Torn into the Abyss?

How Subpopulations of International Organizations in Climate, Education, and Health Policy Evolve in Times of a Declining Liberal International Order

In: Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations
Dennis Niemann University of Bremen Institute of Intercultural and International Studies and Collaborative Research Centre 1342 Global Dynamics of Social Policy Bremen Germany

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David Krogmann University of Bremen Institute of Intercultural and International Studies and Collaborative Research Centre 1342 Global Dynamics of Social Policy Bremen Germany

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Kerstin Martens University of Bremen Institute of Intercultural and International Studies and Collaborative Research Centre 1342 Global Dynamics of Social Policy Bremen Germany

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Recent challenges to the liberal international order (LIO) have called into question the efficacy of international organizations (IO s) in global governance. However, it remains unclear if the anticipated crisis of the LIO affects all policy fields to the same degree. Based on organizational ecology, this article seeks to explain compositions and trajectories across three fields—climate, education, and health. It shows that the three subpopulations of IO s are stable since the early 2000s, while regional IO s constitute a significant share of the subpopulations. It further finds notable variation in the distribution of generalist and specialist IO s. While the number of generalist IO s in relation to specialist health IO s decreased over time, the article finds generalist education and climate IO s have been on the rise. It argues that—as policy issues grow ever more interconnected over time—IO s expand their thematic scopes to new niches.

1 Introduction

International organizations (IO s) are an integral part of the modern liberal international order (LIO). The liberal international order may be defined as the rule-based institutionalization of international relations between nation-states by virtue of political and economic liberalism. Core features of political liberalism include principled equality and sovereignty of nation-states, democratic rule and the protection of human rights, while economic liberalism proposes capitalist markets and free trade as well as capital mobility, among others.1 As it “has structured relations among capitalist, democratic, and industrialized nations since the late 1940s,”2 the LIO and its related Westphalian system of sovereign states provided the ground for formalized multilateral cooperation of states through IO s. In fact, IO s have been a central node in the international network of global and regional governance, as they have become important agencies for securing durable cooperation and coordinating policy responses for international problems.

However, the LIO is not a static imperative, but one that changes over time. On a global scale, the LIO may, for example, be contested by authoritarian or single powerful states; internally, liberal states must cope with by populist movements questioning international commitments.3 Others argue that the individualism inherent in contemporary Western societies undermines the moral principles of the LIO.4 Given such challenges to multilateral cooperation,5 we examine whether the contestations of IO s as part of the LIO are reflected in the subpopulations of IO s in different policy fields. How IO s manage cooperation heavily depends on the institutional structures that shape them and on the organizational environment in which they operate. Structural differences in policy fields and the interplay between endogenous and exogenous factors have been systematically overlooked in previous research on IO s. We therefore ask: Are there different trajectories of IO subpopulations across fields and, if so, how can they be explained and what does that tell us about the LIO?

We aim to contribute to empirical and theoretical debates around IO s. Empirically, we make two main arguments regarding perceived challenges of the LIO. On the one hand, we show that there is no decline in IO numbers in any of the observed policy fields that would account for general contestations. On the other hand, we support the argument that several regionally constituted LIO s have emerged.6 Theoretically, we contend that IO s can exhibit differences in their basic characteristics and institutional setup that are sufficiently significant to constitute distinct intrinsic features, thereby expanding on organizational ecology.7 In addition to these debates, we also use the latter argument to explain how intrinsic features interact with specific problem structures in the three examined policy fields, thereby shaping IO subpopulations.

IO s are often differentiated by their institutional setup such as membership rules (open vs. closed), thematic scope (generalist vs. task specific), degree of authority (hard vs. soft governance), degree of autonomy (independent from vs. controlled by member states), and geographical reach (global vs. regional).8 While these different and widely applied categories for distinguishing between IO s are helpful for characterizing the general population of IO s, we argue that the picture of IO s becomes more diverse once we differentiate them by policy fields. In doing so, we are able to include the idiosyncrasies of individual policy fields into the explanatory model of IO population development. Furthermore, while others argue that regionalism and generalism of IO s are closely entwined,9 we show that this does not necessarily hold true for the IO subpopulations once we control for policy fields. Hence, it is important to distinguish IO s geographically because this not only tells us about how multilateral cooperation is organized in different region, but also allows us to extrapolate the findings to the general state of the LIO.

