Prof Dr Sarah von Billerbeck

Senior Research Fellow

Käte Hamburger Kolleg / Centre for Global Cooperation Research
Schifferstraße 44
47059 Duisburg

Phone: +49 (0)203 379-5247
Fax: +49 (0)203 379-5276





Since 08/2015

University of Reading

Department of Politics and International Relations

Professor of International Relations

09/2018 - 12/2018

University of Oxford

Department of International Development

Visiting Research Fellow

08/2013 - 08/2015

King's College London

Department of War Studies


05/2013 - 08/2013

Integrity Research and Consulting, Lead Specialist on Political Governance

09/2006 - 07/2008

United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Political Affairs Division

Political Affairs Officer

07/2005 - 08/2006

American Refugee Commitee

Guinea Country Office

Country Program Officer

06/2004 - 08/2004

United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia

Palestine Task Force


Research Interests

  • International organisations
  • Legitimacy and (self-)legitimation
  • Peace operations
  • The United Nations
  • Peacebuilding

Current Projects

  • IO Self-Legitimation
  • UN Peacekeeping and Authoritarian Enabling
  • Local Knowledges in Peacebuilding and International Organisations
  • Individual Agency in UN Peacekeeping
  • Race and International Organisations
  • Transition to Inclusive Political Settlements and Development After Conflict

Teaching Responsibilities

  • Contemporary Diplomacy (MA seminar)
  • Political Economy of Civil War (MA seminar)
  • Building Peace After War (MA seminar)
  • UN and International Order (3rd year BA seminar)
  • Model United Nations (2nd year BA seminar)
  • International Relations and Strategic Studies (1st year BA seminar)
  • Security and Development (MA seminar and lectures)
  • Causes of War (1st year BA lectures)
  • PhD Supervision: 1st supervisor – 2; 2nd supervisor 5; 4 successfully completed to date
  • MA Dissertation Supervision: 40 students
  • BA Dissertation Supervision: 35 students

Seminars and Conferences

‘Authoritarianism and UN Peacekeeping,’ Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University, September 2022.

‘Authoritarianism and UN Peacekeeping,’ King’s College London (workshop co-organizer), September 2022.

‘Peacebuilding and Authoritarianism,’ UNU-WIDER Development Conference: The Puzzle of Peace, Helsinki, UN University-WIDER, Finland, May 2022.

‘Peacebuilding and Authoritarianism,’ UN Mission to Mali (MINUSMA), March 2022.

‘Peacekeepers as Moral Agents,’ The Scope for Agency and the Role of Individuals in UN Peace Operations, Special ISA Workshop (session co-organizer), March 2022.

‘From Elite Bargains to (More) Open and (More) Inclusive Politics,’ UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, June 2021 and July 2021.

‘Talk from the Top: Leadership and Self-Legitimation in International Organizations,’ Legitimation of International Organizations in Disruptive Times, ECPR Joint Sessions (session co-organizer), May 2021.

‘Peacebuilding and Authoritarianism,’ High-Level Launch Event, UN University Centre for Policy Research, New York, 2021.

‘Talk from the Top: Leadership and Self-Legitimation in International Organizations,’ (Self-) Legitimation of International Organizations in Disruptive Times Workshop, GIGA/University of Hamburg and University of Gothenburg, 2020.

‘Enabling Autocracy: Peacebuilding and Post-Conflict Authoritarianism in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti,’ Folke Bernadotte Academy, Stockholm, 2019.

‘“Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall: Self-Legitimation by International Organizations,’ Legitimacy in Global Governance Workshop, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, 2019.

‘“Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall”: Self-Legitimation by International Organizations,’ IR Research Colloquium, Department of Politics and IR, University of Oxford, 2019.

