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Reform efforts, synchronization failure, and international bureaucracy: the case of the UNESCO budget crisis

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journal contribution
posted on 31.10.2018, 07:24 by Steffen Eckhard, Ronny Patz, Sylvia Schmidt

International organizations (IOs) and their bureaucracies frequently face calls for reform. To express discontent and exert reform pressure, member states can withhold their budgetary contributions to IOs. In extreme cases, these cuts result in organizational crises during which reform efforts become unavoidable, as happened in UNESCO after 2011. Traditional IR research sees member states as being in the driver’s seat when it comes to achieving – or failing to achieve – reform under such conditions, whereas scholars of international public administration underline bureaucratic action or pathology as driving, or preventing, reform. By tracing UNESCO’s reform dynamics from 2011 to 2013, this paper demonstrates how a budget crisis can trigger major reform efforts by IO bureaucracies and by IO member states, but how the lack of joint and synchronized action by both actors still results in failed or limited reform. This contributes to key debates on international public administration, IO reform, and the role of budgetary crisis. The article suggests a dynamic and actor-centred theory of IO reform that highlights the need for synchronized crisis cognition and for substantively and temporally coordinated efforts of both states and bureaucracies as key elements for reform success – and their absence as explanation for failed reform.


This work was supported by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft [grant number EC 506/1-1].