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Groups’ pandemic responses to nations often at odds

International organizations have failed to help the world’s governments manage competing objectives as they try to cope with the havoc caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new Cornell research.

In her paper, “Why Conflict Between Economic Development and International Social Rights Governance is Inevitable,” forthcoming in the Berkeley Journal of International Law, Desiree LeClercq, the Proskauer Employment and Labor Law Assistant Professor in the ILR School, found that international organizations such as the International Labor Organization (ILO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have not risen to the pandemic’s challenges.

“International organizations are imposing incompatible commitments and policies on member governments struggling to recover from the pandemic,” LeClercq wrote. “This incompatibility hinders global governance more broadly. It also introduces uncertainty and competing expertise just when governments need coordination.”

The pandemic has wrought havoc on the global economy, forcing nations to choose between saving money through austerity and administering costly social protections. Governments often look to international organizations responsible for social rights and economic development to provide advice and policies that strike the appropriate balance.

For her research, LeClercq examined overlapping COVID-19 recovery activities in 41 countries. These activities targeted four labor and economic policies:

  • occupational safety and health;
  • labor legislation;
  • wages and employment benefits; and
  • income tax.

She found that, aside from safety and health activities, most overlapping activities were either inconsistent or incompatible.

“By inconsistent, I mean that their COVID-19 activities target the same labor-related policy, but apply different legal standards,” LeClercq said. “By incompatible, I mean that governments cannot implement the policy mandated in one organization’s activity without violating the commitment or recommendation within another organization’s activity.”

The international organizations’ respective COVID-19 recovery activities provide a unique opportunity to compare overlapping efforts and policies across organizations and within recipient governments, LeClercq wrote. They also expose the conflicting approaches of the ILO, the IMF and the World Bank.

The ILO, which takes a rights-based approach, offers assistance to enable its member governments to formulate labor and economic policies, while the IMF and World Bank offer governments financial resources based on prescribed policies – and some of these policies contrast significantly, she wrote.

To minimize these conflicts, LeClercq – who spent several years providing technical assistance to governments on behalf of the ILO – writes that “International organizations, through a preexisting U.N. platform, should adopt a mandatory form of coordination that requires staff to discuss in-country projects during the design stage …  That limited coordination would allow organizations to negotiate their approaches on a narrow (and thus resolvable) basis before those organizations impose conflicting obligations and priorities in developing countries.”

LeClercq concludes: “By bargaining over their rights and economic policies, international organizations will be better situated to provide cohesive advice and programmatic support to governments without undercutting one another.”

Julie Greco is a communications specialist with the ILR School.

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