because those could “promote stigma or discrimination”.19 When, despite their recommendations, the United States banned noncitizens from entering the country from China on 31 January, the WHO spokesperson called the restriction counterproductive and likely to cause social disruption. On 4 February, the director of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom asked countries to abandon their travel restrictions, which was deemed to have little public benefit but could have the effect of increasing fear and stigma. Even in late February, Adhanom gave a speech where he claimed that intensive community transmission of the virus had not been confirmed. On the very same day, however, the WHO reported more than 81,000 confirmed cases in 38 countries.20 Despite all this, until as late as the beginning of March the WHO advised against travel and trade restrictions.

The WHO was also sending mixed messages to its members. While they recommended to China exit screenings at their international airports, it advised against the entry screening of people coming from China in other countries, despite admitting that the majority of the cases were actually detected through entry screening. This was the same with temperature checks which they recommended for people leaving China but not for entry screenings. Lastly, while the WHO was reasoning against travel and trade restrictions, its chief epidemiologist, Bruce Aylward was praising China for its successful lockdowns.21

The biggest problem was that many, especially poor countries followed the misleading recommendations of the WHO which in the first two crucial months accelerated the spread of the virus. One telling example is Pakistan, which at first suspended flights from China on 31 January, but then on the recommendation of the WHO reinstated them on 3 February only to suspend them again on 21 March, which was already too late. But even developed countries like Australia blindly believed these recommendations. Brendan Murphy, the chief medical officer of the country cited WHO advice when he recommended not banning direct flights from China. The hesitance of the WHO to acknowledge the importance of the virus, its mixed messages and its reluctance to support travel restrictions in the first critical months of the epidemic significantly hindered global and national efforts to curb the spread of the virus and to minimalise its impact.

Another vivid example of an international organisation being “absent without leave” during the first crucial months of the pandemic is the EU. The EU, as almost all other international organisations, did almost nothing until the middle of March when the virus had already appeared in most member states and Italy become not only the regional, but the global hotbed of the pandemic. Similarly to the WHO, perhaps the most damaging was the reluctance of the EU to accept the importance of travel restrictions and border closures. Although since at least the end of February, some European politicians like Marine Le Pen had called for the temporary closure of the EU’s external borders and the temporary suspension of the Schengen free travel area, EU officials completely rejected these ideas for way too long.22 After some members states like Slovakia, Denmark and Poland had completely closed their borders in early March, the leaders of the EU heavily criticised these actions. On 12 March, president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, for example, said that “certain controls may be justified, but general travel bans are not seen as being the most effective by the World Health Organisation.”23 Of course, as this reference clearly shows, the EU’s reluctance to accept travel bans was based on the misguided messages of the WHO. Astonishingly, the dogma of open borders is so deeply embedded in global leaders’ thinking that it is perceived as a priority even when lives are at stake.

The lack of solidarity coming from the EU towards Italy in the first weeks of the epidemic was also appalling. The desperation of the situation became obvious when in the second week of March, Italian Ambassador to the EU Maurizio Massari emphasised that the country was receiving bilateral assistance from China only.24 And when solidarity finally did materialise, it came from other member states and not the EU. Countries like Germany and France started sending masks to Italy, and Germany even took in patients from Italy and France as a sign of solidarity.

Perhaps the most telling example of how efficient the EU was in its response towards the pandemic is shown by the resignation of its chief scientist, Mauro Ferrari, on 7 April. In his resignation, Ferrari heavily criticised the EU’s response to the virus and pointed out that Brussels was not listening to bottom-up initiatives. He claimed that he had lost faith in the system due to the “complete absence of coordination of health care policies among member states, the recurrent opposition to cohesive financial support initiatives, the pervasive one-sided border closures, and the marginal scale of synergistic scientific initiatives” by the EU.25 It was national governments in countries like Austria, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Poland or Taiwan that took action swiftly and managed to curb the spread of the virus, in turn possibly saving thousands of lives. It was nation states and not international organisations that made the crucial decisions about managing containment, sourcing medical equipment and providing economic relief. It was also nation states which provided crucial solidarity towards one another in these disturbing times. This in turn clearly shows that nation states should not be written off as obsolete actors which have to be disposed into the dustbin of history, as transnationalists often would like us to believe. Nation states are still the most credible actors of international relations with the only real power, sovereignty and knowhow to protect their own citizens against global or domestic crisis situations. If the current coronavirus pandemic has taught us something, it is exactly that we should be more aware of the current limitations of international organisations and be more realistic about our expectations towards them.