In this article, we examine the subpopulations of IO s in three distinct policy fields—climate, education, and health—from a comparative perspective. Our basic assumption is that the idiosyncrasies and constituting features of a policy field are responsible for the development of (different types of) IO s in that very policy field. The most distinctive feature of a policy field is its underlying problem structure; that is, the degree to which the interpretation of the core policy problems in these fields depends on the social and spatial contexts they reside in. In other words, context dependency determines agency and high context dependency comes with highly limited agency.

To cover the maximum variance on the dimension of problem structure, we applied a diverse case selection technique10 and selected three policy fields for analysis: climate, education, and health policy (see Table 1). In climate policy, the underlying problem is context independent and fixed. Global warming is a scientific fact and the man-made causes for this development are factual knowledge. Therefore, in climate policy, there is little room for sound reinterpretations of the problem. At the other pole of the (problem structure) continuum is education. Educational problems are highly context dependent and open to interpretation. What is considered good education or good educational outcomes is open for definition and political agency. Health policy falls in the middle of the context dependency spectrum of policy fields’ problem structure and resembles a median case. The core foundations are determined and not open to redefinition—for example, the coronavirus is transmitted by aerosols. However, others dimensions of health topics are more context dependent—for example, how best to prevent transmissions of the coronavirus.

Table 1

Problem structures in three policy fields

Policy field




Problem structure

Context-independent & bounded/limited agency

Core foundations context-independent & average agency

Context-dependent & high agency

Source: own account

Taken together, with our case selection, we covered the whole range of policy fields’ problem structures characteristics in world politics. These three fields reflect the overall prevalent value frame and the prioritized topics for multilateral cooperation as they are firmly anchored in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG s).11 However, and within this frame, these fields represent each of the central dimensions of the SDG s; namely, reduction of disparities of living standards (health), the creation of equal opportunities (education), as well as sustainable management of natural resources (climate).

Using the Correlates of War (COW)12 dataset and the Yearbook of International Organizations (YBIO),13 we selected the IO s that declare themselves as being active in each of the three selected policy fields. By international organizations, we refer to institutions that are set up by at least three states and have a permanent structure. With the notion of IO population, we refer to theoretical accounts originating from the life sciences that have been adapted by international relations scholars.14 A population is defined as the totality of all individuals of the same species—IO s in our approach—that occur in a specified area, or policy field. Therefore, we refer to the totality of IO s in each of the three fields as subpopulations.

Subsequently, we develop and present our argument about analyses of IO subpopulations divided by policy fields. First, we lay out our theoretical approach using organizational ecology. We expand current approaches by adding that the specific problem structure of policy fields needs to be considered for an adequate assessment of IO subpopulations. We then describe our methodology of how we examined every IO in the established data sets regarding its activity in one of our three selected policy fields. In the third and empirical part, we start by providing a general analysis of the population of IO s before differentiating IO subpopulations according to the policy fields of climate, education, and health. We compare the density and diversity of IO subpopulations over time regarding their geographic distribution and thematic scope. Next, we continue to explain how characteristics of the respective policy fields have shaped different developments over time. In the concluding section, we reflect on how our approach and our findings on IO subpopulations relate to current discussions about the substance and constitution of the LIO.

2 A Theoretical Approach to Populations of IO s in Policy Fields

Organizational ecology, as pioneered by Michael Hannan, John Freeman, and Glenn R. Carroll in the social sciences15 and recently applied to global governance by Kenneth W. Abbott, Jessica F. Green, and Robert O. Keohane,16 allows for an analysis of the organizational environment in which IO s operate as well as the intrinsic features of the specific organizational form that IO s represent. The theoretical approach, hence, focuses on isolating variables for population growth, stagnation, or demise. On the one hand, organizational ecology provides the appropriate terminology for describing a given population of organizations. On the other hand, it also offers an explanation for the trajectories of individual subpopulations.

First, the organizational environment is characterized by its density, meaning the number of resources available in the field divided by the number of organizations competing for them. The term resources is used rather broadly in this context and may refer to social, political, or material resources alike. Organizational ecology predicts that populations of organizations experience growth when the organizational density in the given policy field is low. If only a few organizations compete for a large volume of available resources, newcomers are more likely to move into the field to try to gain access to these resources. Another dimension of the organizational environment is its degree of diversity. Here, the focus is on how (potentially) diverse a policy field is at a given point in time to host many different IO s simultaneously.17 IO s can occupy different niches if the degree of diversity is high. This also means that in a field with high density, additional IO s can populate the field if the diversity is similarly high and IO s can occupy a particular niche.

