International Relations and Political Science
28 August 2020

International Bureaucracy in Bioethics

In an article for the Journal of European Public Policy, Annabelle Littoz-Monnet, Professor of International Relations/Political Science and Director of the Global Governance Centre at the Graduate Institute, explores how international bureaucracies can expand their activities into new areas even if these domains are not close to their own formal mandates. Drawing on a profound investigation of UNESCO’s and WHO’s expansion into the domains of bioethics, Prof. Littoz-Monnet argues that expansion occurs if the fixed characteristics of international bureaucracies, such as level of expertise, are efficiently activated, assembled, or developed – rather than solely depending on what these fixed characteristics are. Interview.

Why is it interesting to study the role of international bureaucracies role in the field of bioethics?

Bioethics is an interesting case of international bureaucratic expansion, because no UN agency had a mandate in the field of bioethics. And yet, both the UNESCO, and later the WHO, succeeded in expanding their activities in the field. This is puzzling as expanding an organisation’s activities is likely to provoke contestation, either from the part of domestic actors who want to preserve control over the domain at stake or simply disagree about what supranational solutions to choose, or from the part of other global governance actors who compete for control over policy. Thus, bioethics provided me with an interesting case to explore how international bureaucracies creep into new domains even in unlikely circumstances and do so “without much ado”. The article examines the depoliticised strategies through which they do this. 

You claim that international bureaucrats resort to a three-fold strategy in expanding their activities into new areas: technicalisation, expertisation, and naturalisation. What do you mean by these tactics?

I argue that international bureaucracies expand through subtle mechanisms, in a way which is informal, mundane, and depoliticised. Naturalisation refers to the way international bureaucrats never announce loud and clear that they decide to take on the governance of a new domain but rather act as if this were a self-evident phenomenon deriving from the inherently global nature of problems, the need to fulfil their mandates or reach their organisational goals. Technicalisation refers to the way international bureaucracies make issues seem technical, either through rhetorical techniques, issue compartmentalisation, and/or policy insulation. Expertisation refers to the way international bureaucrats mobilise expert knowledge, either through the setting-up of a high-profile expert group or by developing collaborations with specialised academic institutions, as a way of legitimising their intervention.

What contributions does this article make to the extant literature on international bureaucracies as well as bioethics?

The article throws into question some of the assumptions often held in existing accounts on bureaucratic expansion. Its findings suggest that an organisation’s ability to expand does not depend on fixed characteristics such as its legal-institutional mandate, its capacities, or its level of expertise. Expansion takes place, rather, when such resources are efficiently activated, assembled or developed. These insights challenge the idea that the characteristics of international bureaucracies, often deducted from an examination of the features of their institutional design, are fixed. The characteristics of international bureaucracies in fact fluctuate along with the strategies developed by international bureaucrats, who can increase the resources of the organisation (funding, expertise, networks) and develop smart tactics to shape global agendas. This tells us that it is more productive to focus on the mechanisms through which international bureaucracies increase their autonomy or influence, than on the supposedly fixed characteristics of organisations.

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Full citation of the article:
Littoz-Monnet, Annabelle. “Expanding without Much Ado: International Bureaucratic Expansion Tactics in the Case of Bioethics.” Journal of European Public Policy. Published online 22 June 2020.

Interview by Bugra Güngör, PhD candidate in International Relations and Political Science; editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
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