Global Governance Centre
17 July 2020

Informal governance in world politics

A recently published article in the Review of International Organizations Academic Journal explores informal modes of cooperation in the complex institutional architecture of contemporary global governance.

What are the factors that lead states and transnational actors to choose between formal intergovernmental organisations, informal intergovernmental organisations and transnational governance networks to structure their interactions and govern global problems?

The Global Governance Centre is a partner in the SNIS project exploring this question,  whose outcomes are part of a recently-published article in the Review of International Organizations Academic Journal authored by Olivier Westerwinter, Kenneth W. Abbott and Thomas Biersteker. 

States have recently started to use informal institutions instead of formal organisations to govern global policy issues. Thus, contemporary work in political science, economics, and international law has started to examine informal governance, which refers to unwritten - and often vaguely specified - rules and norms that modify or substitute legally binding provisions. This article is an introduction to a special issue with collaborations that broaden the emerging research on informal governance in world politics and provide novel empirical analysis based on unique data.

The article first develops a typology of informality in world politics: informality of institutions, within institutions, and around institutions. It considers how differentiating among these types of informality provides novel insights into the causes of informal governance. 

It also provides an empirical overview of the recent growth of informal institutions in the international system, focusing on transnational public-private governance initiatives and informal intergovernmental organizations, as compared to the trajectory of formal intergovernmental organizations.

The article then identifies a set of factors that are potential independent variables to explain the growing importance of informal modes of global governance and the striking variation in its growth and distribution in world affairs. These driving forces draw on functionalist, power-oriented, domestic politics, and non-state actor explanations respectively. 

While the works reviewed show a consensus on the substantive importance of informal governance, they show less agreement of the underlying causes of these developments. However, most authors find evidence in support of more than one explanation, suggesting that explanations based on different theories of global governance are complementary, rather than competing.

Finally, the article highlights three avenues for future research: the need for more nuanced theorizing of informality and its drivers, as well as more fine-grained data; a systematic examination of the implications of the proliferation of different types of informality for the effectiveness and legitimacy of global governance; and the consideration of interlinkages across different types of informal and formal institutions. 

Access full article here