The Fifteenth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Copenhagen in 2009 was the largest-ever negotiation on climate change, and possibly the largest gathering of heads of state in modern history.1 A wide diversity of non-state actors attended, from trade unions to women’s groups, and each sought to influence the proceedings.2 Inter-governmental organizations (IGOs) such as the World Health Organization, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) also participated. These organizations lobbied states to reach an agreement on climate change and encouraged negotiators to take their particular interest (e.g., health, refugees, migration) into account in the final agreement.

The extent of IGOs’ engagement with the climate change regime has varied greatly. IOM, for instance, has actively pursued financial and other resources in the climate change regime. Conversely, UNHCR was initially reluctant to link to climate change and did not seek climate financing. Hence this article asks: how can we explain variation in IGO engagement in other regimes?

The term organizational engagement refers to when an IGO links to, and participates in, another regime without necessarily having causal impact on that regime. It encompasses a broad set of organizational actions, including publishing reports, making speeches, developing new projects that substantiate links between the host regime (e.g., health) and a target regime (e.g., climate change). Organizational engagement includes bandwagoning behavior: when an IGO purposefully and strategically links their regime to another to affect that regime’s operation and/or gain resources from it.3 However, engagement may also be driven by substantive issue linkages (a causal or believed to be causal link) between two regimes, hence my use of the broader term engagement rather than bandwagoning.

IGO engagement is also distinct from IGO cooperation. The cooperation literature focuses on symmetrical relationships in which two organizations choose and mutually benefit from engaging with each other.4 These studies suggest that organizations will avoid asymmetric relations where they exchange one resource for another, as this leads to dependency.5 Organizations favor exchanges where they can mutually benefit from greater aggregate access to commonly shared resources. Yet, in IGO engagement, one IGO may pursue linkages while the other does not. International relations (IR) scholars have explored why IGOs may cooperate with other IGOs, but not what motivates them to expand into another regime unilaterally.

This article contributes to the conceptualization of IGO engagement in other regimes and explanations for it. Although the IR literature has shifted from conceiving of IGOs as merely instruments of the most powerful states, the predominant concern has been the relationship between states and these bureaucracies, as reflected in the growing principal-agent literature.6 However, IGOs may use other organizations to circumvent principal-agent relationships, pursue their own interests, and shape state behavior. Our current conception of engagement tends to be framed by the terms bandwagoning, cooperation, and interplay, limiting our understanding of why an organization might expand and engage in another regime.

A focus on IGO engagement may also help us understand regime fragmentation and institutional interplay. Fragmentation occurs when a regime becomes a collection of institutions with “weak or non-existent linkages.”7 Keohane and Victor, for instance, suggest that the biological diversity issue area is a weak regime, with weak linkages between the narrow, specific agreements regulating trade in endangered species, coordinating wilderness protection, and promoting intellectual property rights on biodiversity.8 The IR literature identifies four broad causal accounts of why institutions engage in interplay with other regimes, but it does not theorize why only some institutions engage in interplay nor does it analyze variation in the extent of interplay.9 By understanding what leads to IGO engagement in other regimes, we can explain differences in regime fragmentation and interplay. The greater the number of IGOs engaging in another regime and the weaker the issue linkages between them, the more we expect regime fragmentation unless a strong core exists.

Scholars identify three broad alternative, although not necessarily mutually exclusive, explanations for IGO engagement. Their member states may encourage them to do so (statist); there may be a new causal linkage between two issues (substantive issue linkage); or they may seek resources from the target regime to ensure their own survival (resource dependency).10

This article advances another possible explanation: that IGO behavior is shaped by organizational type. Organizations exist on a spectrum from normative to functional ideal types. Normative organizations have a legal mandate to oversee and supervise norms and are strongly wedded to their core mandate. Functional organizations focus on projects and seek to maximize their relevance and financing opportunities. In this article I seek to generate debate about IGO type as a factor shaping IGO behavior rather than seeking to prove that IGO type always explains the extent, nature, or timing of IGO engagement in another regime.

This article has four parts. First it outlines a novel typology of functional and normative organizations. Second, it makes an empirical contribution by tracing aggregate trends in IGO engagement in the climate regime. It then compares the engagement of two organizations (UNHCR and IOM) with climate change. These two cases are useful to compare, as neither was created with a mandate for climate-change–related migration or displacement. Moreover, they are not environmental or scientific IGOs and are outside a broad conception of the climate change regime. They belong to overlapping regimes (displacement/migration) and rely on the same issue linkage to justify their engagement with climate change.11 The final substantive section examines the three existing accounts of IGO engagement and suggests how organizational type may help us understand differences in UNHCR and IOM’s behaviors.

