The United Nations office at Geneva, viewed through an avenue of flags of all the member states
Guidance on working with international organisations.

Guidance note 6: Working with international organisations

Key points

  • International organisations do establish policy to govern their own operations, but more important is the impact they have on country governments’ policies through data, analysis, model policies, and programme funding decisions.
  • Researchers may find them more accessible and receptive to research than national governments, but the policy impact is indirect and work done for them is unlikely to lead to publication in major journals.

Compared with policy engagement with national and sub-national institutions, as discussed in Guidance Note 5, engaging with international organisations presents a number of distinct advantages and disadvantages.

On the positive side, contributing research knowledge which informs the policies, operational practice or published analysis and guidance of an international organisation may provide the opportunity to have impact on an international, or even global scale. This can be both intrinsically rewarding for those who are motivated in that way, and of practical benefit to the employing institution as well as the individual. REF impact case studies are assessed on the reach and significance of the impacts; reach is defined in terms of the extent and diversity of beneficiaries, and the extent to which potential beneficiaries have been reached, in the UK or abroad. Contributing to the work of an international organisation is almost certain to maximise the reach of any reportable impacts.

Apart from the impact of the organisation’s own work, officials in these bodies are often very knowledgeable about and well connected with the policy community in more than one countries – and indeed may have served in national institutions before their current international role. Contacts in international organisations may thus be a useful additional resource when faced trying to establish contact with appropriate people in national governments. However, our discussions with researchers suggest that contributing to the work of an international organisation does not necessarily result in contacts with member state delegations to the body, and thus a direct route to national-level policy engagement.

International organisations are also very often likely to be more oriented towards and open to research than national governments

International organisations are also very often likely to be more oriented towards and open to research than national governments, perhaps in part because they are not subject with quite the same immediacy to parliamentary and media pressures and the preconceptions of elected politicians and their constituencies. Moreover, for many – the OECD, the ILO and the World Bank would be cases in point – their credibility and authority resides in large part in the quality and integrity of the data and analysis they publish. Many have very well-developed research functions and invest a lot of money in paid collaborative research, putting together teams of external researchers for projects; these may provide natural points of access to the organization for academic researchers Even the OECD, which does most of its research in-house, cooperates in many different ways with researchers in academia, in the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission and in national institutions. It both commissions work from academic researchers when it thinks this can add depth to its own analysis (for example engaging econometricians to help analyse some OECD data), and partners with academic organisations and publishers to publish research jointly. It also uses expert advisory groups of academics to inform and peer review its work. Moreover, while OECD publications are targeted towards a lay audience rather than the research community, they do cite published research from outside the organisation so can become a vehicle for research communication.

It follows also that these organisations often have research findings that they are keen to disseminate, and have the travel budgets to do so. An easy way to establish contact is to arrange a workshop around the theme of a recently-launched flagship report and to invite the organisation to send a speaker at appropriate level, which they will normally be very happy to do. Once contact has been established, it provides a basis on which to build a network; workshop invitations will be reciprocated, and visits then provide an opportunity for the researcher to plan meetings with people in the organisation, and to make clear if they are available for research on a paid basis. Contracts for analysis and drafting are likely to be short-term and not of high value, but the work will be acknowledged in the publication, and if the researcher is willing to make a long-term commitment one opportunity will lead to another.

For researchers who are able to see the big picture, are interested in the big development debates (for example around the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs) and in translating research findings into meaningful policy propositions with global relevance, working in this way with a UN agency can provide a way to achieve impact and the conversion of specialised knowledge into policy proposals. Internships in the offices of these organisations can also offer a stimulating and inclusive working environment for a few months, with access to new ideas and methodologies and connections to potential international collaborators, not only for Masters students but also for academics on study leave. It is also a means of engaging in policy with national governments across the world which shields the researcher to some extent from the political sensitivities and risks which may pose problems for the individual university-based researcher or research team. Moreover, English is a working language of most international organisations, which will be an attraction for many UK researchers.

Higher education institutions do not offer the only route to carrying out or coordinating research which has the potential to impact on public policy and bring about beneficial change in the world.

This approach to engagement does not resolve the tension between work aimed directly at policy impact and the pressures for scholarly publication (and may not be applicable for all disciplines). However, it should be borne in mind that UN agencies and other international organisations with a substantial research function offer an alternative career path to academia for researchers with a serious motivation towards policy impact. These bodies conduct some high-quality research of academic standard which is published in their flagship reports but not in the major journals, so tends not to be recognised as such by academic researchers; it will not appear on Google Scholar or register in field-weighted citation indices. Higher education institutions do not offer the only route to carrying out or coordinating research which has the potential to impact on public policy and bring about beneficial change in the world.

A negative aspect of working with or in international organisations is that there can be a very long value-chain between the researcher, the operational guidance to which their work contributes, the influence these have on the policy decisions of national or sub-national governments – let alone the impact of these decisions on the lives and livelihoods of citizens

Another negative aspect of working with or in international organisations is that there can be a very long value-chain between the researcher, the operational guidance or programming decisions or advice to governments to which their work contributes, the influence these have on the policy decisions of national or sub-national governments – let alone the impact of these decisions on the lives and livelihoods of citizens. To that extent there may be a trade-off between reach and significance, defined as the degree to which the claimed impact has influenced or informed the policies of beneficiaries, while significance seen as the good that research may do in the world may be a step even further removed. Ultimately international organisations have to achieve any change by influencing the policy decisions of national governments, or by persuading member states to agree and adhere to a common policy decision; they may develop model policies but are not by and large themselves primary sites of policy decision-making, except with regard to their own operations.

