International organisations (IOs) have become prominent actors in world politics. Based on principal-agent theory, the proposed paper conceptualizes IOs as bureaucratic actors who develop distinct preferences. Departing from the assumption that IOs invariably seek to slack, the paper investigates theoretically under which conditions bureaucratic preferences and member state preferences actually diverge so that slack occurs. Two factors are identified as crucial. First, the institutional design of IOs affects the degree of proximity between an organisation and its member states. In particular, the range of discretion, mechanisms of control and the ensuing degree of agent autonomy matter in that regard. The more distant IO and member states are, the more leverage an IO has to develop preferences that are not congruent with member state preferences. Thus, depending on their institutional design IOs have varying opportunities to engage in slack. Second, whether or not they make use of these opportunities depends on the nature of bureaucratic actors and formal as well as informal intra-organisational governance procedures. IOs led by policy entrepreneurs are substantially more likely to slack than IOs led by ordinary bureaucrats. If IO leaders become policy entrepreneurs depends on their political agendas prior to joining the respective IO and their formal and informal status within the respective IO. Consequently, in addition to initial preferences, it also matters whether the head of an organisation wields formal and informal authority to pursue her or his agenda. Informal authority emanates primarily from the competent handling of day-to-day issues. Hence, not only the formal delegation contract between member states and IO, but also informal practices matter.
These theoretical claims will be illustrated using examples from the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) promotion of capital liberalisation, the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) introduction of amicus curiae briefs, and the World Health Organization’s (WHO) SARS alerts.