The diversity of a field can, for example, be influenced institutionally and discursively by broadening the scope of a certain policy field. It is, thus, important to note that density and diversity are not fixed, but open for change and adaptation. For instance, external shocks and events in world politics, such as the end of the Cold War, can affect the density of an organizational environment by enabling states to spend more resources on IO s (or prevent them from doing so). Not only do singular events in a confined period influence the organizational environment for IO s, but general global trends also shape opportunities for IO s. Colonialism and decolonization substantially influenced how international relations were organized and, in turn, determined the available resources and niches for IO s. Hence, and according to organizational ecology, variation in density (also regarding resource allocation) and the degree of diversity (regarding establishing potential new niches) can contribute to an explanation of an IO subpopulation’s change.

The second element of the organizational ecology approach is the dimension of intrinsic features. They refer to how the institutional design of an IO shapes its behavior and determines the extent in which it can autonomously operate in an organizational field.18 In other words, the “birth characteristics” of IO s shape how they mature. In this regard, IO s are often differentiated by the thematic scopes they embody—specialists versus generalists. Generalist IO s are characterized by a broader policy portfolio and focus on the provision of public goods for a relatively homogenous political community in a setting with incomplete contracts.19 Hence, generalist IO s are more likely to expand their policy portfolio to other policy fields. In contrast, task-specific or specialized IO s that feature a limited policy portfolio are based on complete contracts for a heterogeneously structured membership.20 In this case, expansion is not necessarily expected due to clearly defined tasks and divergent preferences of its members.

In addition, IO s have various geographic boundaries in which they operate, or which are defined by their member states, meaning that they can be separated into regional and global IO s.21 With regard to regional IO s, we find similarly structured IO s in different regions of the world that aim at fostering (economic) integration—European Union (EU), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), African Union, Mercosur. However, there is also a variety of transregional organizations, which link states from different parts of the world due to a common (colonial or cultural) history (e.g., Commonwealth of Nations, Organisation internationale de la Francophonie), religious alignment (e.g., Organisation of Islamic Cooperation), or on other grounds.22 Thus, intrinsic features influence how organizations can reinvent their original missions and how flexible they are to adapt to new challenges.23 A basic assumption is that the “early years of an organization significantly affect its further development.”24 Organizational ecology predicts that the intrinsic features of IO s imply a state preference for the expansion of existing IO s into new policy fields over the creation of new IO s, as IO creation is inherently costly and requires significant commitment.

While organizational ecology has recently been used to analyze the trajectory of IO development as a whole, we explore specific IO subpopulations. Policy fields have varying degrees of context dependency with regard to their problem structure. For example, if an IO’s main mission is to support its member states in achieving “better education,” this can mean different things in distinctive geographical or sociocultural contexts. Conversely, there are also policy goals that have relatively universal meanings, like combatting climate change. Regional and transregional IO s find their organizational niches more easily in policy fields in which context matters a great deal such as education. They are uniquely situated (literally and metaphorically) to deal with policy issues in a way that is more likely to be effective and more likely to be accepted and supported by the citizens in their home regions.

Combined with the different organizational densities and different degrees of diversity, idiosyncratic developments in the three IO subpopulations can be assessed. Against the backdrop of our theoretical framework, we expect that the IO subpopulation developments in the three policy fields follow distinct trajectories. While the organizational environment influences how many IO s a policy field can sustain, intrinsic features address the capacities of IO s to react to external or internal momenta. The effects of both variables are moderated by the problem structure of the policy field. It has been shown that different problem structures can account for different degrees of influence of otherwise similar IO s.25 This also means that issue areas with a high problem saliency and higher problem pressure offer better opportunities for IO s to be extended to these areas. We argue that the different characteristics of the policy field yield explanatory power when exploring developments in the subpopulations of IO s in different areas. In sum, we assume that the proportion of general and specialized IO s and the proportion of global, regional, or transregional IO s is shaped not only by the organizational environmental and intrinsic features, but also by the problem structure of the policy field in which an IO is active.

