Understanding Change in International Organizations: Globalization and Innovation in the Ilo

79 Pages Posted: 12 May 2006

See all articles by Laurence Helfer

Laurence Helfer

Duke University School of Law; University of Copenhagen - iCourts - Centre of Excellence for International Courts


This Article uses an interdisciplinary approach to explain why the International Labor Organization (ILO) has been given surprisingly short shrift in recent debates over the role of IOs in addressing the many transborder collective action problems that globalization has fostered. I review the ILO's past and its present with two broad objectives in mind.

First, I seek to correct a misperception among international lawyers and legal scholars that the ILO is a weak and ineffective institution. The organization's effectiveness in creating and monitoring international labor standards has fluctuated widely during its nearly ninety-year existence. Over the last decade, however, the ILO - led by the Director General and the ILO Office - has ushered in a period of innovation and reform, narrowing the organization's mandate to emphasize universal compliance with a core group of fundamental labor rights. These developments - many of which are unknown outside the organization - reveal that the ILO has learned from successful strategies of other IOs and from its own past mistakes. They also cast doubt on the widely held view that international bureaucracies seek to expand their mandates to increase their authority over member states.

A second objective of the Article is to analyze the under-studied issue of how IOs change and to assess three social science theories - (1) rational design; (2) neofunctionalism; and (3) historical institutionalism - that seek to explain how change occurs. A historical study of the ILO provides two opportunities to evaluate these competing frameworks and to consider the under-examined role of IO officials in promoting change. First, the four major phases of the ILO's existence - its founding in 1919, the interwar years, the decades following World War II, and post-Cold War globalization - offer discrete domains within which to assess the theories' comparative explanatory power. The second opportunity for theoretical assessment relates to the influence of the ILO's past on recently adopted reforms. None of the theories would have expected ILO officials to revitalize the organization, more than seventy-five years after its birth, by narrowing and refocusing its authority rather than expanding it.

Keywords: labor, labour, international organizations, treaties, international law, ILO, international labor organization, director general

Suggested Citation

Helfer, Laurence, Understanding Change in International Organizations: Globalization and Innovation in the Ilo. Vanderbilt Law Review, Vol. 59, p. 649, 2006; Vanderbilt Public Law Research Paper No. 06-09. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=900835

Laurence Helfer (Contact Author)

Duke University School of Law ( email )

210 Science Dr.
Box 90360
Durham, NC 27708
United States
+1-919-613-8573 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://law.duke.edu/fac/helfer/

University of Copenhagen - iCourts - Centre of Excellence for International Courts ( email )

University of Copenhagen Faculty of Law
Karen Blixens Plads 16
Copenhagen S, DK-2300

HOME PAGE: http://jura.ku.dk/icourts/

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