Organizational Type

IR scholars have categorized IGOs along a range of dimensions: the degree of autonomy that states delegate to them, the inclusiveness of non-state actors, and their functions as either norm setters or rule implementers.12 However, these categorizations of IGO design have not been linked to explanations of how organizations behave. This is partly because researchers treat institutional design and behavior as dependent variables, phenomena to be described and explained by reference to independent variables. While one school has asked how we explain the design of institutions,13 another has asked what explains IGO behavior.14 This article connects these two literatures by examining how one critical feature of institutional design leads to divergent responses to new issue areas.

I propose two ideal types of organizations: normative and functional (Table 1). Normative organizations are created with a specific mandate to supervise a regime of international law. Supervisory authority means that states have mandated an IGO to promote and ensure compliance with a discrete body of international rules and norms.15 The International Labour Organization, for instance, oversees more than 150 international labor conventions, and UNHCR oversees the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1961 Statelessness Convention. Conversely, functional IGOs are not mandated to promote or ensure compliance with international norms nor do they have supervisory responsibility over a regime of international law. They exist to perform specific, distinct tasks. Examples of organizations in this category are the World Meteorological Organization, established in 1950 to collect data on weather and exchange it among states,16 and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), established as a migration transportation service with no role in the promotion of international migration law.

These two ideal types do not comprehensively and accurately explain all IGO behavior but rather offer heuristic cases through which we can develop new hypotheses.

The IGOs listed above may not conform to these ideal types but are located close to one extreme of the normative–functional spectrum. Furthermore, organizational type may evolve over time if a functional organization takes on more normative tasks (such as promoting or monitoring an international treaty) or vice versa.

Table 1 

Typology of Functional and Normative Organizations

Organizational TypeCharacteristicsType of LegitimacyCase Study Example
Functional No supervisory authority over international law or norms Pragmatic legitimacy IOM 
Normative Supervisory authority over international law and norms Moral legitimacy UNHCR 
Organizational TypeCharacteristicsType of LegitimacyCase Study Example
Functional No supervisory authority over international law or norms Pragmatic legitimacy IOM 
Normative Supervisory authority over international law and norms Moral legitimacy UNHCR 

Organizational type influences how an organization engages with another issue area. Functional organizations are more likely to bandwagon as they seek pragmatic legitimacy, derived from “the self-interested calculations of an organization’s most immediate audience.”17 Their primary concern is to demonstrate to their constituents (donors) that they can competently provide goods (projects or policies) in exchange for resources (funding).18 Functional organizations are therefore likely to engage with another regime if they can gain support and financing from a wider constituency.

Normative organizations seek to be widely accepted as the appropriate actors to perform particular tasks. International law establishes what states ought to do and provides normative IGOs’ moral authority, which is limited by the scope of the international convention they supervise. A normative IGO does not have moral authority over issues beyond its regime: the International Labour Organization has moral authority to demand that states protect workers’ rights, but not that states protect wildlife. Thus, the moral legitimacy of a normative IGO is defined as the promotion of societal welfare within a bounded issue area or regime. Normative organizations seek ongoing acceptance that the activities they pursue are within their scope and thus are most likely to engage with a new issue that has a clear substantive link to their mandate.

I propose that organizational type shapes organizational preferences and takes effect through an organization’s culture. Normative organizations select staff for their expertise, knowledge, and commitment to the core issue area they govern. These staff are thus strong defenders of the organization’s mandate, keeping the organization from being swept off course.19 Functional organizations hire staff for their expertise to deliver a specific project, and so staff are not necessarily attached to the organizational mission. Their survival relies on accruing funding and they are likely to jettison old activities for new ones, as long as there is money available.20

IGO Engagement in the Climate Change Regime

No scholarship traces the overarching trends of IGOs’ engagement in the climate change regime. Studies focus on specific issues, such as fisheries, forestry, or human rights,21 partly because conducting a quantitative study poses some challenges: how do we measure engagement in a meaningful way for a large number of IGOs? As previously noted, engagement includes behaviors as diverse as attending an international convention, making a speech on an issue, or seeking financing from another regime. Here, I propose attendance at the UNFCCC negotiations as a useful proxy measure at the large-N level.22 By sending a delegate to the UNFCCC, an IGO is investing staff, time, and resources. Attendance is likely to capture broader policy development and rhetorical change as IGOs may present at side-events, develop climate policies, and/or make speeches. The data used in this section comes from the UNFCCC lists of participants.23