Climate policy is a comparatively young field, in which IO s have become some of the most influential actors.26 While the issue of climate change was first introduced to the international stage as part of environmental policy during the UN Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) in 1972, it was not until 1979 that IO s began to engage with it. From then on, a number of intergovernmental conferences provided an impetus for states to participate in institutionalized coordination to combat climate change and international climate governance has grown into what is often called “fragmented governance.”27 Research on IO s in climate policy has largely failed to acknowledge their diversity. While globally active IO s in climate governance, like the World Bank or the UN Development Programme (UNDP), have been reviewed in depth,28 there is little evidence for the developments and trajectories of IO s operating at a regional level. Climate change is a largely context-independent policy problem. Although there may be a lot of variation among the measures and focus that different actors deem to be adequate to combat climate change, there is a basic scientific consensus about the causes and effects of climate change. Therefore, we expect more global IO s to be relevant in climate governance, as the nature of climate change favors global policy solutions that are independent of sociocultural context. Since climate policy affects multiple other areas and the field has been discursively broadened over time by establishing multiple niches (climate change as economic risk, as a driver for migration, etc.), general and specialized IO s with nonclimate background are expected to successively enter the subpopulation.

Education has traditionally been considered a national policy field. While international exchange in education was almost always relevant, efforts for multilateral coordination in the field were sparse. The internationalization of education policy eventually took off in the 1990s, making it a latecomer compared to other social policy fields.29 The establishment of multiple international projects and initiatives turned the national domain of education into an internationalized area, like the Programme for International Student Assessment or the European Bologna Process. Internationalized education policy became more relevant because it addressed issues of human capital production for economic development. This paradigmatic shift was also driven by IO s, like the World Bank30 and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).31 Accordingly, the problem structure in (international) education policy can be assessed as rather context dependent. How education is framed is contingent on specific interpretations, and these interpretations are open to involving cultural and regional idiosyncrasies. Thus, we expect more regional and specialist IO s to be more active in education in comparison to global and generalist IO s.

As a policy field of international concern, health has a long history. Early on, due to diseases crossing borders, international initiatives were launched to tackle common problems. For example, in response to cholera epidemics in the 1830s and 1840s, the first International Sanitary Conference was convened in Paris in 1851 and in 1902 the International Sanitary Bureau, which later became the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), was founded. Both institutions established mechanisms for international cooperation for disease control.32 Due to various international diseases spreading across the globe (Spanish flu, HIV, SARS, and lately Covid-19), the field of global health IO s has attracted wide recognition as a topic of research in academia, primarily its main actors the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank.33 With regard to the problem structure, the policy field of health takes a medium position compared to climate and education. It can be assumed that core foundations in health are predetermined across national health policy and in international health policy such as the basic delivery of care, medical benefits, and treatment. However, the extent of these can be highly context specific. Therefore, we expect a balanced amount of regional/transregional versus global and generalist versus specialist IO s active in this field.

3 A Methodological Approach to Dissecting IO Properties

The analysis presented here relies on an exploratory mixed-method approach that combines descriptive statistics and qualitative content analysis.34 The IO s examined in this article are drawn from two sources: the Brill Yearbook of International Organizations and the Correlates of War dataset. Three criteria are then applied to these organizations to assign IO s into subpopulations. First, the organization has to be an international organization that fits the definition of having “representatives from three or more states supporting a permanent secretariat to perform ongoing tasks related to a common purpose.”35 Such a definition excludes nongovernmental organizations (NGO s), international regimes, or hybrid forms like the Group of 20 (G20). Second, it has to be currently active. Discontinued organizations are not considered because their dissolution often involves the loss of crucial data, which may skew results. Third, education, climate, or health policy must be part of its programmatic mission or indicated as a distinct area of work by the organization. Some organizations are focused on providing, for example, health care, training, or merely scientific exchange on climate data, rather than designing policy. Insofar as they contribute to the realization of policies, they are still included in the sample.

The criteria are applied based on a manual review of available strategic publications and documentation from the archives of the IO s as well as their online presence. After applying these criteria to all organizations in the YBIO, the resulting sample has been cross-checked with the CoW database to identify potentially missing IO s. Using descriptive statistics, this article first explores the development of subpopulations over time to identify and compare the main trajectories within the fields. It is important to note that IO s can be members of more than one subpopulation. For instance, seven of all eighty IO s in our dataset are simultaneously part of the subpopulations in all three policy fields. After mapping the developments, we provide an explanation for the determined trajectories.

4 Mapping the IO Population

The variety of IO s we find in today’s world is not a recent phenomenon. IO s have existed for around two centuries and had specific tasks, goals, and missions. Some of them still exist, while others have ceased: even before 1945, 107 IO s were founded (Figure 1) and more than one-third of them (41) dissolved within the same period. Most IO s, however, have been created after World War II, when multilateral cooperation flourished and became increasingly institutionalized. One of the oldest active IO s, the International Labour Organization (ILO), was founded in 1919 to specifically address issues of labor rights and decent working conditions. The ill-fated League of Nations, on the other hand, was more generalist, though its main focus was on preventing military conflict. Consequently, different types of IO s have emerged, displaying a wide range of intrinsic features. For instance, a generalist IO with a global focus is quite different from an IO that deals with environmental policy in the Baltic region.

