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International Institutions Must Keep Politics Out of Their Data
International Institutions Must Keep Politics Out of Their Data
Op-Ed / Global

International Institutions Must Keep Politics Out of Their Data

Originally published in World Politics Review

Can we trust international institutions to give us impartial information about the state of the world? This question is at the heart of a controversy currently roiling the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It is likely to haunt other multilateral organizations in the future, too.

Kristalina Georgieva, currently the IMF’s managing director, stands accused of pressuring staff at the World Bank, where she previously occupied a senior post, to improve China’s position in an annual ranking of countries’ openness to business. The bank has since announced it will discontinue the publication, the Doing Business Report. The Economist has called on her to quit the IMF to protect both institutions’ credibility. 

Georgieva has defended her record. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winning economist who has spoken to World Bank officials involved in the process, has called the accusations a “hatchet job.” 

I have no direct insights into this mess, although I have praised Georgieva in the past for her performance as the top humanitarian official at the European Union. I also welcomed the Bulgarian economist’s run to be United Nations secretary-general in 2016. She has been one of the few stars of multilateral diplomacy in recent years. It would be sad to see her exit the stage now.

There is a long-standing link between the trustworthiness of the information these organizations present and their broader political credibility. If this starts to break down, it will do extensive harm to international institutions.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the World Bank case, however, it highlights a fundamental challenge for international organizations more generally. There is a long-standing link between the trustworthiness of the information these organizations present and their broader political credibility. If this starts to break down, it will do extensive harm to international institutions.

Since the launch of the League of Nations, the U.N.’s pre-World War II predecessor, international civil servants have pooled and published data on issues from trade flows to armaments. Dull as it may sound, this data-gathering gives big and small powers a common basis for their negotiations. As one French statistician wrote of initial efforts to collate information in 1921, “whatever may be the question brought before the League, statistical data, carefully collected and methodically treated, are necessary to add fresh fuel to the discussions and to justify the decisions.”

In the ensuing century, multilateral mechanisms for gathering both statistics and other forms of fact-finding have grown exponentially. Following in the steps of the League, the United Nations and other post-1945 organizations set common criteria for tracking international trends. The gradual standardization of national statistics-gathering frameworks and methods is, according to one study of the process, “one of the great and mostly unsung successes of the UN organization.” While some policymakers and pundits may dismiss international institutions as irrelevant, many use the data they generate as a matter of course. The current dispute over the Doing Business Report is significant precisely because businesspeople and economic policymakers have used the report’s findings as a guide to investment decisions and policy reforms.

In a period in which many branches of multilateral diplomacy are facing difficulties thanks to mounting international tensions, some international civil servants see providing impartial information as an enduring area of strength. This is one theme of “Our Common Agenda,” a report on the future of multilateral cooperation released by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last month, which underlines that “one of the primary roles of the United Nations is as a source of reliable data and evidence.” The report goes on to call for the U.N. offices and agencies involved in data-gathering to share their findings more consistently—and to publish more accessible reports.

U.N. officials say that the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a compelling example of how much impartial information matters. Responding to the wave of misinformation about the disease last year, the U.N.—working with social media platforms such as Facebook—launched a series of initiatives to share accurate health information online; independent assessments suggest the efforts did help reduce the impact of false stories. As the International Crisis Group noted in a report on the U.N. last month, the organization could apply similar techniques to combatting disinformation and misinformation in conflict-affected countries in the future.

Yet it will be difficult for the U.N. and other global bodies to act as collectors and purveyors of impartial information if they appear to be manipulating their own data for political ends. 

Officials of international organizations have always faced political pressures to massage their information and analysis to keep governments happy. A recent book on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster shows in painful detail how a series of U.N. agencies downplayed the incident’s public health implications to avoid clashes with the Soviet authorities; their optimistic assessments made it harder for the U.N. to raise funds for those affected by radiation. And in a scandal that currently replays itself annually at the U.N., Saudi Arabia has repeatedly pressed the secretariat not to include its forces fighting in Yemen on the organization’s yearly “list of shame” of countries that have killed or wounded children in wartime. 

As the debate over the World Bank’s treatment of China indicates, the deterioration of major power relations is creating further pressures on international information-gatherers. As I noted in a WPR column in 2018, “in a period of heightened tensions at the United Nations and other multilateral organizations, diplomats are spending a lot of time arguing over truth and facts.” At that time, Western and Russian diplomats were facing off over the credibility of international investigators’ reports on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. 

More recently, China and the U.S. have fallen out over the World Health Organization’s investigations into the origins of COVID-19 in Wuhan. U.S. officials allege Beijing has failed to give the WHO the data it needs. Addressing the U.N. General Assembly last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned against “political maneuvering” over studies of the disease.

The types of expertise and evidence involved in studying chemical weapons, disease outbreaks and investment conditions obviously vary widely. Yet all these disputes come back to the basic question I posed at the start of this article. Can the U.N., World Bank and other international institutions sufficiently ring-fence their information-gathering activities from major power competition to retain credibility with governments and the public?

[T]he leaders of these institutions will need to show that the teams that gather and publish key data are insulated from political pressures...

To maintain credibility, the leaders of these institutions will need to show that the teams that gather and publish key data are insulated from political pressures as far as possible. Civil society organizations should keep up scrutiny of both multilateral organizations and the governments that fund them to keep them honest. The U.S. should aim to set an example for other major powers by committing to respect the independence of international reports, even ones that may embarrass Washington or its allies. 

International institutions’ information-gathering should be a boring, technical business. Keeping it that way will be a major challenge.