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International Organizations 101: Taxonomy


With growing interdependence and globalization, the international arena started to evolve and international organizations (IOs) became significant actors in world politics. In this sense, understanding the functioning of International Organizations reveals the privileges and limits they create while providing insight into a part of contemporary world politics. This 101 series is dedicated to discussing the evolution and basics of intergovernmental organizations.

International Organizations 101 series is divided into 6 sections:

  1. International Organizations 101: Introduction and Early Examples

  2. International Organizations 101: Taxonomy

  3. International Organizations 101: Managing Public and Private Partnerships

  4. International Organizations 101: Internal Governance

  5. International Organizations 101: UN, NATO, EU

  6. International Organizations 101: Measuring the Influence

International Organizations 101: Taxonomy

IOs are classified under three categories traditionally: inter-governmental organizations, international non-governmental organizations, and multinational enterprises. All types pose a number of legal issues regarding their existence and operation: laws applicable to them, legal status and capacity, scope and powers of their organs, the validity of their transactions, regularity of their decisions, responsibility, etc (Virally, 1977, p. 58). Therefore, there is a need to classify each category under its structure further. Several academic resources and international conventions provide categorizations of each type of IOs. Nevertheless, they remain as a matter of terminology that serves practical purposes. Although there is no commonly accepted classification system, to provide an understanding of the nature and functioning of different IOs, this article discusses the most widely used categorization of organizations.

World Trade Organization witnesses US-China trade standoff (1)

IGOs as international legal persons created by treaties are traditionally classified based on their geographic scope, field of activity and function. According to geographic scope, IGOs are referred to as ‘universal’ or ‘regional’. Global IGOs like The United Nations or World Health Organization can accept members from all around the world, whereas regional IGOs such as African Union limits their criteria of membership. However, this classification is merely a matter of language. Since some states do not prefer to join, there is no such thing as a completely universal multinational organization. In addition, organizations like IMF and World Bank precluding members that reject them from ever being admitted, does not fit in this definition (Virally, 1977, p. 68). There are IGOs that are not universally open and are also formed by geographically distant states in accordance with common interests. These cannot be classified as universal or regional either. For instance, major oil exporting countries located in various regions gather with the aim of coordinating petroleum policies under OPEC, which falls into neither of these categories.

The second classification is based on the fields of activity of IGOs. General organizations are formed to facilitate coordinated cooperation among their members in any subject where such cooperation might be beneficial. IGOs like the United Nations or the Council of Europe are grouped under this category , regardless of their scale, whether regional or global. On the other hand, sectoral IGOs such as the Economic Organisation of West African States (ECOWAS), operate in tightly defined sectors. The idea of distinguishing between specialized and general functions has long been common in domestic law, and the analyses of its consequences can also be applied to international law to a certain extent (Virally, 1977, p. 68). In terms of functions and strategies, IGOs are classified as standard setting and operational. Standard setting IGOs aim to fulfill common interests and prevent conflict by focusing on organizing and guiding the actions of their members through various methods. By contrast, operational IGOs take action themselves by using their own or their members' resources, and deciding how they are used. While some international organizations engage in almost entirely operational activities, such as the financial institutions and the World Bank, others combine both standard-setting and operational activities (Virally, 1977, p. 71). For instance, The United Nations acts as a standard setting organization by determining the norms to prevent human rights violations, whereas the organization uses its operational function to intervene in the case of any violation.

World Wide Fund for Nature (2)

NGOs are distinguished by 4 characteristics: volunteering, non-profit, non-partisan, and non-criminal activities. As legal organizations that are dedicated to the task of development, they arose as a response to the needs of the society that the governments were unable to meet. NGOs began to actively participate in contemporary world politics during the last two decades, becoming more complex entities. In accordance with their activities, NGOs are divided into two categories: operational NGOs and advocacy NGOs (Willetts, 2011). Operational NGOs conduct development projects for the disadvantaged such as poverty reduction and improved health care. For instance, The Green Trust, a subsidiary of WWF South Africa (World Wide Fund for Nature), works with Nedbank to urge communities to care for their local surroundings and to rebuild areas where environmental damage has already happened (Buys, n.d). On the other hand, advocacy NGOs focus on influencing policy-making by raising awareness. Due to the reputation of campaigning methods of Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross, these organizations possess authority at the level of the UN, where their reports are taken into account as part of the official process of monitoring governments that have agreed to be bound by the terms of international treaties (Human rights activism and the role of NGOs, 2022). Thus, NGOs are regarded as development actors who may help enhance social interactions and cross-networks, laying the groundwork for collective action and increased democratic involvement (Abiddin et al., 2022).