1 I use transnationalism here in accordance with John Fonte’s use of the term in his groundbreaking work Sovereignty or Submission: Will Americans Rule Themselves or Be Ruled by Others?, Encounter Books, 2011.

2 Kofi Annan, “Environmental Threats Are Quintessential ‘Problems without Passports’”, 23 June1998, https://www.un.org/press/en/1998/19980623.sgsm6609.

3 Tamar Gutner, International Organizations in World Politics, Los Angeles: CQ Press, 2016, 98–99.

4 Michael W. Doyle and Nicholas Sambanis, Making War and Building Peace: United Nations Peace Operations, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006, 14–15.

5 Boutros Boutros-Ghali, “An Agenda for Peace: Preventive Diplomacy, Peacemaking and Peace-keeping”, New York: United Nations, 1992, https://www.un.org/ruleoflaw/files/A_47_277.pdf

6 Tamar Gutner, International Organizations in World Politics, Los Angeles: CQ Press, 2016, 93.

7 Thomas G. Weiss, What’s Wrong with the United Nations and How to Fix It, 2nd ed., New York: Polity Books, 2012, 41.

8 Bruce Rich, Mortgaging the Earth: The World Bank, Environmental Impoverishment, and the Crisis of Development, Boston: Beacon Press, 1994, 27–37.

9 See for example: William Easterly, “What Did Structural Adjustment Adjust? The Association of Policies and Growth with Repeated IMF and World Bank Adjustment Loans”, Journal of Development Economics, 2005/76, 1–22; or Joseph E. Stiglitz, Globalization and Its Discontents, New York: W. W. Norton, 2002, 89–133.

10 G. John Ikenberry, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order After Major Wars, New York: Princeton University Press, 2001, xi–xii and 3–4.

11 Robert O. Keohane, International Institutions and State Power: Essays in International Relations Theory, Boulder: Westview Press, 1989, 35–74.

12 Heidi Hardt, Time to React: The Efficiency of International Organizations in Crisis Response, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, 9–10.

13 Michael N. Barnett, Eyewitness to a Genocide: The United Nations and Rwanda, New York: Cornell University Press, 2002, 175–177.

14 Gutner, 122.

15 Barnett, 159.

16 United Nations, “Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Actions of the United Nations during the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda”, New York: United Nations, 1999, 3.

17 Salvatore Babones, “Yes, Blame WHO for Its Disastrous Coronavirus Response”, Foreign Policy, 27 May 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/05/27/who-health-china-coronavirus-tedros/

18 Stewart Patrick, “When the System Fails, COVID-19 and the Costs of Global Dysfunction”, Foreign Affairs, 2020 July/August, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2020-06-09/when-system-fails

19 “Statement on the second meeting of the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee regarding the outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV)”, 30 January, 2020, https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/27-04-2020-who-timeline---covid-19?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI3ObHutnJ6gIVjNwYCh3tig5wEAAYASAAEgK6K_D_BwE

20 “WHO Director-General’s Opening Remarks at the Mission Briefing on COVID-19”, 26 February 2020, https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-mission-briefing-on-covid-19---26-february-2020

21 Sarah Zheng, “Coronavirus: China is Making a ‘Bigger Effort to Cooperate’ with WHO Than during Sars”, South China Morning Post, 26 February 2020, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/%20article/3052258/coronavirus-china-making-bigger-effort-cooperate-who-during-sars

22 Lionel Laurent, “Salvini and Le Pen Don’t Have a Coronavirus Cure”, Bloomberg, 25 February 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-02-25/salvini-and-le-pen-don-t-have-a-european-coronavirus-cure

23 “Remarks by President von der Leyen at the joint press conference with Executive Vice-Presidents Vestager and Dombrovskis to present the economic response to the Coronavirus crisis”, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/statement_20_465

24 Matthew Karnitschnig, “China Is Winning the Coronavirus Propaganda War”, Politico Europe, 18 March 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/coronavirus-china-winning-propaganda-war/

25 Mauro Ferrari, Return To The Frontlines, To The Frontier, Personal Statement, 7 April 2020, http://prod-upp-image-read.ft.com/65f5a27e-78dd-11ea-af44-daa3def9ae03 

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