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Assessment: International organizations as a source

Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential


The information received from these bodies is a prime source of material on the perceived world problems registered in this Encyclopedia.

1. Significance

This Encyclopedia is the product of a programme of the Union of International Associations whose context is the collection and processing of information on international nonprofit bodies, whether governmental or nongovernmental. This long-term activity, initiated in 1907, takes its most visible form in the companion series, the annual 4-volume Yearbook of International Organizations. In it over 25,000 bodies of these bodies are registered together with their specific relationships to each other.

International organizations, agencies, institutes and associations, whether governmental or nongovernmental, are, by their very nature, a focus for international action and concern of some kind. Many of these organizations are concerned specifically with direct or indirect action on world problems, and as such may be related to entries in the world problems section of this volume (Section P). Whether individually, or collectively as a community or a network, international bodies function as focal points for the mobilization of resources to be brought to bear on individual problems or groups of problems. In some cases, it is the creation of an international organization which signals the emergence and recognition of the new world problem on which it is focused.

2. Definition

Three categories of international organization are usually distinguished:

The definitions given below apply to the selection of organizations for inclusion in the Yearbook of International Organizations:

(a) Intergovernmental organizations: The view of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations concerning inter-governmental organizations is implicit in its Resolution 288 (X) of 27 February 1950: "Any international organization which is not established by inter- governmental agreement shall be considered as a non-governmental organization for the purpose of these arrangements..." The resolution was concerned with the implementation of Article 71 of the United Nations Charter on consultative status of non-governmental organizations, and it was amplified by Resolution 1296 (XLIV) of 25 June 1968: "...including organizations which accept members designated by government authorities, provided that such membership does not interfere with the free expression of views of the organizations."

Identifying eligible governmental organizations therefore presents no problem. All organizations established by agreements to which three States or more are parties have been included. Following the adoption of Resolution 334 (XI) of 20 July 1950 it was agreed with the UN Secretariat in New York that bodies arising out of bilateral agreements should not be included in the Yearbook of International Organizations.

(b) International associations: The problem of identifying eligible nongovernmental organizations is much more difficult. Ecosoc Resolution 288 (X) makes no attempt to explain what is meant by the term "international organization". A number of aspects of organizational life have therefore been used to determine whether an organization is eligible for inclusion. Briefly these seek to ensure a reasonable balance in reaction to countries with respect to the organization's: aims, membership, structure, directorate, finance and activities.

3. Organizational relationships to this Encyclopedia

Although many organizations can be related directly to the world problems which are their main concern, others can be more closely associated with entries in other sections in this volume and only indirectly with specific world problems, if at all:

(a) Communication (Section C): A number of bodies are principally concerned with particular modes of communication and their use in furthering development processes.

(b) Human development (Section H): A number of bodies are principally concerned with promoting particular approaches to human development.

(c) Integrative knowledge (Section K): A limited number of bodies are primarily concerned with approaches to conceptual integration.

(d) Strategies (Section S, 1986): Many bodies are principally concerned with promoting and implementing strategies directly oriented towards alleviating particular world problems, whether or not the strategies are identified as such.

(e) Transformative approaches (Section T): In various ways a number of bodies are specifically interested in developing innovative techniques, especially in the domain of communication, in order to facilitate resolution of world problems.

(f) Human values (Section V): Whilst relatively few bodies focus specifically on the promotion of particular values, most indicate values in the aims specified in their constitution and make repeated references to such values in conference resolutions.

4. Inter-organizational relationships

In addition to the relationships described above, international bodies are embedded in networks of formal and informal relationships amongst themselves. In the 1990-91 edition of the Yearbook of International Organizations, 65,174 relationships were specifically identified. Such relationships may include constitutionally defined participation of one organization in another's policy formulation; formal agreements to collaborate; membership of one in another; mutual consultation; and systematic or occasional exchange of information. Such networks are the international or transnational counterpart of even denser networks of relationships between organizations and groups within each country.