MNEs that have assets and operations in several countries are distinguished from other types of businesses by their unique identity located at the center of international and national political economies. They have strong relations with various external actors, including government, financial institutions, trade unions and universities. Foreign direct investment, intra and inter-firm commerce, R&D networking, joint ventures, strategic alliances, licensing, contracting, and other 'new forms of investment' distinguish MNE-centered policy networks from others (Sally, 1994). The fundamental cause for this is the growing transnational interdependency. Infrastructure and knowledge of national economies are crucial for MNEs to operate successfully while governments need the expertise and technology of MNEs.

Multinational Corporations (3)

The 'transnational' phenomenon, requiring complex combinations of centralization and decentralization within the MNE, is increasingly to be found in technology-intensive global industries, such as electronics, high-value chemicals/pharmaceuticals and automobiles, characterized by oligopolistic rivalry and partnerships among firms of North America, Western Europe and South East Asia (Sally, 1994, p.165). Walmart, Coca-Cola and Apple are some of the instances of multinational enterprises that operate in more than one region with ample resources. In terms of wealth, BP is bigger than Finland, while Chevron is bigger than Ireland, and the combined annual revenue of the 200 largest transnational corporations exceeded those of the GDP of the 182 nation states containing 80% of the world’s population (Thompson, 2021). The huge economic power and reputation provide TNCs strong political influence various policy areas, even towards the developed countries. The United States invaded Guatemala in 1954 to prevent the government from taking its land from United Fruit Company and apportioning it among workers. This demonstrates the influence of United Fruit Company on the foreign economic policy of USA and domestic policies of Guatemala. Due to the small economy of Switzerland, the country adjusts its’ biotechnology regulations in accordance with the wishes of its’ pharmaceutical MNEs, revealing the imbalance between the government and corporations.

Due to the fact that IOs methods of operation and personalities are subject to the rule of law, a pattern of classification is needed. Nevertheless, even if IGOs, NGOs and MNEs are classified and divided into sub-branches, this categorization couldn’t go further than to specify the organisations’ work field and their coverages. This assortment is mostly a theoretical one. As complex entities, there is no universally accepted taxonomy for IGOs.

Bibliographical References

Abiddin, N. Z., Ibrahim, I., & Abdul Aziz, S. A. (2022). Non-governmental organisations (ngos) and their part towards Sustainable Community Development. Sustainability, 14(8), 4386.

Buys, A. (n.d.). WWF Nedbank Green Trust making a difference for 30 years. Conservation Mag | Wildlife, Nature and Travel Magazine. Retrieved from:

Council of Europe. (2022). Human rights activism and the role of ngos. Manual for Human Rights Education with Young people. Retrieved from:

Sally, R. (1994). Multinational Enterprises, political economy and institutional theory: Domestic embeddedness in the context of internationalization. Review of International Political Economy, 1(1), 161–192.

The Green Trust. Sustainable Development and Environment | Green Trust (The). (n.d.). Retrieved from:

Thompson, A. K. (2021, September 16). What are transnational corporations? ReviseSociology. Retrieved from:

Virally, M. (1977). Approaches to the study of International Organizations: History and classification ... external expertise. International social science journal. (1st ed., Vol. XXIX).

Willetts, P. (2011). Non-governmental organizations in world politics: The construction of global governance. Routledge. Retrieved from:

Visual References

Figure1: AFP. (2019). World Trade Organization witnesses Us-China trade standoff. [Illustration]. Global Village Space. Retrieved from:

Figure 2: Adiwijaya, D. (2015). WWF Illustration. [Illustration]. Behance. Retrieved from:

Figure 3: iDesign. (2011). Multinational Corporations. [Illustration]. Reference for Business. Retrieved from:


Author Photo

Deniz Aktunç

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