Figure 1 shows an increase in the overall attendance of IGOs at the UNFCCC Conferences of the Parties (COPs), particularly between 2006 and 2011. The two most significant increases in the total number of IGOs were at COP13 (2007) and COP15 (2009). A slight decrease in attendance at COP16 (2010) reflects disillusionment with the UNFCCC process after Copenhagen, followed by a small increase at COP17 (2011). The figure provides an overview of how IGOs became increasingly engaged in the climate change regime. However, it masks the diversity of motivations of IGO engagement, as it includes a wide range of IGOs, from environmental (South Pacific Environmental Programme) and scientific (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization), to those outside the core climate change regime (UNHCR).

Figure 1 

IGO Attendance at UNFCCC Annual Conferences of the Parties, 1995–2013

Figure 1 

IGO Attendance at UNFCCC Annual Conferences of the Parties, 1995–2013

Furthermore, Figure 1 does not inform how much or what has changed within each organization during this time period. I explore these questions in the next section, drawing on over 100 interviews with IGOs, NGOs, and state representatives in Copenhagen, New York, Geneva, and Kenya between 2009 and 2013. I interviewed six different IGOs (IOM, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Environment Programme, UNHCR, and the World Food Programme) to conduct this in-depth comparison. I also analyzed all publicly available speeches, reports, policy papers, and executive committee proceedings relating to the issue of climate change in UNHCR and IOM.24 Such significant primary and secondary research could not be easily replicated for the total population of IGOs.

UNHCR, IOM, and Climate Change

UNHCR and IOM both attended the UNFCCC negotiations in 1998, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2012.25 This section concentrates on 2005–2010, comparing their initial engagements with climate change and their rhetorical, structural, and policy changes.

Organizational Mandate

IOM was created in 1951 to organize the transport of European labor migrants on behalf of states.26 Since then, its activities have expanded across the globe and encompass a broad range of migration services, including language training, medical examinations, and research.27 However, it has not been given an explicit mandate for climate change or natural disaster–related migration. IOM has no authority to challenge states over their migration policies; it operates as a “service provider,” delivering projects that states fund it to complete.28 Over 95 percent of its budget is earmarked and most of its staff is in the field, hired on a project basis.29 IOM depends on the acquisition of new projects to survive.30

UNHCR was created in 1950 to protect thousands of refugees displaced by war in Europe.31 In 1951, a year after the establishment of UNHCR, states signed the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which set out the rights of refugees and granted UNHCR supervisory responsibility.32 UNHCR’s supervisory status gave the high commissioner “considerable moral authority and legitimacy” even though he/she had little political legitimacy.33 Refugees were clearly distinguished from migrants, or other displaced persons, by their “well-founded fear of being persecuted.”34 Although UNHCR’s mandate has subsequently expanded to cover a broader scope of persons and activities, it does not protect those displaced by natural disasters.35 UNHCR is a normative organization; the 1951 Refugee Convention, which retains an “almost constitutional character” in UNHCR, is central to its identity despite the growth of other more functional humanitarian operations.36

Initial Engagement

Between 2000 and 2006, IOM did not engage with the climate change regime. The issue slipped under IOM’s radar and one senior staff member suggested this was partly due to a lack of media attention.37 Several events in 2006 brought climate change to the organization’s attention, including the release of Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth (which presented scientific evidence of human induced climate change) and the Stern Review (the first major government report to make an economic case for emissions reductions).38 In the same year, IOM appealed to states to fund a small meeting of academics, policy-makers, and experts on environmental migration. Although states did not fund it, IOM gained funding from the United Nations Population Fund and co-organized a seminar in February 2007, the same month that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its fourth report stating that that climate change was likely to cause migration and making the issue “very hard to deny.”39

After this conference, IOM’s activities on the environment, climate change, and migration took off. IOM officials convinced states at the 2007 council meeting to hold a three-hour discussion on the links between environment, climate change, and migration. IOM prepared a paper outlining how “gradual and sudden environmental changes are resulting in substantial human movement and displacement. The scale of the flows, both internal and cross-border, is expected to rise and have an unprecedented impact on lives and livelihoods.”40 The paper also presented migration as a coping strategy and thus a solution to severe environmental change. At the IOM Council, representatives from Greece, Cameroon, and Colombia highlighted how environmental migration was a problem. Greece even pledged to create special funds to finance adaptation projects in Africa and small-island developing states.41 No other financial support was offered.42 However, IOM made a significant shift over one year: from no engagement to holding a conference, initiating research, and discussing the issue with member states.