The Annex below lists some of the principal international organisations with which researchers, depending on their areas of specialism, may find it useful to engage.

Some questions to consider

  • How familiar are you with the work of international organisations that are relevant to your research interests? What consideration have you given to the relative advantages and disadvantages of engaging with them as opposed to national governments, as a route to policy impact?
  • What strategy do you have for identifying and making contact with the most appropriate officials in a relevant organisation?
  • How can you best balance the needs of the organisation to pursue its research agenda and disseminate its results with your need to achieve impact with your own independent research?

Annex: Some principal international organisations

The largest grouping of international organisations is the sprawling extended family of the United Nations System. The website of the UN System Chief Executives Board for Coordinationprovides a useful listing of these by category of organisation, with links to their individual websites, as shown below. It also gives an alphabetical listing, with a thumbnail description of the functions of each, which is worth consulting but is too lengthy to reproduce here.

1. Funds and Programmes 

2. Specialized Agencies

3. Regional Commissions

4. United Nations Research and Training Institutes

5. Related Organizations

6. Other Entities

Depending on a researcher’s subject and/or geographical interests, any of these bodies may be a potential collaborative partner, recipient and user of relevant research knowledge, or source of research or consultancy contracts. However, even this extensive catalogue does not give a complete overview of all the possible points of access to the UN System. We are for example, aware that some Oxford researchers at the Future of Humanity Institute are actively engaged with the work of the UN Biological Weapons Convention, which is overseen by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, which is itself not listed here.

A very influential and important grouping, technically part of the UN System, is the World Bank Group. This comprises five institutions with a shared a commitment to reducing poverty, increasing shared prosperity, and promoting sustainable development across the world: IBRD (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development), IDA (International Development Association), IFC (International Finance Corporation), MIGA (Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency) and ICSID (International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes.

Together IBRD and IDA form the World Bank, which provides financing, policy advice, and technical assistance to governments of developing countries: IDA focuses on the world’s poorest countries, while IBRD assists middle-income and creditworthy poorer countries. IFC, MIGA, and ICSID focus on strengthening the private sector in developing countries. Through these institutions, the World Bank Group provides financing, technical assistance, political risk insurance, and settlement of disputes to private enterprises, including financial institutions.

Within the World Bank there is a substantial commitment to research and the development and sharing of knowledge, though the internal structure can seem a bit impenetrable to outsiders. The principal home for research in the Bank is the Development Impact Evaluation (DIME) group, the aim of which is to generate high-quality and operationally relevant data and research to transform development policy, to produce actionable information and recommend specific policy pathways to maximize impact, and enable country partners to scale up successful policy instruments to achieve policy outcomes. Also of potential interest to researchers, as a possible source of short-term contractual engagements, is the Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group, which is concerned with generating evidence on the development effectiveness of the Bank’s policies and programmes, through a series of corporate, thematic, sectoral and programme evaluations and systematic reviews.

Modelled on the World Bank are five regional development banks, which are similarly influential sources of knowledge as well as finance for countries in their regions:

The EIB is the lending arm of the European Union, and is one of the institutional owners of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), another important multilateral developmental investment bank, the EBRD uses investment as a tool to build market economies and support development in more than 30 countries from Central Europe to Central Asia.

All of the development banks have an interest in the evidential base for their financial operations, and are potential recipients and users of research knowledge or collaborators in or funders or research projects. However, this is a very wide field and opportunities for engagement will have to be investigated on a case by case basis.

A different sort of multilateral institution is the OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It is not a financial institution but a forum of developed countries with high-income economies, and provides a platform to compare policy experiences, seek answers to common problems, identify good practices and coordinate the domestic and international policies of its members. As an organisation it is highly committed to the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge, though unlike many other international organisations it carries out much of its research in-house rather than through contracts with external researchers.

The European Union (EU) presents a complex institutional structure with several potential points of access for researchers, though the eligibility of UK nationals and institutions to participate in EU opportunities after the end of 2020 is uncertain. The European Commission is an institution of the EU; one of its departments is the Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development (otherwise known as EuropeAid) which funds a large portfolio of development projects on behalf of member states. Some of these projects may provide opportunities for researchers to tender directly, or to collaborate with implementing partners such as consultancy companies in ways that will influence or inform the policies of beneficiary governments. The Joint Research Centre, another Directorate-General of the European Commission, is the Commission’s science and knowledge service. It employs scientists to carry out research in order to provide independent scientific advice and support to EU policy, and is very interested in tracking the impact of its work on the policies of the EU collectively and of member states. Its policy influence in fact extends beyond the EU, as its research is also recognised and engaged with by organisations in the UN system.

The African Union is a similar continental union of member states which offers a research grants in thematic priority areas of post-harvest and agriculture, renewable and sustainable energy, and water and sanitation. Work being carried out under these grant programmes may provide opportunities for UK researchers to collaborate with African research institutions in ways that will lead to policy engagement with governments on the continent.