After 1945, international cooperation through IO s experienced a boom over several decades; however, recent developments question whether IO s are still relevant and whether the LIO shifted away from coordinated multilateralism.36 Since 1945, there has been rapid growth of the IO population across the international community resulting in a saturation of IO s since the mid-1990s.37 However, in contrast to Tanja A. Börzel and Michael Zürn,38 we cannot confirm the “explosion” in IO numbers after the end of the Cold War—in fact, IO numbers slightly declined in the period between 1991 and 1995. A possible explanation for the variation may be due to the inclusion of IO “death rates,” where we assess the net growth of the entire IO population.


Figure 1

Development of the IO population after 1945

Citation: Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations 29, 3 (2023) ; 10.1163/19426720-02903004

Source: Own account, based on YBIO and CoW

Instead, the IO population grew steadily between 1945 and the early 1990s by a factor of 1.2–1.5 every ten years. Since the mid-1990s, the number of IO s remains constant at around 350 IO s (Figure 1). As the quantitative expansion of the LIO has come to a standstill, new IO s have rarely been founded (or existing ones have been dissolved) after the new millennium.39 Since 2006 only fourteen new IO s were founded and six were dissolved. In comparison, between 1996 and 2005 forty-three IO s were founded and forty-five were disbanded (Figure 1). Therefore, for the overall population of IO s we find constant growth and standstill (since the mid-1990s). In the following sections, we examine whether different trajectories of this general development can be distinguished between policy fields.

4.1 Density and Diversity of IO Subpopulations in Climate, Health, and Education

In all three policy fields of climate, education, and health, the relative number of IO s steadily increased over time. When comparing the growth rates of IO subpopulations in health, education, and climate over time, it becomes evident that in all three fields IO s were relative latecomers compared to the general population of IO s, meaning that the diversity in these fields was low for a long time in comparison to the overall IO population. While 20 percent of the entire IO population (that exists today) had already been founded by 1945, the number of prospective IO s active in our three fields of analysis was much lower—in health 5 percent, in education 7 percent, and in climate policy 0 percent of today’s IO s existed already in 1945. While the IO population reached its numerical peak in the period 1991–1995, the IO subpopulations in the three analyzed policy fields instead plateaued only recently in the period 2006–2010 (Figure 2).


Figure 2

Development of the three IO subpopulations

Citation: Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations 29, 3 (2023) ; 10.1163/19426720-02903004

Source: Own account, based on YBIO and CoW

Comparing the three fields, the highest growth rate over the shortest period of time was visible in the subpopulation of climate IO s. This is not surprising, as the field formed only in the early 1970s and gained momentum afterward. Education and health IO subpopulations, on the other hand, show similar growth rates. However, in contrast to the population of all IO s and the subpopulation in climate policy, they started later and grew until the mid-2000s. The education IO subpopulation formed earlier than health, but the subpopulation of health IO s consistently caught up since the mid-1990s (Figure 2). Surprisingly, the total number of IO s in the three policy fields is quite similar as of the latest period 2016–2020 with forty-one IO s in health, thirty in education, and forty-three in climate policy. This indicates that at a certain point a field becomes saturated by the number of active IO s and all available niches are being occupied. Even when more resources were available, like in the recent period of climate policy, it did not lead to a surge of new IO s.40 This finding underscores that diversity is not just a function of density. If density causes more diversity, IO growth rates should have continued, particularly in the field of climate policy where encompassing resources were made available during the past decade. The observed saturation indicates that no additional niches were created that would have allowed new IO s to populate them.

Moreover, a large share of IO s expanded their activities to health policy, which was not part of their initial mission but only after they were active for some time in other areas (as indicated by lines in Figure 2). When comparing IO s that address health policy at a certain point in time with IO s that already exist and will eventually become health IO s in a later period, we can see that there is a substantial gap between both groups (bars vs. line) (Figure 2). To a lesser degree, this kind of expansion can also be seen in the case of education between 1951 and 1990. In the case of climate IO s, this gap is instead substantial due to the field only emerging in the early 1970s. However, the wide gap abruptly closed in the period 2001–2005 and the period 2006–2010 (Figure 2). This can be explained by the skyrocketing concern over climate change issues, the provided resources, and the prominence the topic gained worldwide.