UNHCR, on the other hand, was initially reluctant to engage with policy debates on climate change and displacement, perceived as outside their mandate.43 A UNHCR staff member explained that “few people had any clue within the organization about climate change or whether it was of any interest to them” and expressed skepticism about following global trends. UNHCR’s main concern—refuting that climate refugees were in fact refugees—was considered uncontroversial and was well supported by refugee law experts.44 The concept of a climate refugee blurred the boundaries between Convention refugees and the popular conceptions of refugees, undermining UNHCR’s position that refugees were not migrants and had particular protection needs. Climate displacement distracted from UNHCR’s core concern, protecting the unique legal status of Convention refugees.

Rhetorical Change

UNHCR did not engage with climate change until the new high commissioner, António Guterres (a former prime minister of Portugal), highlighted it in a speech in 2007. The IOM director general Brunson McKinley’s first major public speech explicitly on climate migration occurred in March 2008 at a conference in London on the issue, where he stated, “The International Organization for Migration has an obvious role in addressing the linkages between environmental degradation, climate change, and migration.” This statement showed support for the issue at the most senior level of IOM, and reflected the growing body of reports and research carried out on climate change and migration in IOM. McKinley also outlined the establishment of a new Climate Change, Environment and Migration Alliance (CCEMA) with the United Nations Environment Programme, the United Nations University, the Munich Re Foundation, and civil society partners.

In 2009, a new director general, William Lacy Swing, took office, and frequently spoke of IOM’s role in assisting “climate change migrants.” During the secretary general’s climate change summit in New York, Swing highlighted IOM’s contribution in carrying out “relevant operations” in over forty countries, developing a research base, setting out the policy issues, and working in partnership with other agencies.45 He expressed his support for CCEMA and their goal of raising the awareness of human mobility within the UNFCCC process. In December 2009, Swing was the first IOM director general to attend the UNFCCC. He spoke at a side-event with the high commissioner for refugees and representatives of other humanitarian agencies, and emphasized IOM’s expertise in working with environmentally displaced persons. He argued that migration should not be a strategy of last resort but an adaptation strategy.

In late 2007 the high commissioner for refugees began his address to the annual executive committee meeting by stating:

For each centimeter that the sea level will rise, there will be one million more displaced. The international community seems no more adept at dealing with those new causes than it is at preventing conflict and persecution. It is therefore important to examine the reasons, the scale, and the trends of present-day forced displacement.46

The high commissioner’s claim—that climate change was a new driver of displacement—challenged states and a surprised staff. He made these comments of his own accord: he was known to add to his official talking points. States, and many staff, were surprised and wary of the unstated implication that UNHCR might take a role in addressing climate change displacement. Many key UNHCR donors have “expressed persistent wariness with regard to the organization’s expansion, often expressing the opinion that the organization should return to its ‘core mandate[,]’ which they consider to be that of providing refugees with protection in developing regions.”47 UNHCR’s initial engagement occurred, despite resistance from states and staff, because Guterres perceived that climate change had become a major global priority that UNHCR should engage with.48

Throughout 2008 and 2009, Guterres continued to emphasize in speeches, interviews, and op-eds that climate change was “one of the main drivers of forced migration, both directly through its impact on the environment—not allowing people to live any more in the areas where they were traditionally living—and as a trigger of extreme poverty and conflict.”49 However, he did not commit UNHCR to any particular role in addressing these new flows of displaced persons and delineated the unique protection needs of refugees.

Structural Change

Between 2007 and 2008, IOM established a focal-point position for environmental migration within the Migration Policy, Research and Communications Division, assisted by two migration policy officers. The focal point was established to ensure a party line in IOM on climate change and migration.50 In addition, approximately ten other IOM staff worked, at least part-time, on climate change, as the climate change work was “pretty intense.”51 The staff produced reports and research papers and prepared for conferences and other presentations on climate change and migration. IOM made changes to staff resourcing to enable it to pursue work on climate and migration work.

