Author: Lisa Dellmuth, May 2019

Story highlights:

  • The more citizens perceive an international organization to be legitimate – i.e. to use its power appropriately – the more the organization may be able to obtain resources, take decisions, secure compliance, and, ultimately, mitigate problems.
  • When engaging in integrated governance approaches, i.e. by integrating climate change into different issue areas, legitimate action should be a key goal.
  • Survey experiments in four countries in the global north and the global south suggest that reforming international organizations can strengthen citizens' trust in them. However, the evidence suggests that citizen trust in global climate institutions is not influenced by institutional qualities but rather by citizens' political beliefs.

A recent study evaluates the effects of institutional qualities of international organizations on citizen trust in these organizations through a survey experiment. The experiment was conducted in four countries in diverse world regions: Germany, the Philippines, South Africa, and the US. Nationally representative samples were selected within each country, involving a total of about 5,700 respondents. 

In these survey experiments, we examined what determines citizen confidence in important IOs in three issue areas: climate, economic, and security governance. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have to varying degrees engaged in governance integrating climate change issues.

There are three central findings. First, both procedures and performance of inernational organizations matter for citizen confidence in the three organizations. Second, all three tested institutional qualities (democratic, technocratic, and fair) affect citizen confidence. Third, the extent to which institutional qualities shapes confidence depends on the issue area at hand. A broader scope of institutional qualities appears to be important for citizen confidence in the IMF when compared to the UNSC and, especially, the UNFCCC. More specifically, in economic governance all institutional qualities matter for citizen confidence. In security governance, experimental treatments on democratic procedure and democratic performance were effective. In climate change governance, no treatments were effective, indicating that institutional qualities of the UNFCCC do not sway citizen confidence in the UNFCCC. It may be the UNFCCC’s very attention to climate change that generates citizens’ trust, thereby reducing the importance of procedural and performance features. In contrast, the IMF pursues objectives that are more contested, which may elevate the importance of procedural and performance sources of citizen confidence. 

Taken together, the results suggest that supporters and opponents of international organizations may be right to address institutional qualities in their respective strategies to legitimate or delegitimate these organisations – with the exception of global climate institutions. While the UNSC and IMF do not seem to dependent on their fulfilling a single overriding institutional criterion to be perceived as legitimate, the UNFCCC depends on other factors. It is more likely that citizens’ pre-existing beliefs and cultural contests determine attitudes towards climate change organizations, implying that the UNFCCC’s legitimacy can unlikely be bolstered in the eyes of citizens by nurturing global institutional features. However, this is the first study of this kind and we still know little about how international organization reform can enhance legitimacy in global governance. 

For proponents of integrated governance approaches, the message is clear: legitimate action should be a key goal. When policy-makers engage in integrating climate change issues in other policy areas such as economic and security governance, and foster cross-institutional collaboration across scales and levels of governance, they should focus energy on institutional qualities that are most vulnerable to critique. However, to improve legitimacy of global climate institutions, it may be necessary to look beyond global institutional features and to shape citizens’ beliefs, identities, and attitudes towards climate change more broadly.