Policy Entrepreneurship by International Bureaucracies: The Evolution of Public Information in UN Peacekeeping

Kseniya Oksamytna

International Peacekeeping. Nov 2017 [Link]


The UN Secretariat’s role in the expansion of peacekeeping after the cold war is debated. Different theoretical accounts offer competing interpretations: principal–agent models and sociological institutionalism tend to emphasize the Secretariat’s risk-averse behaviour; organizational learning scholarship and international political sociology find evidence of the Secretariat’s activism; constructivism analyses instances of both. I argue that the UN Secretariat can be both enthusiastic and cautious about new tasks depending on the circumstances and the issue area. For example, UN officials have been the driving force behind the development of public information campaigns by peacekeeping missions aimed at the local population. During the cold war, it was not regarded as necessary for UN missions to communicate with the public in the area of operation: their interlocutors were parties to the conflict and the diplomatic community. With the deployment of the first multidimensional missions in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, UN staff realized the need to explain the organization’s role to the local population and provide information about UN-supported elections. In promoting this innovation, they played the role of policy entrepreneurs. The institutionalization of this innovation, however, was not an automatic process and required continuous advocacy by UN information staff.

In the post-cold war period, UN peacekeeping operations have acquired a long list of substantive and supporting tasks. The UN Secretariat’s role in this expansion is debated. On the one hand, international bureaucracies are expected to seek more tasks and responsibilities which translate into larger budgets and greater influence. On the other hand, there is a perception that the Security Council has imposed additional tasks on the unwilling and underfunded Secretariat. I argue that the UN Secretariat can be both enthusiastic and cautious about new tasks depending on the circumstances and the issue area. Sometimes, the Secretariat has sought an enlarged role for peacekeepers; at other times, it has favoured traditional approaches. In the early days of multidimensional peacekeeping, UN officials were eager to engage in new activities and expand their responsibilities. After the failures in Somalia, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia, they became more circumspect. Their activism also depends on the issue area. For example, they have been the driving force behind the emergence and the institutionalization of public information campaigns organized by peacekeeping missions and aimed at the local population, which is the focus of this article.

While public information is often seen as a supporting function, it has important implications for the functioning, effectiveness, and financing of UN peacekeeping operations. Information plays an important role in volatile post-conflict environments and can both advance and endanger the peace process. As the discussion of the Rwanda mission below demonstrates, local public’s understanding of the limits of the mandate is essential for civilian protection. Moreover, peacekeeping missions can lose credibility by disseminating unconfirmed or incomplete information. For example, a public information officer in the UN mission in Sierra Leone mistakenly announced that the capital was about to be overrun by rebels, which shattered the locals’ trust in the already struggling mission. Finally, the costs of running a radio station by the UN mission in Cambodia exceeded four million US dollars, leading the station’s chief to wonder whether it was a ‘multimillion dollar folly’. Besides the disputable assumption that it is appropriate for external actors to ‘educate’ the local population in human rights and democracy, public information in UN peacekeeping is a controversial matter. For UN public information staff, there is no doubt the issue is not technical but highly political..

In this article, I analyse the role of UN Secretariat officials in promoting public information in peacekeeping by conceptualizing their efforts in terms of policy entrepreneurship. I begin by discussing conflicting theoretical perspectives on the role of international bureaucrats in the evolution of their organizations. I then argue that we can make a better sense of this complexity by drawing on the literature on the emergence, diffusion, and institutionalization of norms and policies. From this literature, I derive a list of conditions under which international bureaucrats are likely to advocate successfully for new ideas and approaches. Turning to my case study, I provide a brief overview of how several cold war operations, as well as all peacekeeping missions launched between the end of the cold war and the mid-1990s, have addressed the issue of information. I focus on this period because it was formative for public information in peacekeeping. While all missions between 1989 and 1995 did some public information work, in none of them did it reach the same scale and sophistication as in the missions in Namibia and Cambodia. These two are studied in detail. I compare the examples of Namibia and Cambodia with the missions in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia whose record in the field of information is less impressive: even committed advocates could not overcome inauspicious circumstances they faced. While the operations in Somalia and Angola would have also benefitted from such a programme, its absence can be attributed to a single main cause: the UN budgetary committee’s reluctance to authorize a UN radio station in Somalia in the former case and the Angolan government’s obstruction in the latter case. In Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, multiple reasons for the deficiency existed, which makes these cases worthy of in-depth study. Finally, I briefly discuss UN officials’ efforts to institutionalize public information in peacekeeping through policy, guidance, and posts.

The article has a theoretical and an empirical section. In the theoretical section, I discuss the literature on policy entrepreneurship by international bureaucracies and address two main issues: the UN’s Secretariat propensity for bureaucratic expansion vs. risk-aversion and the conditions under which UN officials are likely to advocate successfully for new approaches. In the empirical section, I provide an overview of public information activities in the 1989–1995 missions, compare the successful instances of innovation (Namibia and Cambodia) with the unsuccessful ones (Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia), and briefly look at the institutionalization of public information in policy, guidance, and UN Secretariat structures. I conclude by revisiting the main findings and suggesting directions for further research.


This project receives funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Grant Agreement No 722826.