In May 2008, the UN secretary general demanded that all UN agencies establish climate focal points to give higher priority to the issue and prepare for the UNFCCC summit in Copenhagen. In response, UNHCR established its first explicit climate change position.52 However, the office holder received no formal briefing note, and the role of focal point was subsequently handed around the organization like a “hot potato,” to three different people in different divisions over three years.53 Guterres also established a task force on climate change in 2008, backed by his “desire for the office [UNHCR] to engage fully and effectively in the international discussion on these issues,” and staff in multiple divisions were tasked with developing the UNHCR’s climate change position.54 However, this work was additional to their standard responsibilities, and staff reported that they had neither the time nor the space to work on this new priority.55 One staff member, for instance, claimed that he “was not encouraged to make substantive changes or to take the issue seriously,” as he never had the means or authority to turn it into a serious policy issue.56 Senior managers were reluctant to delegate staff to it, as they did not see the issue as a core concern.57

Policy Change

IOM’s first official policy paper outlining its position on climate change and migration was written for Copenhagen in May 2009. The nine-page brief, Migration, Climate Change and the Environment, outlined the complex relationship between climate change and migration. It stated that global migration flows would “rise significantly over the next decades as a result of climate change.”58 This paper, backed by IOM’s vast research on the issue, stated that the nexus between migration, climate change, and environmental degradation was their “second priority [research] area.”59 In fact, by late 2008 IOM’s view was that climate change–induced migration was worthy of further research and an important policy issue to pursue. In parallel, IOM expanded its operations and in 2009 prepared a compendium showcasing over a hundred activities on climate change and migration,60 including many that had only a tenuous link to IOM’s migration mandate, such as soil conservation in Haiti and youth employment programs in Senegal.

UNHCR produced its first policy paper on climate change in 2008, almost a year after the high commissioner’s first speech. The paper was directed at an internal and external audience, and offered a preliminary policy stance. It argued strongly against the use of the term “environmental or climate change refugee,” which it claimed “had no basis in international refugee law” and that “use of this terminology could potentially undermine the international legal regime for the protection of refugees”.61 Again, UNHCR’s stance reflected the agency trying to defend its core mandate. In summary, IOM engaged with climate change to a greater extent from 2006 through 2010 than did UNHCR.

Explaining IOM and UNHCR Engagement with Climate Change

Statist Theory

States may initiate or allow an IGO to pursue issue linkages with other regimes. This account encompasses a broad range of theories: realist, neo-liberal institutionalist, and principal-agent (PA).62 I focus on PA theory because it explores how IGOs seek to maximize the autonomy they are delegated by states.63 Meanwhile, states monitor IGOs to ensure they do not deviate too far from their mandates. IGOs will gain more “slack” when states find monitoring too costly and/or are ineffective at controlling them.64 Variation in state monitoring thus could account for differences in IGO behavior.

States did not monitor IOM’s activities at headquarters’ level as actively as they monitored UNHCR between 2006 and 2010. They tended to see IOM as a gap filler, operating in areas where no other IGO offered services and allowed it to work in areas outside, or on the fringes of, its mandate. This account fits with PA predictions that organizations may strike out on their own and that states may not stop them because they are not actively monitoring or simply do not care. However, PA theory does not explain the variation between UNHCR and IOM, as it assumes the underlying preferences of organizations are to expand and maximize their tasks, scope, and financing. While this may hold true for IOM, it does not for UNHCR.

The UNHCR bureaucracy was largely reluctant to engage with climate change, demonstrated through the weak support for climate focal points and their climate policy. It was the high commissioner, driven by his own convictions, who carved out a role for UNHCR in climate change and displacement. UNHCR did not pursue financing from the climate funds, as will be discussed next, nor did it develop climate displacement projects. In short, the nature of IOM and UNHCR’s engagement differed substantively because their organizational preferences were distinct, a factor that PA theory does not account for.

Substantive Issue Linkages

A substantive issue linkage is a real or perceived causal relationship between two issue areas such as trade and climate change.65 Organizations may engage with new issues when a new substantive issue linkage develops. The prominence of a new causal linkage between two areas previously seen as discrete triggers IGO engagement. If all major actors involved in the policy-making process accept the linkage, it is a strong issue linkage.66 We would then expect an IGO (such as the World Trade Organization) to engage with another regime (climate change). Actors who establish and promote issue linkages often have an interest in doing so; in practice it is often difficult to separate substantive from tactical or strategic issue linkages, but they are analytically distinct. Endogeneity is a potential problem here: proposing a new issue linkage constitutes engagement with another regime and may also lead to further engagement. We can deal with this by focusing on whether IGOs are the initiators or followers in issue linkage formation.

