27 October, 2023 | Anna Ayuso

Crisis and global governance: The WHO and IOM compared


In recent years, the world has faced two major crises with systemic effects that have forced it to take extraordinary measures. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), respectively, have faced the COVID-19 pandemic and the migration crisis caused by the Russian aggression against Ukraine. They are international organizations (IOs) with different mandates and capabilities, but they share the challenge of having to continually adapt to respond to crises. What consequences did the recent crises have for these IOs? To what extent have they promoted a transformation of response mechanisms? 

The analysis of the response that these institutions gave to the two crises shows that their effectiveness is determined by their legal framework, their normative powers, their authority to enforce the rules, and the human and economic capacities available to them. However, to affectively tackle crises, also needed are: a) strong leadership in order to to make quick decisions and coordinated actions; b) institutional capacity to mobilize resources; c) flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances; and d) the ability to learn lessons so as to better prepare for future crises.[i]



The powers of an IO are the basis and the limit of its ability to act in crises. The WHO has more regulatory powers than the IOM; the former can approve treaties and binding regulations for the states, while the latter can only make recommendations and is subordinate to the internal legislation of the states. However, both are limited by a lack of authority. Although WHO standards are mandatory, the WHO cannot impose sanctions in case of non-compliance. In times of crisis, each member state tends to act according to its own criteria without consequences, as happened in the COVID-19 crisis. Thus, in both cases, their ability to implement rules depends on their moral authority and ability to reach agreements. 

Institutional deficiencies related to the organization’s authority impact its ability to coordinate crisis response, but operational capacity still depends on available resources and states’ commitment. Both organizations suffer from financial problems due to the unwillingness of states to provide financial autonomy and resources despite growing demands.

The two institutions also face legitimacy problems because of their dependence on and relationships with other actors. As in previous health crises, the WHO’s legitimacy was questioned during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Trump administration and Taiwan alleged collusion with China,[ii] while developing countries accused the IO to be dominated by countries responding to the interests of large multinationals. In the case of the IOM, criticism affects humanitarian organizations for providing services to governments with dubious respect for human rights. 

The need to develop transparency mechanisms is a common demand, as evaluation and learning are essential to improve effectiveness while facing crises. Over the past two decades, the WHO implemented monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, especially after health crises. In the case of the IOM, the evaluation culture is still incipient, but an evaluation policy was recently approved. However, both IOs share a lack of resources to implement the lessons learned and the low commitment of member states with respect to the proposed reforms.



Crises have revealed weaknesses, but also triggered creative responses that can generate institutional change. Both organizations launched reorganization processes after the respective crises, but their scope differs, in part given their different nature. 

As in previous crises, COVID-19 generated both regulatory and institutional changes in the WHO as well as ad hoc responses to the emergency. In the short term, the responses were slow given the reluctance of states to act before the pandemic became evident, but the creation of the Global Surveillance Network or the ACT-Accelerator agreements allowed vaccines to be created in record time. However, much public funding ended up enriching private corporations, and the COVAX initiative did not provide equitable access to treatments and vaccines. However, the WHO is embarking on a new reform process with the negotiation of a new agreement on pandemics and the reform of the International Health Regulations to strengthen response capacities. 

In the case of the IOM, recent crises have not led to legal and institutional reforms. However, its flexibility has allowed it to expand its areas of action in the face of crises and therefore strengthened its capacity for agency in the governance of migration, although limited by its vague mandate and subordinated to member states. The current crisis calls for accelerating the institutional reform agenda, and some budgetary measures have been adopted, but many voices demand a reform of the founding treaty to attribute the IOM a stronger normative role. 

Both IOs deployed strategies to face new challenges in each crisis, and made efforts to improve action frameworks, promote changes, and create new instruments. However, their effectiveness is limited by the lack of commitment of the states, their resistance to grant them supranational authority, and the refusal to provide them budgetary autonomy. 


Anna Ayuso is a senior research fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB). 


This article highlights some of the findings in the REGROUP paper “Analysing the performance of multilateral organizations facing major crises: Covid-19 in comparative perspective”.


[i] Coen, David; Kreienkamp, Julia; Pegram, Tom; Tokhi, Alexandros (2021). “No Leverage Without Authority? Comparing the Effectiveness of International Organizations Across GLOBE Issue Areas”. GLOBE Report, November 2021.

[ii] Yang, Hai (2021) “Contesting Legitimacy of Global Governance Institutions: The Case of the World Health Organization During the Coronavirus.” International Studies Review (23)4: 1813-1834.