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BIPR | The Origins of Informality: Why the Legal Foundations of Global Governance Are Shifting, and Why It Matters
The Origins of Informality: Why the Legal Foundations of Global Governance Are Shifting, and Why It Matters

February 6, 2023 - 18:30

Charles Roger, Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals, Spain

Event Recap

Drawing on his 2020 book The Origins of Informality, Professor Charles Roger discusses the rise of informal international organizations. He begins by clarifying the difference between "formal" and "informal" institutions: formal international organizations (IOs) are created by states, have independent bodies, and are constituted by international law. Examples of formal institutions include the United Nations and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Informal organizations, on the other hand, share some of the characteristics of formal ones - they are, for example, also created by states - but are less likely to have independent bodies or secretariats, and are constituted by "non-binding" agreements, such as a Memorandum of Understandings (MOUs).

After defining these terms, Roger explained his theory for why the quantity, and proportion, of informal IOs has increased over time. He argues that states decide on whether to create formal or informal institutions based on their preferences as rational actors. Roger argues that in the past political institutions and actors were generally more likely to support formal IOs. However the growing role of independent regulatory agencies and increased politicisation in many industrial states, has led to a preference for more informal organizations. The second step is preference aggregation, or bargaining at the international level, which reveals what type of institution will appear. Roger develops a dynamic theory for the growth of informal institutions as well.

To illustrate his theory, Roger draws upon three case studies. The first is trade and money, which uses the examples of the IMF and GATT. The second is banking and securities, which discusses the formation of the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision (BCBS) and the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO). The third is anti-trust, which uses the examples of the WTO and the International Competition Network (ICN). These three cases all indicate states' preference formation and bargaining determining what type of organization (formal or informal) they eventually adopt.

Roger finished his presentation by affirming that domestic politics powerfully influence these processes of institutional design and are shifting the legal foundations of global governance. He suggested, also, some policy implications of his theory, indicating that many informal IOs may be mismatched with the problems they are trying to address, and that optimistic claims about informal IOs may not be completely warranted. He concluded by emphasizing the need for more research and dialogue across disciplines to fully understand the effectiveness, accountability, and legitimacy of informal IOs.

The Origins of Informality: Why the Legal Foundations of Global Governance Are Shifting, and Why It Matters
International Relations Colloquium Series

hosted by Professor Nina Hall

Charles Roger
Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals, Spain

Informal international organizations (IOs) are increasingly prominent instruments of global governance. Yet they remain poorly understood. Why are states relying on them, and what does their growth mean for our ability to resolve cross-border problems fairly and effectively? Drawing on his book The Origins of Informality, Charles Roger develops a new approach to thinking about these puzzling institutions, presents new data revealing their extraordinary growth over time, and develops a novel theory about why states create them. This theory explains how states form preferences over the formality of IOs and how legal designs are chosen through often contentious bargaining processes. Roger's theory also informs a more dynamic account of the rise of informality, highlighting how major shifts occurring in the domestic political arenas of powerful states - especially growing polarization and the rise of the regulatory state- have projected outward and reshaped the legal foundations of global governance. Roger systematically tests this theory, quantitatively and qualitatively, and presents detailed accounts of the forces behind some of the most important institutions governing the global economy. Crucially, this also underpins a novel assessment of the effectiveness of informal IOs, which suggests - worryingly - that many are poorly equipped to address the complex challenges the world presently confronts.


Charles Roger is an Assistant Professor and Ramón y Cajal Research Fellow at the Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals (IBEI). His research explores the transformations occurring in our system of global governance and how these are reshaping our ability to address cross-border problems. Substantively, it has been concerned with the dynamics of formal, informal, and transnational institutions operating in the fields of climate change, international trade, global finance, and antitrust.

Roger is the author of The Origins of Informality: Why the Legal Foundations of Global Governance are Shifting, and Why It Matters (Oxford University Press, 2020) and a co-author of Transnational Climate Change Governance (Cambridge University Press, 2014), which was named runner-up for the International Studies Association's Harold and Margaret Sprout Award in 2015. His research has also been published in a range of academic journals, including Global Environmental Politics, International Interactions, International Studies Quarterly, Journal of Conflict Resolution, and Review of International Organisations.

In addition to being a co-convenor of the Barcelona Workshop on Global Governance, Charles is a co-editor (with Prof. Maryam Deloffre) of the Frontiers of Global Governance book series published by McGill-Queens University Press. Finally, he has also worked with the United Nations and other organizations in various roles, including as a member of the UN High-Level Expert Group on Climate Change, Energy and Low-Carbon Development and as a contributing author of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
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