This explanation points to the growing prominence of the link between climate change and displacement/migration to explain UNHCR and IOM’s behavior. This issue linkage concerns the central question: does climate change cause people to move? This link was first made in 1948 and entered into official usage in 1985 in a UNEP report, Environmental Refugees.67 By the mid-2000s, a broad transnational “climate justice” movement of international development, environmental, and human rights civil society groups and academics highlighted the plight of climate refugees as evidenced in reports by Christian Aid, Greenpeace, the Environmental Justice Foundation, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and Oxfam.68 Although academic debate continues over the casual nature of the link between climate change and migration/displacement, many scholars acknowledge that increased extreme weather events and rising sea levels will have some effect on displacement, which provides a rationale for UNHCR and IOM to engage.69

UNHCR had humanitarian expertise in responding to natural disasters yet initially engaged reluctantly with climate change displacement debates. Why? IOM’s broader migration mandate gave it more scope than UNHCR’s narrowly defined refugee mandate. While this claim has some truth, it does not fully capture UNHCR’s reluctance. As UNHCR evolved into a more functional operational agency, it offered assistance in natural disasters such as the Philippine floods (2009), the Pakistan floods (2010), and the Haitian earthquake (2010).70

Resource Dependency Theory

Scholars have also drawn on resource dependency theories to argue that inter-governmental organizations will bandwagon to access resources. The logic here is that IGOs rely on their external environment for survival.71 Organizations may seek tangible resources (finances, information) or intangible resources (prestige, legitimacy).72 IGOs operate in a competitive market place and look for opportunities to increase their chances of survival. Unlike statist theories, this explanation emphasizes that organizations have autonomy to shape these environments.73

We would thus expect to see an IGO engage in another regime or issue area when it has high policy and media attention (increased relevance), new financing opportunities, and many actors (expanded organizational constituencies). On the other hand, organizations facing difficulties with financing, organizational relevance, and/or expertise often pursue linkages with other regimes.74

This explanation does explain IOM’s behavior. IOM sought to be relevant to states by engaging with top global issues. Its first conference on climate change was held the same month as the release of the fourth IPCC report. IOM also increased its climate change–related activities on the international agenda during the high-tide phase of climate change (2006–2009). IOM sought financing through the UNFCCC and lobbied successfully for the inclusion of migration as an adaptation strategy in the final UNFCCC agreement at Cancun. IOM also mapped out the potential climate funds it could access. When it discovered it could not directly access the adaptation fund, it established a partnership with the Asian Development Bank to indirectly do so.75

UNHCR, however, was generally not motivated to maximize attention, relevance, or financing. Staff favored sticking to their core mandate. The high commissioner took a different stance and instigated UNHCR’s engagement with the issue. Colleagues of the high commissioner have stated that as an “astute politician” he was aware of what issues were increasing in political salience and thus sought to link UNHCR’s mandate to it.76 However, he was also cautious of conflating refugees with climate change displacement. UNHCR did over time become more involved in the debate—through, for example, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) submissions, engagement in the UNFCCC negotiations, and working with the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Norwegian government at the 2011 Nansen Conference.77 However, UNHCR was not initially as responsive as IOM to changes in the relevance of climate change.

UNHCR did not pursue funding from the climate change regime. In 2011, UNHCR’s climate change advisor (funded by the Norwegian Refugee Council) investigated accessing climate funds for UNHCR projects but did not identify or access them successfully,78 partly due to lack of buy-in from the organization. Rather, when UNHCR did eventually engage, it sought to expand its legal protection mandate. In 2010 and 2011, it worked with Norway and at the Nansen Conference outlined a gap in the international protection framework for those displaced across borders by climate change–related disasters. UNHCR represents a hard case for resource dependency theory, as it was motivated neither by relevance nor funding. So how can we explain the variation between IOM and UNHCR’s behavior? Organizational type offers a compelling account.

Organizational Type

IOM, a functional organization, sought to maximize its financing and relevance. It pursued new activities to gain additional financing and relevance. Staff members did not resist engaging with new issue areas (such as soil conservation in Haiti) outside their core mandate. Their primary goal was to maximize the organization’s survival by demonstrating effectiveness in project delivery. UNHCR held distinct organizational preferences. As we would expect from a normative organization, it focused on its core mandate. UNHCR did not seek to maximize autonomy and gain access to climate financing, as principal-agent or resource dependence theory might assume. Rather, many staff, particularly those in the Division of International Protection, advocated for UNHCR to focus on the protection of refugees and not be distracted by climate-related displacement. This concern explains senior staff reluctance to commit human resources to the issue. It also accounts for the content of their policy papers, in which they emphasized the distinction between refugees and climate change displacement.