4.2 Geographical Reach and Thematic Scope of IO s in Climate, Education, and Health

With regard to the geographical distribution within the IO subpopulations, we observe that in all three fields, the group of regional IO s is substantial and their numbers have grown in absolute and in relative terms since 1945. Today, regional and transregional IO s constitute a majority of the subpopulation in education (with 80 percent of the subpopulation) and health (with 63 percent of the IO subpopulation), while representing a (albeit significant) minority (about 48 percent) in climate policy (Figure 3).


Figure 3

Geographic distribution of IO subpopulations

Citation: Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations 29, 3 (2023) ; 10.1163/19426720-02903004

Source: Own account, based on YBIO and CoW, for better readability, the categories regional and transregional are combined as Regional [...] IOs

However, some divergent developments regarding the regionalization in IO subpopulations can be identified. In education, the tendency toward regionalization is straightforward. Starting with a share of 17 percent in the time span of 1946–1950, the percentage of regional IO s in the subpopulation of education IO s increased to 67 percent in the periods after 2005. At the same time, the absolute number of global education IO s remained largely the same, as there was only a slight increase of global education IO s between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s. In addition, just a few transregional IO s expanded into the subpopulation of education IO s since the early 1970s. As expected in our theoretical approach, regionalization in education seemed to be generally preferred over further globalization through IO s. Since the late-1960s, we observe that regional (and transregional) IO s became the largest geographical type within the subpopulation of education IO s. After global IO s had populated the field within approximately twenty years, regional (and transregional) IO s found their respective niches in education over a period of forty years.

In health, the share of regional IO s reached its peak between 1981 and 1985, when almost 70 percent of the health IO subpopulation were regional organizations (Figure 3). Afterward, some global (and few transregional) IO s were founded or became active in health policy—accordingly, the relative number of regional IO s decreased. Global health IO s especially gained some further prominence in the decades after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. Taking into account the gap between already existing IO s and their involvement with health issues, it can be argued that it was mainly global IO s that expanded their thematic scope to health policy since the late 1980s and early 1990s. In climate policy, the trend of regionalization took off in the early 1990s and continued throughout the 1990s. Since the mid-1990s, the absolute growth rates of global and regional climate IO s were almost parallel. In relative terms, at the origin of the climate IO subpopulation, global IO s clearly dominated. However, since the late 1990s, regional IO s gained considerable momentum within the climate IO subpopulation and are almost at par with global IO s as of today, while the group of transregional IO s plays only a minor role in this policy field.

Differentiating the three IO subpopulations according to the thematic scope of the involved IO s, additional patterns related to the specific policy field in which they are active can be identified (Figure 4). For example, in the health IO subpopulation, the proportion between general and special IO s has stayed almost the same since the mid-1950s, which means that the number of IO s that have a general focus and IO s that have a special focus on health changed at the same ratio. Around 25 to 30 percent of all IO s active in health have been general IO s, while 70 to 75 percent of IO s that work in health issues are specialized in this field. Furthermore, the number of global and regional IO s active in health increased to similar extents. In education, the share of generalist IO s relatively increased over time compared to specialized IO s. General IO s saw a greater growth rate in the subpopulation than specialized IO s. In the 1950s, over 80 percent of the IO s in the subpopulation were specialized in a particular policy field (e.g., education or economics) and less than 20 percent were general IO s such as the EU and ASEAN that cover a broad variety of policy issues. In the period after 1985, the share of generalists rose to almost 40 percent and, accordingly, specialist IO s dropped to 60 percent. Furthermore, the continuous expansion of IO s with a generalist focus that expanded their activities to education topics correlates with the increasing regionalization in the subpopulation of education IO s. Regional education IO s are mostly generalists and have multiple areas of expertise, while some have primarily an economic focus, like the regional development banks (Asian Development Bank, African Development Bank, Inter-American Development Bank). The IO subpopulation in climate policy experienced a similar development. Since the mid-1980s, general IO s entered the policy field (with approximately 30 percent generalists after 2006) and grew more than specialized IO s. However, this growth ratio evened out in the early 2000s and both groups subsequently developed almost identically. Less than 30 percent of IO s active in climate governance today are generalists, while most of the subpopulation is constituted by a variety of specialists from different fields such as energy policy, social policy, or economic policy.