Expertise and Consulting Work

  • Stabilisation Unit, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Research Project, ‘From Elite Bargains to Open, Inclusive Politics,’ 2020-21.
  • Folke Bernadotte Academy Research Project, ‘IO Senior Leadership Performance Management, 2017-18.
  • UN University and UK Mission to the United Nations, Research Project, ‘The Unintentional Consequences of UN Engagement in Post-Conflict Settings,’ 2021.
  • ‘Peacebuilding and Authoritarianism,’ Expert Roundtable, UN University Centre for Policy Research, New York, 2021.
  • ‘Expert Engagement Session: HMG Integrated Review,’ Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 2020.
  • ‘Expert Research-Policy Dialogue: Preparation of Swedish Development Cooperation Agency Strategy 2021-25,’ Folke Bernadotte Academy, Stockholm, 2020.
  • ‘Future Transitions: Democratic Republic of Congo,’ Improving UN Transitions Workshop, Wilton Park, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 2019.
  • ‘IO Senior Leadership Performance Management,’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Stockholm, 2019.
  • ‘Internal Communication in International Organizations,’ Meeting of Executive Heads of International Organizations (MEMIO), NATO, Brussels, 2018.


Prof Dr Sarah von Billerback joined the research group 'Legitimation and Delegitimation in Global Cooperation' in August 2023 and will be a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre until December 2023.

Research Project at the Centre

IO Self-Legitimation and Organizational Change

The landscape of global governance has changed dramatically since the end of World War II. What began as a small but powerful set of international organizations (IOs) has grown into hundreds of international and regional entities, ad hoc groupings, and other formal and informal cooperative arrangements. In addition, IOs, the most formal and structured of these, have themselves adapted to changing geopolitics, increased globalization, and new transnational and regional challenges. This evolution implies that this architecture of global cooperation is now a permanent and widely accepted feature of the international system, one that is viewed as useful, appropriate, and legitimate. At the same time, recent years have shown a renewed scepticism about global governance and multilateralism (Walter 2021; Hooghe et al. 2018), suggesting that continued change and adaptation will be required for major IOs and other institutions of global governance to remain relevant, effective, and legitimate.

Change, however, is risky for organizations. It is costly in terms of time and resources, and it can risk confusion, inefficiency, and the loss of a sense of purpose and mission among staff. Indeed, bureaucrats and IO officials often rely on continuity and sameness to derive a sense of legitimacy regarding their roles and activities and they build narratives, symbols, and rituals to perpetuate this stable sense of organizational identity. IOs have therefore generally shown a reluctance towards reform, and thus in many ways, their remarkable evolution over the past several decades is surprising.

In this way, institutions of global governance – in particular IOs – represent a paradox: on the one hand, they must adapt in order to remain legitimate to external constituencies and within the broader environment of global governance, but on the other, they must demonstrate continuity, sameness, and stability to remain legitimate internally. This project seeks to examine this tension in more detail, and in particular it seeks to understand the relationship between organizational change and internal self-legitimation.

Self-legitimation entails efforts, usually discursive ones, undertaken by IO staff to ensure themselves that the work they do is approriate, justified, and good, and it helps to delineate and reaffirm a cohesive, stable organizational identity in the face of complexity and contradiction. This need for an enduring, clear, and normatively good identity is important for IOs. Without it, staff become demotivated, uncommitted, and ultimately, ineffective. However, these efforts can also lead to stasis, a lack of innovation, and a resistance to reform in IOs. More specifically, through the repetition and perpetuation of particular narratives and discourse about the normative goodness and moral appropriateness of the IO and its work, IO self-legitimation may both decrease the need for self-assessment and disincentivize innovation and creativity in the IO’s activities. In this way, though IO self-legitimation is crucial to IO cohesion, clarity of mission, staff morale, and effectiveness, it can, over time, actually reduce the agility, relevance, and appropriateness of an IO.

This project thus seeks to answer the following questions:

  1. How do self-legitimation efforts that seek to preserve a particular identity constitute an obstacle to IO change and innovation and under what conditions can such obstacles be overcome?
  2. Are there instances where adaptation or reform fails?
  3. Where change and innovation do occur, do self-legitimation practices also adapt to reflect new activities and policies, or do they remain static?

