International organizations as talent incubators
Mohamed ElBaradei has arrived back in Egypt, where he was reportedly greeted by throngs at the airport. In Cote d’Ivoire, the internationally-recognized victor in the presidential election, Alassane Ouattara, is struggling to wrest power from the clinging hands of Laurent Gbagbo, with the backing of the international community. The two men facing down non-democratic forces ...
Mohamed ElBaradei has arrived back in Egypt, where he was reportedly greeted by throngs at the airport. In Cote d'Ivoire, the internationally-recognized victor in the presidential election, Alassane Ouattara, is struggling to wrest power from the clinging hands of Laurent Gbagbo, with the backing of the international community.
Mohamed ElBaradei has arrived back in Egypt, where he was reportedly greeted by throngs at the airport. In Cote d’Ivoire, the internationally-recognized victor in the presidential election, Alassane Ouattara, is struggling to wrest power from the clinging hands of Laurent Gbagbo, with the backing of the international community.
The two men facing down non-democratic forces in their countries have something in common: they both served for long stretches at international institutions. ElBaradei of course headed the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency after serving for more than a decade on the agency’s professional staff. Ouattara rose through the ranks at the International Monetary Fund and held several key posts.
Their trajectories raise the possibility that international organizations might be serving as an important incubator of democratic talent for non-democratic societies. Imagine that you’re an ambitious, talented, politically-minded and generally progressive young person in a society with an autocratic or simply dysfunctional government. At a certain point, the traditional path of national politics may either be blocked or seem unappealing. ElBaradei worked within the Egytian foreign ministry for a number of years and then left for the world of international organizations. I can imagine that plenty of potential leaders would never want to work for a corrupt or undemocratic government and might try to start their careers in international organizations.
Becoming a dissident is one route, and plenty of brave souls take it. In some places (think Eastern Europe) jail-time was a common attribute of the first generation of democratic political leaders. But being a dissident isn’t for everyone, and international organizations might be well placed to pluck and develop progressive political talent from these "blocked" societies. Importantly, an applicant usually don’t need his or her goverment’s backing to get a staff job; but nationality from an underrepresented country (and I’m betting that most closed or dysfunctional countries are underrepresented at major international organizations) can be a distinct benefit. When the time is right or political opportunity arises, the individual can reenter the domestic political scene with credentials, a record, and important international connections.
One can conjure up less optimistic interpretations of how the increasingly dense network of international organizations interacts with the domestic political scene in non-democratic countries. I wondered a few months ago whether these organizations might actually be having a negative effect on national political development by offering would-be reformers comfortable perches in Washington, New York, Geneva, or Vienna, in essence poaching important national political talent. And there are plenty of reasons to doubt that the skills one develops inside an international organization’s bureaucracy are really the ones needed to become an effective democratic politician. John Bolton would snort at the idea that anything good can come from inside an international organization’s bureaucracy, but the truth is that IOs in general are well-run and professional, certainly when compared to most nondemocratic governments around the world.
ElBaradei and Outtara are at least intriguing examples. International organizations get accused all the time of being undemocratic, hidebound, and inefficient. It would be ironic if they proved to be a key source for the next generation of democratic national politicans.
From one reader: "Compared to OECD political systems, corporations, and academia, IO’s are hidebound, undemocratic, inefficient mandarinates that serve as sinecures for the politically connected.
Compared to fascist party-states like Egypt or Vietnam or African kleptocracies, they are shining examples of meritocracy and law-based governance.
As an American rightwing Boltonite, I am not a fan of ElBaradei’s IAEA tenure. But he is more qualified to run a government and a country than Ayman Nour, or anyone in Egypt’s rubber-stamp parliament."
David Bosco is a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist
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