Making International Institutions Work: The Politics of Performance

Cambridge University Press, 2023

Publisher’s book website

Abstract International institutions are essential for tackling many of the most urgent challenges facing the world, from pandemics to humanitarian crises, yet we know little about when they succeed, when they fail, and why. This book proposes a new theory of institutional performance and tests it using a diverse array of sources, including the most comprehensive dataset on the topic. Challenging popular characterizations of international institutions as ‘runaway bureaucracies,’ Ranjit Lall argues that the most serious threat to performance comes from the pursuit of narrow political interests by states – paradoxically, the same actors who create and give purpose to institutions. The discreet operational processes through which international bureaucrats cultivate and sustain autonomy vis-à-vis governments, he contends, are critical to making institutions ‘work.’ The findings enhance our understanding of international cooperation, public goods, and organizational behavior while offering practical lessons to policymakers, NGOs, businesses, and citizens interested in improving institutional effectiveness.


  1. International Institutions and the Performance Puzzle
  2. A Theory of Institutional Performance
  3. Learning from Assessment: Quantitative Tests on Fifty-Four Institutions
  4. Performing for Scraps: Comparing the FAO, the WFP, and IFAD
  5. The Performance of Life: Comparing the WHO, UNAIDS, Gavi, and GFATM
  6. Effective but Unaccountable? Autonomy and the Politics of Reform
  7. The Politics of Performance: Contributions and Implications


“A fascinating book that stands much of the conventional wisdom on what makes for effective international governance on its head. Ranjit Lall has written a deeply original and meticulously researched book that sets the standard for future work in this area.”

— Dani Rodrik, Harvard University

“Ranjit Lall’s original and persuasive argument is that institutional performance depends on linkages to transnational networks and deep engagement with civil society, which enhance policy autonomy and limit state interference. All serious students of international institutions should read this book.”

— Robert Keohane, Princeton University

“Why do some international institutions perform well at providing critical public goods for the world’s people, while others fail? Lall provides a powerful explanation using new data from multiple sources. International institutions need a minimal level of autonomy from the states that created them to function well, and they can attain this by employing the same clever strategies that people and governments follow: making alliances and exploiting informational advantages. His book provides a clear guide for scholars and policymakers on how to make international institutions work for the world.”

— Helen Milner, Princeton University

“The path to more effective international institutions lies not through formal institutional rules but through international organizations developing operational advantages that states need but cannot interfere with, coupled with pursuing projects through informal partnerships with transgovernmental networks and nonstate actors. Ranjit Lall supports his persuasive argument with extensive data and case studies explaining the comparative performance of a wide range of international organizations.”

— Duncan Snidal, University of Oxford


Making International Institutions Work introduces the most comprehensive dataset on the performance of international institutions: the Performance of International Institutions Project (PIIP). The PIIP includes performance ratings of 54 major institutions between 2008 and 2018 by the governments of Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK and the Multilateral Organization Performance Assessment Network (MOPAN). A wealth of additional information on these institutions, including on their policy autonomy, governance tasks, and operational partnerships, is also provided. For further details, see my datasets.

Book Launch

The book launch for Making International Institutions Work, featuring Joseph Stiglitz and Raj Chetty, took place on 16 May 2023 at Nuffield College, University of Oxford (see poster).