Figure 4

Thematic scopes with in the three subpopulations

Citation: Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations 29, 3 (2023) ; 10.1163/19426720-02903004

Source: Own account, based on YBIO and CoW

When comparing the IO s in each subpopulation that were originally specialized on health, education, or climate change, we observe that the proportion of original health IO s is the highest (between 43 percent and 31 percent) throughout the analyzed time period from 1946 to 2020, followed by specialized education IO s (33 percent to 21 percent). The relatively low number of specialized IO s in climate policy, ranging only between 7 and 20 percent, is an outlier because the issue area only formed in the mid-1970s, while climate issues were almost exclusively covered by environmental IO s in the early days of the field.41

4.3 The Impact of Policy Fields’ Characteristics

Growing international interdependencies and intensified global exchange processes change the structure of any given policy field. This phenomenon has influenced IO s in health and education, allowing for expansion of these subpopulations. As health and education policy became more diverse and internationally relevant, additional resources became accessible and existing IO s expanded their thematic scope to these policy fields. For example, the OECD, which is one of the leading education IO s today, expanded its activities to education when the economic relevance of educational outcomes became increasingly prevalent for economic performance.42 With an ever growing interest in education, the degree of diversity in the organizational field of education grew, and the prospect of resources incentivized existing IO s to aim for occupying a niche in the subpopulation. The rapid growth of the IO subpopulation in climate policy after 1990 can be attributed to similar mechanisms. IO s could rely on vast political, social, and material resources and, thus, were able to include climate governance into their portfolios. In terms of political resources, a number of influential intergovernmental conferences legitimized coordinated intergovernmental action through IO s as an effective way to combat climate change.43 The ideational complex of sustainable development also provided a multitude of potential avenues for newcomers, which meant that a number of new IO s were able to find their respective niches in the field.

At the same time, the trajectories of regional and transregional IO s are notably different across the fields. The findings indicate that since the early 1990s, regional and transregional IO s have increasingly been more prevalent in education policy than in health policy, with climate policy displaying even less regionalization over time, at least measured in the relative share of regional IO s in the subpopulation. Taking into account the different problem structures in these policy fields helps to explain the variation in regionalization processes. Different sociocultural or geographical contexts require different education policies.44 Regional and transregional IO s often aim to provide more context-tailored approaches to education45 because they are well connected within their home regions and are able to assess which policies are pragmatic as well as legitimate in these contexts. Although global IO s sometimes have established regional divisions, these offices are associated with their parent organization and still adhere to their general program. Thus, regional IO s have intrinsic features that allow them to better engage with problem structures like education.

While generalists and specialists IO s have been successful in all three subpopulations, IO s that were founded with an explicit mandate in health policy have been more prevalent as a share of their respective subpopulation over time than originary IO s in education and climate policy. The problem structure of health policy offers two complementary explanations for this development. First, health policy’s aims are often normative and functional ends in themselves, rather than means to another end. A healthy society is, first and foremost, a normative goal that IO s contribute to achieving. On the other hand, education policy and climate policy, while also representing normative ends in themselves, are highly relevant to the achievement of policy goals that lie outside their realms such as economic policy or energy policy. More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic constitutes a global health problem that severely affects the economy. Consequently, both are more attractive to generalists and specialists originating from other fields, which may also lead to more institutional overlap. At the same time, the degree of specialization among originary health IO s is habitually higher than that of their equivalents in climate and education policy. Health IO s may, for instance, be founded to combat a specific epidemic such as the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). This high degree of specialization does not have a comparable counterpart in the other two subpopulations.

5 Conclusion

While studies applying organizational ecology have focused on the entire IO population or on the largest and most prominent IO s, we have explored IO subpopulations by analyzing the IO composition across different policy fields. This more nuanced analysis in several fields contributes to a better understanding of how differences and similarities between IO s working in different policy fields emerged.

Contrary to earlier approaches to organizational ecology, we argue that IO s are often sufficiently different from each other for their characteristics to constitute distinct intrinsic features. For example, the intrinsic features of a regional IO may differ greatly from those of a globally active IO, and this difference has explanatory power for their respective shares within the population of IO s in a given field. Similarly, highly specialized IO s can exhibit unique features that separate them from generalist IO s.

At the same time, policies carried out in some fields can affect multiple states to some degree, thereby creating a complex web of entangled interests and institutional factors which co-constitute the organizational environment in which they operate. This means that even the most specialized IO s do not always operate within the strict boundaries of their mandate in a given field. Accordingly, specialists and generalists among IO s likewise expand their activities into new fields, which they deem relevant to their original mission in light of this entanglement.

