The liberal international order is being challenged and international organizations (IOs) are a main target of contestation. COVID-19 seems to exacerbate the situation with many states pursuing domestic strategies at the expense of multilateral cooperation. At the same time, IOs have traditionally benefited from cross-border crises. This article analyzes the policy responses of IOs to the exogenous COVID-19 shock by asking why some IOs use this crisis as an opportunity to expand their scope and policy instruments? It provides a cross-sectional analysis using original data on the responses of 75 IOs to COVID-19 during the first wave between March and June 2020. It finds that the bureaucratic capacity of IOs is significant when it comes to using the crisis as an opportunity. It also finds some evidence that the number of COVID-19 cases among the member states affects policy responses and that general purpose IOs have benefited more.
- International organizations have responded very differently to COVID-19. Evidence from 75 international organizations shows that those with broad policy objectives have further expanded their scope and instruments. International organizations with a narrow focus have stuck to existing instruments.
- Bureaucratic capacity explains the ability of international organizations to use crises as an opportunity for institutional development. It is imperative that member states further invest in the bureaucratic capacity of international organizations, particularly in professional staff, to handle future crises.
- When considering future reforms of international organizations, member states should focus on strengthening the competences of the executive bodies to initiate policy to help organizations work better during crises.
- As we exit the pandemic it is tempting to concentrate on domestic affairs, including revisiting healthcare and pandemic response systems, but policy makers are advised to further develop global governance in these areas as well. While COVID-19 was initially seen as a major challenge to the liberal international order, it may well result in a deepening of global governance in the longer term.