Emerging powers want more staff in international organisations. They have a long way to go, unless there is an alternative…

Secretariats of international organisations have long favoured staff from developed Western countries. Rising powers are aiming for greater representation, but with mixed success. Michal Parízek and Matthew Stephen reveal how developing nations are now looking at other ways to achieve their goals

Why the staffing of international organisations matters

The post of Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is once again up for grabs. It was a major victory for Brazil to have Roberto Azevêdo selected for the job back in 2013. Today, Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala looks to be the leading candidate.

Yet traditionally, professional positions in international organisations' secretariats have been dominated by citizens from highly developed, Western countries. Much like formal voting power in institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, international organisation staffing has had a strong Western bias. This matters because staff representation in such organisations is a major avenue of states’ informal influence on their work.

staff representation in international organisations is a major avenue of states’ informal influence on their work

The dominance of Western countries has long been a bone of contention for developing countries. But now, countries such as China and India are also emerging as major world powers. Every year, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) group of emerging powers repeat their call for 'a more fair, just, equitable and representative multipolar international order', and single out multilateral institutions as requiring greater participation of emerging and developing countries.

But how much representation do emerging powers enjoy in the secretariats of international organisations, among the professionals who run the system from the inside? And how successful have they been at increasing their share?

Modest gains in the WTO and IMF

Our recently published article compares the share of staff enjoyed by the G7 club of established powers with the four BRIC countries in three of the most influential institutions of global governance: the WTO, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the United Nations (UN).

We were surprised to learn that while the BRIC countries have made modest gains at the WTO and IMF, their relative share has actually fallen at the United Nations.

At the WTO in 2000, nationals from the G7 countries – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States – accounted for nearly half of all WTO staff (46%). In contrast, Brazil, India and China (for which we use data from 2001, its accession year) together accounted for only around 7%. By 2015, the G7 share had declined to 41%. The BRICs’ share, now including Russia, increased to 10%. Even though representation is still highly uneven, most of the G7 countries saw their share of staff at the WTO decline, while those of the BRICs grew modestly.

most G7 countries saw their share of staff at the WTO decline, while those of the BRICs grew modestly

A similar picture emerges at the IMF. Between 2004 and 2015, the G7 share of staff fell slightly, from 47% to 43%, while those from the BRICs increased from 10% to 14%. China was the relative winner at the IMF, more than doubling its staff from 43 in 2004 to 99 in 2015. The United States was the biggest loser, declining from 477 professional staff to 366 in 2015 – although the US did start from a uniquely strong position, with almost a quarter of all professional staff members.

UN: Still plenty of room at the top

At the United Nations, the picture is rather different. Between 1997 and 2015, almost all G7 and BRIC countries saw their shares of UN staff fall. For the emerging powers, supposedly rising in importance in global governance bodies, a decline in representation on UN staff is quite a surprising finding. Of the BRIC countries, only India has experienced moderate gains in staffing representation over the nineteen years, rising from 2.1% to 2.7%. This is a success for a country that still only pays around 0.8% of the UN’s assessed budgetary contributions, but perhaps less so when we consider that India is an emerging power with population of 1.3 billion.

China has not seen any rise in its share of UN staff over two decades, despite contributing 12% of the UN regular budget

Remarkably, though, China has not seen any rise in its share of around 1.8% of UN professional staff over the two decades. This is despite the fact that China today accounts for 18% of the global population and contributes 12% of the UN regular budget (second only to the US).

Playing a new game

On average, nationals from emerging powers are still strongly underrepresented in international secretariats in comparison with those from established powers, despite the massive economic growth of China and India. While emerging powers made modest gains at the IMF and WTO, at the UN they have either not grown at all or even lost representation over time.

Increasingly, rising powers are not only trying to reform existing institutions but also to create new ones. The lack of rising power representation in the secretariats of established international organisations is an incentive for them to create new institutions. Do that, and they can not only set the rules, but also ensure that it is their citizens who are playing the game.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Michal Parízek Michal Parízek Assistant Professor, Institute of Political Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University More by this author
photograph of Matthew Stephen Matthew Stephen Senior Researcher in the Global Governance Department at WZB Berlin Social Science Center More by this author

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