IO professionals often intervene as problem-solvers without arousing the political sensitivity of their member states, despite making recommendations on the best course of action. Building on Lecler, Morival and Bouagga’s definition of international professionnals,66 we consider IO professionals as individuals whose daily activity is essentially linked with IOs and who claim specific knowledge about multilateralism. We argue that IO depoliticization practices derive from the practical rationality. On the one hand, being pragmatic is perceived as a way to avoid controversial debates and ultimately achieve the mandate’s objectives. On the other hand, the focus on technical and concrete issues is exacerbated in order to promote cooperation over a specific topic even if the underlying political problems between the parties are not addressed. The denomination of the first IOs as “technical” organizations reveals the belief that shared problems could best be addressed through technical solutions by avoiding arousing the political sensitivity of states fearing potential sovereignty loss. In other words, emphasizing this kind of practical rationality is strongly anchored in the assumption that technical issues will help reconcile diverging views, whereas political debates are seen as divisive.67 In this section, we demonstrate how practical rationality supports the enactment of depoliticization practices to bypass controversies and facilitate cooperation while generating a discourse that stigmatizes politics and politicians.
According to Barnett and Finnemore, IOs “present themselves as impersonal, technocratic, and neutral—as not exercising power but instead as serving others.”68 As seen in previous chapters, IO personnel rely on expertise, informational dissemination techniques, universal values and technical assistance, presenting their activities as merely instructive or supportive.69 Likewise, in the 1970s, research on the IMF and World Bank showed how their officials tried to avoid political questions and controversies notably on consequences pertaining to economic interventions like loan-making, thereby defending the “myth of‘economic rationality’.”70 Here we show that these depoliticization practices are pragmatic and accommodating techniques to bypass political debates and deflect controversies.
The work of Parizet on the UNDP country office in Mexico illustrates the way an IO relies on depoliticization to avoid political debates.71 Like other IOs, UNDP has to gain governmental authorization for its field activities and Parizet shows how it had to work its way through controversial debates around indigenous issues to invest the national space. For instance, in its reports, UNDP refuses to address indigenous peoples' mobilization, more specifically the Zapatista movement. The country office justifies its position as an “impartial observer” non-interfering in “sensitive” issues as shown by this interview with a consultant on human development: “We must have a neutral position. UNDP cannot participate in internal problems. So conflicts and social movements, the Zapatista movement, including
Following a functional-pragmatic path 119 their historical aspects, are excluded from the analysis of the development of indigenous populations, even if, as we know, in Mexico this is very important.”72 In other words, UNDP avoids controversial debates to ensure its presence in the field, even if it means excluding critical elements in its analysis.
The strategy set up to put the environment on the agenda of UN peacekeepers is another example of depoliticization practices to pragmatically avoid controversies. In 2012, when UNEP published its report on Greening the Blue Helmets, the UN Security Council had debated environmental issues on several occasions but had been unable to reach consensus on a resolution. On the one hand, debates over the security implications of climate change had been highly controversial opposing those in favor of the Security Council’s involvement and those defending a discussion in other (universal) arenas, namely the UN General Assembly and the UNFCCC. On the other hand, the Council had refused a generic approach to the issue of natural resources and conflicts preferring a case-by-case ad hoc approach.73 Confronted with such oppositions, UNEP struggled in pushing forward an agenda on environmental peacebuilding. More specifically, its team in Geneva had hoped to produce a report on peacekeeping and the environment to address "natural resource risks and opportunities for more effective peacekeeping.”74 Yet, it was unlikely that member states would agree on a report dedicated to such a controversial issue. To bypass politics, UNEP watered down the political content of its report by gathering low and high politics issues in the same publication. Indeed, officials interviewed at UN headquarters frequently qualify the environment as oscillating between low politics, with few stakes and often related to technical dimensions, and high politics, with critical policy implications considered as being extremely important. Therefore, following advice from DFS in New York, UNEP decided to include a section on the ecological footprint of UN peace missions and a section dedicated to the original issue at stake, namely the role of natural resources in conflict and the consequences for peacekeeping, in the same report. The environmental impact of the mission was seen as more “practical”75 and less controversial than the issue of natural resources and conflict. In this case, UNEP downgraded the political dimension of its project by associating low and high politics to avoid controversies. Subsequent activities on UN peacekeeping and the environment replicate such a pragmatic depoliticization logic.76
In both cases, depoliticization relies on the implicit rationality that "the end justifies the means.”