Need a perfect paper? Place your first order and save 5% with this code:   SAVE5NOW

International Institutions and the Legacies of Colonialism


International institutions such as the United Nations (UN), World Bank, and International Monetary Fund (IMF) were established after World War II to promote global cooperation, economic development, and peace. However, despite their stated goals, these organizations reflect and perpetuate the imbalances of colonialism in fundamental ways through their governance structures, policies, and ideological frameworks (professor name, “Liberalism, Lecture”). This essay argues that the representation and voting arrangements in institutions like the UN and IMF and the neoliberal policy agendas promoted by the World Bank and IMF directly embody colonial legacies that privilege Western powers at the expense of developing countries. International institutions require substantial reforms to break free of these legacies and create more equitable global governance, including restructuring voting systems, integrating diverse theoretical perspectives, and allowing more extraordinary voices for formerly colonized countries.

UN Security Council Structure

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) provides one clear example of how international institutions continue to reflect imperial power structures. The UNSC comprises fifteen member states, five of which—the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia (formerly the Soviet Union), and China—are permanent members with veto power over resolutions. At the same time, the other ten seats rotate through elected member states (United Nations, 2022). This arrangement gives disproportionate authority to the five original nuclear powers that emerged dominant after WWII, all of which had been colonial empires and continue to wield outsized geopolitical influence from this position. The permanent five (P5) members account for most of the UN’s funding, which is then leveraged into UNSC voting control, creating a cycle entailing these nations’ dominant status. As Hosli et al. (2011) explain, “the composition of the UNSC appears frozen in time and still reflects the geopolitical realities determined by the Second World War” (p. 394). The imperial origins are apparent, as the P5 consists only of former colonizers, while colonized states have little say in international peace and security matters.

The imbalance has enabled the P5, especially the US, to use the Council to further their geopolitical interests. For instance, Western powers have dominated the UNSC agenda, devoting the majority of meetings and resolutions to issues pertinent to their foreign policy, such as terrorism and non-proliferation, while often ignoring topics like poverty, hunger, and disease affecting the Global South (Chesterman et al., 2016). The US has exercised its veto power on Israel-Palestine issues to block resolutions condemning Israeli actions against Palestinians while supporting resolutions for sanctions on Iran and military interventions primarily aligning with its strategic goals (Chesterman et al., 2016). As Hosli et al. (2011) note, the P5 has repeatedly “shielded friendly regimes from criticism” and intervened to “promote transitions to democracy only in states whose policies they disliked” (p. 395). The findings exemplify how, through the UNSC structure, imperial powers preserve their ability to shape global politics based on self-interest versus principles of justice or humanitarianism.

The UNSC voting arrangement also legitimizes decisions made primarily by and for Western powers. For instance, in the case of the 1990 Gulf War, the US assembled a coalition of States to condemn Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, obtaining UNSC authorization for military action by justifying it in terms of upholding international law and protecting Kuwait’s sovereignty (Hosli et al., 2011). However, given the apparent hypocrisy of global powers invoking international law given their frequent violations and coveting of resources, this rationale obscured US geopolitical motivations, with its permanent UNSC seat enabling it to present the intervention as legitimate (Rajagopal, 2003). The concentration of veto powers in the hands of ex-imperial nations thus allows these states to dominate which issues make the agenda and how they are addressed, often cloaked in the guise of multilateralism and distorted interpretations of international law that nevertheless carry the Council’s legitimacy.

While the UNSC remains constrained by its colonial origins, steps towards meaningful reform face immense barriers. Expansion of permanent seats has been proposed but stalled due to rivalries between emerging powers like India, Brazil, and South Africa and objections from current P5 members wary of diluting their influence (von Einsiedel et al., 2015). Some incremental procedural changes have been implemented, like increased transparency around vetoes and selection of the UN Secretary-General, but the core power imbalance remains entrenched (von Einsiedel et al., 2015). Transitioning away from a world order still centered around Cold War-era hierarchies will be an arduous process, given the self-interest and resistance of dominant states to ceding power. However, as former colonies gain a greater voice on the world stage through economic growth and South-South cooperation, sustained pressure for representation may open possibilities for a more inclusive and participatory UNSC and broader UN system. The changes remain essential for creating post-colonial international institutions guided by the interests of the Global South rather than those of neo-imperialists in the P5.

World Bank and IMF Voting Structures

In addition to the UN, international financial institutions like the World Bank and IMF similarly reproduce colonial power imbalances through their governance frameworks. Over 180 member states own the World Bank, but voting power is concentrated among major financial shareholders based on each country’s capital subscriptions (World Bank, 2023). The imbalance grants the US over 15% of voting rights, giving it adequate veto power over decisions, while other Western countries control additional large voting blocs (Birdsall, 2006). The IMF voting system functions similarly, with votes apportioned by each country’s allocated shares, which strongly correlate with economic power (IMF, 2022a). Consequently, Western nations hold sway over policy decisions and senior leadership appointments, as the IMF and World Bank heads have always been European and US nationals, respectively (Birdsall, 2006).