In fact, organizational type helps us understand the differences in the extent of IOM and UNHCR’s responses. UNHCR changed to a lesser extent, particularly in terms of structural and operational change, while IOM made significant changes in rhetoric, policy, and structure from 2005 to 2010. I do not argue that IOM’s response was inherently better than UNHCR’s, as important questions exist that are not explored here over IOM’s ability to deliver effectively in areas outside its mandate. Also, organizational type may not capture every organizational engagement; Guterres, for instance, was motivated by a pragmatic interest in climate displacement, and his speeches reflect his political judgment that UNHCR should engage with the issues of the day to stay relevant in an increasingly crowded humanitarian field.

Organizational type holds an advantage over other explanations, which do not stipulate how IGOs will respond substantively but rather assume they will seek to maximize autonomy (principal agent), maximize resources (resource dependency), or follow epistemic linkages (substantive issue linkage). These assumptions are problematic, as international organizations have different preferences based on their organizational type: UNHCR sought moral legitimacy while IOM sought pragmatic legitimacy. This translated into divergent engagement behaviors: UNHCR lobbied states to expand the existing legal protection frameworks. In 2011 at the Nansen Conference in Norway and the ministerial summit in Geneva, UNHCR encouraged states to develop legal frameworks to protect cross-border climate displacement. UNHCR’s arguments were based on moral claims to protect those in need. There was no additional financing immediately available to incentivize such expansion. In contrast, IOM lobbied for migration to be considered an adaptation strategy within the UNFCCC agreement, showcased its expertise in climate and migration research, and sought financing to deliver new projects. The UNHCR and IOM cases illustrate how organizational type shapes the substantive nature of IGO engagement with new issue areas.

Conclusions

IGO engagement is an important and distinct behavior not fully captured or explained by the bandwagoning, interplay, and cooperation literatures. I proposed a number of measures of IGO engagement: attendance at another regime’s summits, rhetoric change, structural change, and policy change. I used the first indicator to highlight the increased frequency of IGO’s engagement in the climate regime, and the latter three to compare variation in UNHCR and IOM’s response. I found that UNHCR was hesitant to engage, while IOM was not. IOM sought financing from the climate change regime to develop new projects, but UNHCR did not. Understanding when and why IGOs engage with other regimes is important, as it may help to explain institutional interplay and thus regime fragmentation. The literatures have focused on when and why institutions link with others, but have not explained why they might not.

This article proposed that organizational type shapes when, why, and how organizations respond to new issue areas. UNHCR, a normative organization, was reluctant to engage because it was strongly wedded to its refugee mandate. IOM, a functional organization, was eager to expand into climate change and migration activities. However, these findings are limited in their generalizability, and the impact of IGO type must be further tested. Future research could pursue a quantitative study of normative and functional IGOs in climate change and/or other regimes. Further work should also investigate the relationship between rational design, organizational type, and organizational evolution. Rational design suggests that states will decide whether they create normative or functional IGOs, but organizational type may evolve over time as seen in the UNHCR case. In sum, it is critical for IR scholars to investigate how structural differences in IGOs lead to different organizational preferences and behaviors. We need to breach the divide between the categorization of IGOs and theories of their behavior.

Notes

1. 

Harris 2013.

2. 

Jinnah 2011.

3. 

Jinnah 2011.

4. 

Bierman 2008; Gest and Grigorescu 2010.

5. 

Bierman 2008.

6. 

Hawkins et al. 2006.

7. 

See Keohane and Victor 2011, 8.

8. 

See Keohane and Victor 2011, 9.

9. 

Stokke 2001; Oberthür and Gehring 2006.

10. 

Gest and Grigorescu 2010.

11. 

Zelli 2011.

12. 

Rittberger et al. 2012; Steffek 2013.

13. 

Koremenos et al. 2001.

14. 

Barnett and Finnemore 2004; Hawkins et al. 2006; Weaver 2007.

15. 

Türk 2007, 3. Exercising supervisory authority typically consists of (1) monitoring and assessing state behavior with regards to the international law of concern and (2) some type of enforcement mechanism.

16. 

Reinalda 2009, 98.

17. 

Suchman 1995, 578.

18. 

Suchman 1995, 548.

19. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), another normative organization, offers a useful example of this. ICRC officials describe international humanitarian law as the ICRC’s “identity trademark” (Ratner 2011, 491). When some in ICRC sought to expand into international human rights law, they faced resistance from delegates who argued that it “detracts from the fundamental purpose of the ICRC” (Ratner 2011, 465).

20. 

Georgi 2010, 57.

21. 

