Intergovernmental Organisations

Who is WHO? Or better, what is the WHO? 

Get started Sign up for free
Intergovernmental Organisations Intergovernmental Organisations

Create learning materials about Intergovernmental Organisations with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account

Millions of flashcards designed to help you ace your studies

Sign up for free

Convert documents into flashcards for free with AI!

Table of contents

    Well, WHO is an acronym for World Health Organisation. And what is the World Health Organisation? It is one of the agencies of the United Nations (UN), the most important Intergovernmental Organisation.

    In this explanation, we will introduce intergovernmental organisations' is structure, functions, examples, and finally, its advantages.

    Intergovernmental organisation definition

    Intergovernmental Organisations (IGOs) are crucial actors in global governance. Before delving into the definition of IGOs, let’s try and understand what global governance means.

    Global governance is a coordinated effort by a worldwide actor, such as a group of governments, an intergovernmental organisation, or a nongovernmental organisation (NGOs) to tackle an issue that affects different parts of the world.

    One example of a global governance issue is climate change. States, NGOs and IGOs collaborate to find ways to coordinate an answer to the challenges of climate change. International Climate Change Agreements often set shared responsibilities and goals to mitigate the effects of climate change.

    Intergovernmental Organisations [+] Climate change and global governance [+] StudySmarterFig. 1 States and UN representatives at the COP21 climate change conference in 2015 in Paris. COPs are UN Summits where issues such as climate change are discussed, hence, global governance is coordinated.

    Check out our explanation on NGOs and International Climate Change Agreements to learn more about these topics!

    So what is an Intergovernmental Organisation?

    An Intergovernmental Organisation is an organisation created by states to coordinate joint action. It usually entails a series of multilateral agreements or treaties that function as a constitution for the states to agree to and that they can use to hold each other accountable. Agreements also decide the IGO's operators, structure, function, and agencies.

    IGOs have grown exponentially in the past century, especially after World War Two. As we will see in the following sections, IGOs can have very different functions and structures according to their aims.

    Intergovernmental organisations structure

    An IGO comes with privileges, conditions of immunity, rights to respect, aims and international legal status. This permits the process through which different IGOs can decide to collaborate or coordinate collaboration and agreements between their members.

    The most common features of an Intergovernmental Organisation are:

    1. A legislative body coordinates legal acts, such as resolutions, the validity of agreements, and directives, which are crucial for the possibility of collaborations between states within the IGO. At the same time, the specific laws of the states which are part of an IGO are still valid, and IGO legislation does not legislate over national law. The only exception is the EU, which is a supranational organisation with some common legislation among its members that applies nationally.
    2. The dispute-resolution body is needed to ensure that potential disputes and disagreements between members can be solved. Sometimes this looks like a tribunal, such as in the European Court of Human Rights, the tribunal of the Council of Europe.
    3. The executive body can look very different from IGO to IGO; however, it is crucial in all IGOs to enact the operations decided by the members of the IGO. A secretariat is an example of an executive body.
    4. A plenary assembly ensures the representation of all members of an IGO, similar to a Parliament. Indeed, the EU has the European Parliament and, the African Union, the Pan-African Parliament.
    5. A secretariat is an office where administrative functions are tackled.
    6. A subsidiary agency is an IGO organ responsible for specific tasks that may relate to a temporary situation or the long-term aims of the IGO. As we will see later, the UN has multiple subsidiary agencies.

    Intergovernmental organisations functions

    Explaining an IGO's function is not as simple as you might think. For now, we know that IGOs serve global governance; however, their function varies enormously according to their role.Nonetheless, we can try and group the most important types of IGOs with the following overview.

    Types of IGOS

    • Worldwide or Global Organisation: with this term, we usually refer to Intergovernmental Organisations, which are more or less open to all nations if the conditions for membership are met. The most famous example would be the UN, which has the function of coordinating global governance on a worldwide scale. At the same time, the UN holds different agencies which have more specific functions.

    • Cultural, linguistic, ethnic, religious, or historical organisations: these organisations bring together states based on a shared identity, expressed, for example, in language or culture. In relation to the UK, we could see the Commonwealth of Nations as a linguistic and cultural organisation.

    • Economic Organisations: these organisations are erected to achieve shared economic goals between countries, such as freer trade and economic development. Examples include the World Trade Organisation, which aims at consolidating free trade.

    • Regional Organisations: these organisations unite members from a region of the world to coordinate efforts on different issues. They can be economic, such as the Economic Community of West African States, regional and historical such as the Council of Europe, or even military, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

    Intergovernmental organisations list

    Intergovernmental Organisations [+] List of Intergovernmental Organisations, OPEC [+] StudySmarterFig. 2 The map shows members of OPEC, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, a crucial economic Intergovernmental Organisation.

    As we have said above, the function of IGOs varies significantly according to their aims and values. Here is a list and a brief explanation of the four of the most essential IGOs:

    • Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN): this is a political and economic intergovernmental organisation that includes ten countries from Southeast Asia. It is based on cooperation, particularly on industrial development and production.
    • European Union (EU): The EU is an intergovernmental organisation that entails twenty-seven members and coordinates politics and economics through the Euro-Zone and laws.
    • Council of Europe: This intergovernmental organisation includes 47 European countries and was founded in 1949. It is different from the EU, and, indeed, the UK is still a part of the Council (despite leaving the EU). One of the most crucial organs of the council is The European Court of Human Rights, which enforces the Human Rights that Europe protects through its Convention.

