08 December 2010

FIFA's Fantasy: "Perfectly Organised, Perfectly Transparent and Perfectly Under Control"

FIFA -- the Fédération Internationale de Football Association -- is the international organization that governs football (or soccer) and is thus responsible for the quadrennial World Cup competitions.  Last week FIFA's Executive Committee decided to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

FIFA's venue decisions and its process for making those decisions have come under intense scrutiny and criticism.  Some of this criticism is of course sour grapes, as those on the losing sides included the US, England and Australia, each of whom submitted very strong bids. At the same time there are allegations of corruption and collusion in the process that led to the results. Not only are the US, England and Australia big sporting nations, they are also countries with high expectations for transparency and accountability in international organizations and the countries that host them. 

FIFA is of course not the UN or WHO, and football is not war and peace, so we should not expect the same degree of scrutiny.  But at the same time, FIFA's decision making has placed its processes in a bright spotlight. Consider that today the Swiss government, under which FIFA is incorporated, announced a review of its anti-corruption exemption for international sporting authorities headquartered in Switzerland.  The head of the English Football Association has called for reform of FIFA processes.  The degree to which these efforts lead to actual change will remain to be seen.

However, with the World Cup more global than ever, its growth and success are having predictable consequences on governance and no one should be surprised to see the current controversies.  Specifically, as has been observed in international organizations more generally, the opacity of FIFA's decision making coupled with allegations of corruption in the process will inevitably lead to greater demands for openness and transparency, as part of an inevitable democratization of the institution.

Writing in the journal International Studies Quarterly in 2007, Alexandru Grigorescu explains that there are three factors driving the democratization of international organizations generally, and each seems relevant to the case of FIFA:
[First] information about an organization’s deliberations, decisions, and actions needs to be made available to determine if government representatives and IO [international organization] officials are acting in the public’s interest. If this information is not public, officials cannot be held accountable for their actions . . .

A second argument for transparency stems from the fact that secrecy gives rise to suspicions regarding the workings of an IO (Stiglitz 2002:229), and it reduces its legitimacy (e.g., Zurn 2004). The eroding legitimacy of IOs may in turn lead to calls (sometimes taking the form of public protests) for limiting their roles in the international realm. Transparency is therefore not simply needed for normative reasons. Without it, IOs are also less effective. . .

Lastly, if information is power, the study of who controls such information is relevant for understanding the power relations between the main actors in the global arena: states, IOs, nongovernmental organizations, and the public—relations that are at the center of the broader debates in the global governance literature.
Remarkably, FIFA seems to think that it has a right to operate in secrecy and without accountability.  For instance, its vice-president Jack Warner explained that FIFA explicitly did not vote for England's bid as retribution for UK media investigations of FIFA corruption. I would not expect that the media is going to take well to such implied extortion.  In the era of Wikileaks and Climategate, I fully expect that we are going to hear a lot more about FIFA than we have already.  I'd guess that the UK media is just getting warmed up.

While allegations of corruption in FIFA are certainly not new, what is new is that the World Cup has become the most important and visible sporting event on the planet.  And with such visibility necessarily comes much higher standards of accountability for decisions.  While FIFA may be able to resist change for a while, the forces of democratization of international organizations will at some point impact football. The questions are whether it will do so in a messy fashion or if the organization will evolve in a constructive manner.

Jerome Valcke, the FIFA secretary general who oversaw the 2018 and 2022 World Cup venue voting process, explained that the process was "perfectly organised, perfectly transparent and perfectly under control."  To the extent that his views are are shared in FIFA, I'd bet on a messy outcome.  Stay tuned.