While I will initially look at the broader universe of IOs, I will zero in on a case study of the UN's peace operations, to understand how changes to organizational objectives, procedures, and missions have influenced organizational identity cohesion and staff self-legitimacy beliefs. Ultimately, this will help to shed light on how peace operations can (or cannot) continue to fit into global cooperation in the current geo-political context.


  • International Studies Association (ISA)
  • ISA International Organization Executive Committee
  • Folke Bernadotte Academy Research Working Groups
  • European International Studies Association
  • European Consortium for Political Research
  • External Democracy Promotion Research Network, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft
  • Editorial Board Member, International Peacekeeping
  • Co-Director/Co-Founder, UN and Global Order Programme, University of Reading
  • ESRC Global Challenges Research Fund Peer Review Group
  • Trustee, Oxford Peace Research Trust, University of Oxford
  • Senior Fellow, Weidenfeld-Hoffman Trust, University of Oxford
  • Member, Oxford Network of Peace Studies Steering Committee, University of Oxford


Best Research Output Award for ‘“Mirror, Mirror On the Wall: Self-Legitimation by International Organizations,’ University of Reading, 2020.

Nominated for Excellence in Teaching Award, University of Reading, 2021.

Rewarding Excellence Award for Athena SWAN and D&I Leadership, University of Reading, 2021.

Fellow, Higher Education Academy, 2017.

Nominated for Excellence in Teaching Award, King's College London, 2014.


Von Billerbeck, Sarah (2023). ‘Organizational Narratives and Self-Legitimation in International Organizations.’ International Affairs 99(3): 963-81.

Von Billerbeck, Sarah (2022). ‘Talk from the Top: Leadership and Self-Legitimation in International Organizations.’ International Studies Review 24(3).

Von Billerbeck, Sarah (2022). ‘From Elite Bargains to (More) Open, (More) Inclusive Politics.’ Research Report, with Corinne Heaven, Dominik Zaum, and Alina Rocha Menocal. Commissioned by UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

Von Billerbeck, Sarah (2021). ‘The Unintentional Consequences of UN Engagement in Post-Conflict Settings.’ With Adam Day, Oisín Tansey, and Ayham Al Maleh. UNU Centre for Policy Research Report.

Von Billerbeck, Sarah (2020). ‘No Action Without Talk? UN Peacekeeping, Discourse, and Institutional Self-Legitimation.’ Review of International Studies 46(4): 477-494.

Von Billerbeck, Sarah (2020). ‘Sociological Institutionalism.’ In K. Oksamytna and J. Karlsrud (eds), United Nations Peace Operations and International Relations Theory, Manchester University Press 91-110.

Von Billerbeck, Sarah (2020). ‘“Mirror, Mirror On the Wall:” Self-Legitimation by International Organizations.’ International Studies Quarterly 64: 207-219. [Winner of Best Research Output Prize 2020, University of Reading]

Von Billerbeck, Sarah (2019). ‘Enabling Autocracy? Peacebuilding and Post-Conflict Authoritarianism in the Democratic Republic of Congo.’ With Oisín Tansey. European Journal of International Relations 25(3): 698-722.

Von Billerbeck, Sarah (2019). ‘Senior Leadership Performance Management in International Organizations.’ With Philipp Lottholz. UN and Global Order Programme, University of Reading.

Von Billerbeck, Sarah (2017). ‘UN Peace Operations and Conflicting Legitimacies.’ Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 11(3): 286-305.

Von Billerbeck, Sarah (2016). Whose Peace? Local Ownership and United Nations Peacekeeping. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Short-listed for ISA Chadwick Alger Award 2016, nominated for BISA Susan Strange Award and PSA W. J. M. Mackenzie Award.]

Von Billerbeck, Sarah (2015). ‘Local Ownership and UN Peacebuilding: Discourse Versus Operationalization.’ Global Governance 21(2): 299-315.