Another finding is that the relevance of regional and transregional IO s in a given policy field depends on the nature of the problem(s) said field is concerned with solving. Regional IO s, in particular, can position themselves as legitimate and significant actors more easily in fields in which successful policy relies on a shared understanding of issues that may be subject to varying interpretations such as education. Transregional IO s often focus on one specific theme (e.g., language or religious education) that is shared between member states across the globe.

We therefore support the argument that multiple liberal international orders may exist in parallel.46 Our data for all three examined policy fields display a significant share of regional IO s. How these organizations are connected to the LIO or whether they form regional or otherwise structured suborders cannot be answered within the limits of this article, but warrants further exploration. Overall, our findings show that recent contestations of the LIO have not been reflected in the trajectories of different IO subpopulations. If the LIO is in decline, this demise does not (yet) show in terms of raw numbers.

However, the data presented here cannot separate the de jure existence of IO s from their de facto activities. The way IO s operate in international relations may have undergone changes. It has been pointed out that IO s have become orchestrators of multilateral cooperation.47 Hence, a different role for IO s emerged. IO s may lose relevancy and influence in international politics, even if their numbers stay consistent. We further suggest that the concept of multiple liberal orders offers a promising avenue for future research. Comparing different policy fields, we find variance in the IO subpopulations both in terms of regionalization as well as in the thematic scopes of the IO s within. More research is needed to examine whether this variance is sufficient to constitute distinct liberal suborders.


This article is a product of the research conducted in the Collaborative Research Centre 1342 “Global Dynamics of Social Policy” at the University of Bremen. The center is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation)—Project No. 374666841—SFB 1342. The authors thank Amelia Price and Nadine Wunderer for their assistance in preparing the article. They are indebted to Philipp Genschel, Alexandra Kaasch, Marco Verveij, and the two anonymous reviewers for their useful comments on earlier drafts of this article.


Finnemore et al. 2021.


Lake, Martin, and Risse 2021, 225.


Mearsheimer 2019.


Barnett 2021.


Ikenberry 2018.


Lake, Martin, and Risse. 2021.


Downie 2021; Debre and Dijkstra 2022.


Koremenos, Lipson, and Snidal 2001; Barnett and Finnemore 2004; Hawkins and Jacoby 2006; Hooghe, Lenz, and Marks 2019.


Hooghe, Lenz, and Marks 2019.


Gerring 2007; Seawright and Gerring 2008.


United Nations n.d.


Pevehouse et al. 2020.


Union of International Associations n.d.


Debre and Dijkstra 2021; Eilstrup-Sangiovanni 2020; Niemann, Martens, and Kaasch 2021.


Hannan and Freeman 1989; Hannan and Carroll 1992.


Abbott, Green, and Keohane 2016.


Niemann, Martens, and Kaasch 2021.


Abbott, Green, and Keohane 2016; Niemann, Martens, and Kaasch 2021.


Hooghe, Lenz, and Marks 2019.


Hooghe, Lenz, and Marks 2019.


Karns, Mingst, and Stiles 2015.


Niemann and Martens 2021.


Koremenos, Lipson, and Snidal 2001; Boin, Kuipers, and Steenbergen 2010.


Boin, Kuipers, and Steenbergen 2010, 386.


Biermann and Siebenhüner 2009.


Bauer 2006; Biermann, Siebenhüner, and Schreyögg 2009.


Zillman 2009; Zelli and van Asselt 2013.


Keohane and Victor 2011; Gough 2013.


Mundy 2007.


Mundy and Verger 2015.


Sellar and Lingard 2013; Niemann 2022.


McCarthy 2002.


For example, Kaasch 2015; Pantzerhielm, Holzscheiter, and Bahr 2020.


Bowen 2009.


Barnett and Finnemore 2004, 117.


Lake, Martin, and Risse 2021.


Hasenclever and Mayer 2007; Börzel and Zürn 2021.


Börzel and Zürn 2021.


The number of IO s is just one indicator for assessing the state of multilateral cooperation. It has to be noted that the autonomy and authority of IO s could expand or contract irrespective of whether new IO s are founded or existing ones are terminated.


External shocks, like the global financial crisis of 2008–2009, might have contributed to a slower growth rate of climate IO s. However, since after the crisis was over, almost no additional IO s were founded, confirming the point of saturation in 2006–2010.


To illustrate this, the graph on climate IO s in Figure 4 also includes environmental IO s.


Martens and Jakobi 2010.


Haas 2016.


Windzio and Martens 2022.


Krogmann 2022.


Lake, Martin, and Risse 2021.


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