    The UN

    Intergovernmental Organisations [+] The UN, Intergovernmental Organisations list [+] StudySmarterFig. 3 The symbol of the UN, the most important Intergovernmental Organisation as it includes 193 countries as members.

    The United Nations (UN), founded on the 24th of October, 1945, is the sole IGO where all states in the world can potentially be members. The members are currently 193. It is almost impossible for a state not to be part of the UN because for a country to be called such, the UN has to recognise it.

    Of course, there are exceptions that regard territories that consider themselves autonomous, such as Palestine, which is an observer member, or Taiwan, which is recognised by only 13 members of the UN.

    The topics the UN addresses are many and different, such as poverty, security, food, health, human rights, and climate. All of the various issues give existence to different agencies, i.e. sub-organs of the UN, which represent all of the world’s aims concerning the object they tackle.

    Examples of agencies under the UN are the World Health Organisation, the World Trade Organisation, and the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

    The World Health Organisation (WHO)

    The WHO is an agency of the UN that aims at coordinating cooperation and governance on public health. It wants to provide people of the world the highest level of health possible, protecting them from endemics, pandemics, and diseases and working on health care structures and infrastructures.

    Examples of pandemics that the WHO has tackled are AIDS, the Ebola virus in West Africa, tuberculosis, and COVID19.

    Some critiques of the WHO have accused it of medical racism and outsourcing in its coordination of access to COVID vaccination. Indeed, during the COVID-19 pandemic, resources were not evenly distributed by the WHO around the world, and countries in the Global South were the last to receive doses of vaccines. Critiques of the WHO also recall how the WHO, being a UN agency, should be committed to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and how its management of vaccines was based on discrimination of countries on the basis of economies and development1.

    Advantages of Intergovernmental Organisations

    Intergovernmental Organisations are crucial tools for global governance, as we have seen until now. In particular, the main advantages are:

    1. Coordinated decision-making enables tackling global or regional issues with global or regional participation so that all those impacted by the outcome can have a say. Decisions come with consensus and unanimity, which means that usually, big decisions have to be approved by everyone, and some members have veto powers, which signifies blocking decisions.
    2. This signifies that states, especially smaller states, have agency in their futures and that citizens have a say in global issues through state representatives. Of course, this is not always the case, and it depends on various factors, such as the structure of governments.
    3. Intergovernmental Organisations enable interconnection since different states that may not share some features, such as culture, religion, history, etc., can come in contact and find similarities in other interests. This enables, in turn, globalisation.
    4. Intergovernmental Organisations allow countries to tackle issues that require enormous resources, such as a pandemic, with access to shared resources, such as financial capacity and technologies.

    Intergovernmental Organisations - Key takeaways

    • Intergovernmental Organisations (IGOs) are groups of states that coordinate action on global issues, such as climate change, economic policies, development, and health, either globally or regionally.
    • IGOs usually are structured through different departments such as the legislative body, the dispute-resolution body, the executive body, the plenary assembly, the secretariat, and subsidiary agencies.
    • The functions of IGOs vary according to their aims. The main types are worldwide, regional, economic, linguistic, cultural, and religious organisations.
    • The UN is the most crucial intergovernmental organisation, made up of 193 member states. Furthermore, through its subsidiary agencies (such as the WHO), the UN tackles issues that impact us globally.
    • The main advantage of IGOs is that they make coordinated decision-making possible, therefore ensuring that those impacted by a global issue have some decisional power in the way such issues are addressed.


    1. The Guardian (30 Apr 2022) 'Covid vaccine inequity due to ‘racism rooted in slavery and colonialism’'.
    2. Fig. 1 French President Hollande, Foreign Minister Fabius, and UN Secretary-General Ki-moon Sit On the Stage at to the COP21 Climate Change Conference (,_Foreign_Minister_Fabius,_and_UN_Secretary-General_Ki-moon_Sit_On_the_Stage_at_to_the_COP21_Climate_Change_Conference_(23696822955).jpg).
    3. Fig. 2 OPEC (
    4. Fig. 3 Symbol of the UN (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Intergovernmental Organisations

    Who are members of intergovernmental organisations?

    States are members of Intergovernmental Organisations. Depending on the aims of the organisation, states come together globally, regionally, or according to some shared identity, such as language, or interest, such as a sector of the economy.

    What is an example of an intergovernmental organisation?

    The UN is the most important Intergovernmental Organisation since it entails 193 member states. The UN has various subsidiary agencies that tackle specific issues such as development and growth, climate change, health, etc.

    How many intergovernmental organisations are there?

    There are more than three hundred Intergovernmental Organisations around the world. The number of Intergovernmental Organisations has grown exponentially after WW2.  

    What is the role of IGOs?

    The role of IGOs varies according to what their aims are. Generally, IGOs are crucial institutions to coordinate joint efforts in solving a global or regional issue. Therefore, they are a tool of global governance. 

    Why do states join IGOs?

    States join IGOs because they are spaces where collective decision-making happens. This signifies that, arguably, all states, even the smallest, have a say in the outcomes of global governance and in the resolution of an issue that impacts them. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following definitions fits the concept of Global Governance?

    Which of the following is an example of an IGOs-led action?

    Why is a plenary assembly crucial for all IGOs?


    Discover learning materials with the free StudySmarter app

    Sign up for free
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team Politics Teachers

    • 11 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App
    Sign up with Email

    Get unlimited access with a free StudySmarter account.

    • Instant access to millions of learning materials.
    • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams, AI tools and more.
    • Everything you need to ace your exams.
    Second Popup Banner