Benjamin Faude and Kenneth W. Abbott argue that today’s global issues are governed by ‘hybrid institutional complexes’
Most issue areas in world politics today – such as climate change, global health, financial regulation, cyberspace, and nuclear safety – are governed neither by individual institutions
nor by regime complexes composed of formal interstate institutions. Rather, as we argue in a new paper, they are governed by “hybrid institutional complexes” (HICs) comprising heterogeneous interstate, infra-state, public–private and private transnational institutions, formal and informal.
HICs include not only the multilateral treaties and formal intergovernmental organizations (FIGOs) that the literature treats as comprising regime complexes. They also include additional types of institutions, in varied combinations: informal inter-governmental organizations (IIGOs); transgovernmental networks of governmental experts (TGNs); transnational public–private partnerships (TPPPs); transnational associations of cities and other sub-national governments; private transnational regulatory organizations (PTROs); and other types of institutions.
The global health HIC, for instance, remains centered on the World Health Organization (WHO), although other institutions increasingly challenge its centrality. During the Covid-19 pandemic, WHO has declared an outbreak of international concern to trigger member state obligations, approved vaccines for emergency use by UN agencies and governments, and provided technical guidance to states. Other FIGOs including the World Bank, United Nations Development Program and UNICEF also address aspects of health. The G7, an IIGO, pledged to greatly expand the global availability of vaccines at its June 2021 summit in Cornwall.
In addition, global and regional TGNs strengthen regulation of pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and other products. TPPPs finance and deliver medicines and vaccines (e.g., GAVI; Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations). Civil society organizations provide health services (e.g., Médecins Sans Frontières), respond to outbreaks (e.g., GOARN), and provide funding. The Gates Foundation helps shape the global health agenda and finances new technologies. WHO collaborates with all of these institutions, as in the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator and the COVAX vaccine initiative, which the G7 has just pledged to strengthen. While the pandemic response has been far from satisfactory, the participation of these diverse institutions has undoubtedly enhanced its effectiveness.
As in global health, HICs have emerged in many other issue areas as IIGOs, PTROs and other alternative institutional forms proliferated during the past three decades, most often in domains already occupied by interstate regime complexes. This process effectively transmuted incumbent regime complexes into HICs, modifying the international governance architecture. However, International Relations scholarship has yet to develop an analytical lens that encompasses all of these institutional forms. That is, it has yet to systematically analyze the distinctive structures, operations, governance benefits and risks of governance complexes populated by diverse types of institutions.
To facilitate such analysis, our paper introduces the concept of the hybrid institutional complex (HIC) as a novel descriptive and analytical lens. We argue that, because of their institutional diversity, HICs operate differently than regime complexes (which are composed exclusively of state-based institutions) in two significant ways: first, HICs exhibit relatively greater functional differentiation among their component institutions, and hence suffer from relatively fewer overlapping claims to authority; and second, HICs exhibit greater informal hierarchy among their component institutions, and hence benefit from greater ordering. Both features reduce institutional duplication, norm conflict and instability, outcomes central to the regime complex literature.
These structural features give rise to characteristic governance benefits. First, HICs offer good “substantive fit” for multi-faceted governance problems. In principle, each institutional form can address those aspects of a problem to which it is best suited; diverse institutions then reinforce one another by addressing common problems in complementary ways. Second, HICs offer good “political fit” for the preferences of diverse stakeholders. Within limits, actors can choose to participate in those institutions whose benefits, weaknesses, costs and risks most closely match their own characteristics and preferences, increasing the incentive-compatibility of cooperation. Third, the functional differentiation and informal hierarchy of HICs make them conducive to coordination, potentially producing relatively strong substantive coherence.
On the other hand, the structural features of HICs also produce characteristic risks for governance, many of which are mirror images of their benefits. First, HICs may amplify overlap and contestation, rather than producing order and coherence, where groups of institutions are closely aligned with one another. Second, individual institutions may take on aspects of cooperation problems for which they are poorly suited, and diverse actions by multiple institutions may produce confusion, reducing substantive fit. Third, the “soft” institutions within HICs may reduce the focality and authority of incumbent treaties and FIGOs or weaken the incentives to establish new ones; here the institutional choice that produces political fit reduces the effectiveness of the governance system.
Importantly, however, effective coordination can reduce the governance risks of HICs. For example, coordination mechanisms can encourage component institutions to address aspects of problems appropriate to their authority and capabilities. They can encourage institutions to take others into account, harmonize norms and policies, and learn from others’ experiences. These actions enhance substantive coherence, and thus effectiveness.
Our research identifies three distinct mechanisms of coordination within HICs: first, institutional design for complementarity, in which the founders of new institutions select institutional forms and designs to mesh with incumbent institutions; second, decentralized adaptation, in which the managers of institutions adjust their governance activities to those of other institutions over time; and third, strategic ordering, in which actors (e.g., the US or UK) or institutions (e.g., WHO or G7) intentionally influence the creation, design or behavior of other institutions – a strategy that can be observed in the efforts of the UK and G7 to strengthen COVAX.
The overarching aim of our paper is to initiate a research agenda that explores the structures, operations, and governance implications of HICs. Important next steps to develop this research agenda are, first, to document the makeup, structure and operation of HICs in diverse issue areas; second, to document how the institutional composition of HICs varies, so that scholars can analyze the causes and consequences of such variation; third, to analyze how actors and institutions apply the mechanisms of coordination that we have identified, and to study their effectiveness.
This article summarises the research and findings of, ‘Hybrid institutional complexes in global governance’, a paper co-authored by Benjamin Faude and Kenneth W. Abbott and published in The Review of International Organizations.
Note: this article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Department of Government, nor of the London School of Economics.