The governance structure marginalizes developing countries by denying them commensurate voting power despite the World Bank and IMF’s rhetorical focus on poverty alleviation in the Global South. Reforms enacted in 2008 and 2010 after sustained criticism did result in some shifts of voting shares towards emerging market and developing economies (EMDCs), with China, for instance, now holding over 6% of IMF votes and over 5% of World Bank votes, respectively (Vestergaard & Wade, 2014). However, 75% of the voting power at both institutions remains concentrated among the US, major European economies, Canada, and Japan. In comparison, Sub-Saharan Africa has just 4% and Latin America/Caribbean 6% at the World Bank, and emerging markets still need an adequate voice (BWP, 2020; IMF, 2022a). The lingering dominance of wealthy countries sustains the neo-colonial dynamics where policies for poorer nations are dictated by the West based on Northern economic ideologies versus Southern needs or perspectives (Kentikelenis et al., 2016).

While reforms to increase the representation of developing countries on the IMF and World Bank boards have been modestly effective, the fundamental nature of weighted voting based on economic strength remains intact. Some scholars advocate radical restructuring, such as assigning equal voting rights to all members to make the organizations more democratic (Woods, 2000). However, the neoliberal world order favoring deregulation, free capital flows, and shrinking the state—an order from which wealthy countries benefit—continues to constrain prospects for progressive change (Güven, 2017). Until the norms governing global finance shift towards more significant equity, overhauling the power structure of the Bretton Woods institutions will face entrenched resistance. Nonetheless, sustained counter-hegemonic activism contesting this neo-imperialist order may open space for alternative governance models, giving a fair voice to the Global South.


In conclusion, current arrangements of power and control over global policy within institutions like the UN, IMF, and World Bank reflect their origins within an imperialist world order. The governance structures granting disproportionate authority to former colonial powers and the neoliberal economic ideologies historically favoring Western interests embed deep inequities and marginalized the perspectives of the formerly colonized world. For international institutions to effectively promote global cooperation and development, rather than sustaining neo-colonial hierarchies, reforming voting arrangements to increase democratic representation and integrating diverse theoretical viewpoints is essential. The reforms will require dominant states to sacrifice power and control, which is a challenging transition. Nevertheless, with sustained counter-hegemonic activism and leadership from post-colonial nations through vehicles like the G77, institutions that better serve the interests of the Global South can emerge, contributing to the decolonization of global governance. Transforming enduring imperial legacies within these institutions will be an incremental struggle vital for building a just and equitable world order.


Birdsall, N. (2006). Rising inequality in the new global economy. International journal of development issues5(1), 1–9.

BWP. (2020). Special Drawing Rights. Retrieved November 12, 2023, from

Chesterman, S., Johnstone, I., & Malone, D. (2016). Law and practice of the United Nations: documents and commentary. Oxford University Press.

Güven, A. B. (2017). The World Bank and emerging powers: Beyond the multipolarity–multilateralism conundrum. New Political Economy22(5), 496–520.

Hosli, M. O., Moody, R., O’Donovan, B., Kaniovski, S., & Little, A. C. (2011). Squaring the circle? Collective and distributive effects of United Nations Security Council reform. The Review of International Organizations, 6(2), 163–187.

IMF. (2022a). IMF members’ quotas and voting power, and IMF board of governors.

Kentikelenis, A. E., Stubbs, T. H., & King, L. P. (2016). IMF conditionality and development policy space, 1985–2014. Review of International Political Economy, 23(4), 543-582.

Rajagopal, B. (2003). International law from below: Development, social movements, and third world resistance. Cambridge University Press.

United Nations. (2022). Current members. United Nations Security Council. Retrieved November 12, 2023, from

Vestergaard, J., & Wade, H. (2014). Out of the woods: Gridlock in the IMF and the World Bank puts multilateralism at risk. DIIS. Retrieved November 12, 2023, from

Von Einsiedel, S., Malone, D. M., & Ugarte, B. S. (Eds.). (2015). The UN Security Council in the 21st century (pp. 11-12). Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Walton, J. K., & Seddon, D. (2008). Free markets and food riots: The politics of global adjustment. John Wiley & Sons.

Woods, N. (2000). The challenge of good governance for the IMF and the World Bank themselves. World Development, 28(5), 823–841.

World Bank. (2023). Voting Powers. Retrieved November 12, 2023, from


Don't have time to write this essay on your own?
Use our essay writing service and save your time. We guarantee high quality, on-time delivery and 100% confidentiality. All our papers are written from scratch according to your instructions and are plagiarism free.
Place an order

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below:

Copy to clipboard
Copy to clipboard
Copy to clipboard
Copy to clipboard
Copy to clipboard
Copy to clipboard
Copy to clipboard
Copy to clipboard
Need a plagiarism free essay written by an educator?
Order it today

Popular Essay Topics