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How to classify organizations?


Let’s now turn to some efforts to, and ways to categorize or describe a taxonomy of organizations. One way is to look at their geographic scope. Some organizations are global in scope. Of course, the United Nations is global in scope. How many member states do we have in the United Nations today? If you said 193, you would be correct. From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe there are presently 193 member states of the United Nations. Of course, other organizations are global in scope. The specialized agencies, like the World Health Organization, or the Food and Agriculture Organization, or the World Food Program, or the World Trade Organization. International organizations like International Committee for the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, are also global in scope.

Other organizations are regional. We think of ASEAN, or the European Union or the African Union, for example. There are even subregional international organizations. Such as ECOWAS, the political subregional organization covering west and parts of central Africa. Or the Mekong Group, or the Southern African Development Community. The annual yearbook of international organizations lists more than 200 international organizations, ranging in size from three, like the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, to organizations with hundreds of members.

What then do we consider to be a definition of international organization? You may wish to develop a view of your own on what you think is an appropriate view, because it’s not black and white, and there are options for interpretation. In fact, there as many definitions of international organizations, almost, as there are such organizations. The OECD, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, itself an international organization, puts forth really, a very narrow definition of international organizations. And I quote, international organizations are entities established by formal political agreements between their members, that have the status of international treaties. Their existence is recognized by the law in their member countries and they are not treated as resident, institutional units of the countries in which they are located, end quote. Let’s look at another definition, one that considers international organizations to be those whose members have at least three states, that have activities in several states, and whose members are held together by a formal intergovernmental agreement. Many commentators consider such an inter-governmental agreement to be an essential quality, an essential characteristic of an international organization. A sine qua non, if you will, of being in the category of international organizations.

International organizations are recognized subjects of international law, and have a separate legal standing from their member states or other members. Why do I say member states or other members? Because, over time, international organizations have evolved and some have become more inclusive.

So, the governance of international organizations has evolved over time and we’ll look at that in a little bit. A simple, broader, more inclusive definition of international organization would be something like an organization with an international membership, an international scope, or an international presence. And we can think of two main types or categories of international organization.

The first, inter-governmental organizations. Most closely associated with the term international organization, and these are those that are made up primarily of sovereign states. And examples, as I said, include the United Nations, the specialized agencies of the United Nations, the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe, the European Union, as I mentioned earlier, the African Union, other regional bodies.

The second major type of international organization is, of course, international non governmental organizations. Those that are usually non-profit. And examples include so many around the world and here in Geneva. The International Scouting Movement, the International Committee of the Red Cross.  We should note also, that intergovernmental organizations are usually considered public in nature. While NGOs fall into the category of private organizations. We of course, are not today addressing or including in our discussion, other kinds of entities that have an international presence. Coca Cola, Toyota, other multinational corporations are certainly present in villages, towns and cities all around the world, in more than what we think of as international organizations.Let me also note that a number of governments codify the definition of international organizations in their own domestic law, in their own domestic statutes. But let’s turn back again to the methodologies for thinking about or classifying international organizations.

We spoke already about geographic scope. Another basis for classifying, in our taxonomy of international organizations, is the purpose of the organization. Is the purpose general, like the United Nations or the Organization of American States? Is it specific, like specialized agencies of the United Nations? The founders of the UN envisaged that functional agencies would play key roles and carry out key activities, for example, in economic and social development. Indeed, the Charter, Articles 57 and 63 call for affiliations of the UN, with various organizations that are established by separate international agreements to deal with particular issues. Such as health, the World Health Organization. Or food, the World Food Program. Or science, education and culture, UNESCO. Or refugees, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Or economic and social development, such as the UN Development Program, or the World Bank, or the International Monetary Fund. It’s very interesting how the purposes of these organizations have evolved over time since their creation.

What are the functions of international organizations? Informational, gathering, analyzing, disseminating data. Providing a forum for exchange of views and decision making. Normative functions, defining standards of conduct or of service. Rule creating, such as drafting legally binding treaties. Operational functions, allocating resources, providing technical assistance and relief, deploying forces. And dispute resolution, settling criminal or civil claims. Of course, some organizations can have many, or all of these functions.


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