Axelrod 2011; Jinnah 2011.

22. 

Cabré-Munoz 2011.

23. 

The list of participants can be found on the UNFCCC website: http://unfccc.int/documentation/documents/items/3595.php#beg, last accessed January 4, 2015.

24. 

The majority of these documents can be found on-line. UNHCR’s are available at: UNHCR, Climate Changehttp://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e4a5096.html, last accessed January 26 2015. IOM, Migration and Climate Change, http://www.iom.int/cms/envmig last accessed January 26 2015.

25. 

2010 was the only UNFCCC meeting that IOM attended and UNHCR did not.

26. 

Ducasse-Rogier 2001, 15; IECM 1953.

27. 

IOM 1989.

28. 

Georgi 2010.

29. 

IOM 2010, 2; Georgi 2010.

30. 

Georgi 2010, 62.

31. 

Loescher 2001; Betts, Loescher and Milner 2012.

32. 

1951, Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Article 35.

33. 

Loescher 2002.

34. 

A refugee is someone with “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside his country of nationality and is unable or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Article 1A (2).

35. 

Betts et al. 2008.

36. 

Türk 2007, 499.

37. 

Interview with IOM senior official, December 15, 2009, Copenhagen.

38. 

Interview with IOM senior official, December 15, 2009, Copenhagen.

39. 

Interview with IOM official, March 17, 2010, Geneva.

40. 

IOM 2007, 1.

41. 

IOM 2008, 27.

42. 

IOM 2008.

43. 

Telephone interview with UNHCR senior official, May 14, 2010.

44. 

McAdam 2010.

45. 

The occasion was a side-event entitled “Emerging Policy Perspectives on Human Mobility in a Changing Climate,” organized by CCEMA during the secretary general’s climate change summit in New York.

46. 

Statement by the high commissioner, Executive Committee of the Program of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 58th session, Geneva, October 1, 2007.

47. 

Crisp 2009, 76. Although Crisp is the head of UNHCR’s Policy Development and Evaluation Service, these views are his own.

48. 

Interview with UNHCR staff member, Geneva, March 17, 2010.

49. 

Borger, J. 2008. Climate Change Refugees: “Nature’s Retaliation Against Human Aggression.” The Guardian, June 17, 2008, available at http://www.theguardian.com/world/audio/2008/jun/17/refugees.climate.change, last accessed January 5, 2015; Guterres 2008.

50. 

Interview with IOM official and senior official, March 17, 2010, Geneva.

51. 

Interview with IOM official, May 11, 2012, Geneva.

52. 

Ki-moon 2008.

53. 

Telephone interview with UNHCR official, March 30, 2010.

54. 

UNHCR 2008.

55. 

Telephone interview with UNHCR official, March 30, 2010. Interview with UNHCR official, March 17, 2010, Geneva.

56. 

Telephone interview with UNHCR official, March 30, 2010.

57. 

Interview with UNHCR senior official, May 10, 2012, Geneva.

58. 

IOM 2009c, 1.

59. 

IOM 2009a, 28–39.

60. 

IOM 2009b.

61. 

UNHCR 2008. Climate Change, Natural Disasters and Human Displacement, Policy Paper. Geneva: UNHCR, 7.

62. 

Axelrod 2011; Hawkins et al. 2006.

63. 

Hawkins and Jacoby 2006.

64. 

Park and Weaver 2012.

65. 

Betts 2010.

66. 

Haas 1980, 370.

67. 

McAdam 2012, 39.

68. 

E.g., Friends of the Earth 2000, 2004; Greenpeace 2008; Environmental Justice Foundation 2009.

69. 

Betts 2013, 16–17.

70. 

UNHCR 2011.

71. 

Pfeffer and Salancik 1978, 2.

72. 

Bierman 2008; Gest and Grigorescu 2010.

73. 

Barnett and Finnemore 2004; Hawkins et al. 2006.

74. 

Conliffe 2011.

75. 

Interview with IOM staff member, May 11, 2012, Geneva.

76. 

Interview with UNHCR staff member, Geneva, March 17, 2010.

77. 

See Hall 2013.

78. 

Interview with UNHCR representative, May 9, 2012, Geneva.

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Author notes

*

I thank two anonymous peer-reviewers, as well as Emily Jones and Thomas Hale, for their constructive comments. I am also grateful to the participants at the Hertie School of Governance European and Global Governance Colloquium, the Social Sciences Research Center Berlin Colloquium, the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute, and the New Zealand Institute for Governance and Policy Studies for useful feedback.