None of these networks of relationships has been mapped to any degree, and it is therefore impossible to determine systematically:

It is not even possible, with the information currently available, to determine whether such analyses, if performed, would be useful. Quite simply, the tools and information are not yet in a form to permit such networks to be understood and handled conceptually.

5. Relationships to world problems

In the 1976 edition of this volume, names and addresses of some 3,300 international organizations were included with cross-references to entries in other sections of the volume. Now that the number of bodies registered in the Yearbook of International of Organizations has reached over 25,000, alternative approaches to cross-referencing the bodies to problems, values and strategies need to be explored. One approach already adopted is to classify the problems with the organizations and multilateral treaties in Global Action Networks (Vol 3 of the Yearbook of International Organizations). This groups the entries within a pattern of some 3,000 subject categories. This gives an overview of the range of organizations and treaties associated with a particular problem domain.

One of the original aims in producing this Encyclopedia was to endeavour to document how the network of international bodies focused on the network of world problems. Clearly some key problems attract much attention and many others attract very little, if any. But of greater interest is whether the organizations focusing on the same problem are in communication with each other, or whether the organizations dealing with one problem that closely affects another are in contact with the bodies dealing with the latter problem. How do problems escape the net of organizations? How does the network of organizations fail to encompass and contain the network of problems?

In addition to the major role that international organizations perform in identifying problems, many of them perform a major function in relation to human values. In fact the two functions are often intimately linked, as in the case of human rights issues. An important group of organizations is also concerned with human development in its less material sense, as is the case of bodies concerned with religion and personal development. Again the question may be asked with which of the specific values is an organization associated, given that many of them carefully identify values in their statutes? Clearly their are very "popular" values, such as peace and justice, but are there values with which few, if any, bodies are associated? And to what extent are such values vital to the functioning of society? Is there also a mismatch between the network of organizations and the network of values?

6. Difficulties encountered

It has proved much more difficult to represent the degree of mismatch than was originally envisaged, despite extensive use of computers and sophisticated software. Progress and difficulties are briefly noted in the following:

(a) Fashionable information: Information on fashionable and uncontroversial problems is usually readily available. Here the difficulty is that many organizations produce information on the same fashionable problems. It is therefore of far less value to indicate the specific organization-to-problem link. The same is true of the fashionable values.

(b) Buried information: Whilst the documentation of international organizations is rich in relevant material, much of it is "buried" to the point of being inaccessible without the deployment of considerable resources. This is especially the case of new and controversial problems. It is also true of the specific problems which are articulations at a more detailed level of the fashionable problems (identified at a more general level). In these cases mention of the problems is made in chapter or paragraph headings, not in the title of the publication. In many cases they may only be identified in the body of a paragraph. Not only is information more difficult to obtain through normal bibliographic searches, but it becomes less appropriate to cite as an organization-to-problem link. A specific issue is whether mention at such a detailed level indicates that the organization is really concerned with the issue or is just mentioning it "in passing".

(c) "Solution language": It might be assumed, especially in the case of intergovernmental organizations, that conference resolutions would provide a rich source of information on organization-to-problem or organization-to-value links. This is not the case. Again fashionable issues may be specifically cited in resolutions but the difficulty is that this is often done ritualistically so that it is far from clear whether noting the link is meaningful. Where the resolutions concern action programmes, it is seldom clear from the language of the resolution exactly what problem is being addressed. The reason for this is that resolutions are presented in "solution language" and tend to focus on constructive actions such as institution building, without it necessarily being clear what problems an institution is intended to address -- other than at the most general level. With more effort it is possible to decode such language, but implicit problems may continue to remain elusive. The same may be said of the texts of multilateral treaties.

(d) Restricted information: Although much information collected by international bodies is intended for any interested parties, there are many practical difficulties in obtaining access to it. These are complicated by concern for certain classes of information which are collected and held on a confidential basis (possibly available only to organization members) or by the need to limit distribution of certain reports for cost reasons. There is of course always the suspicion that the dissemination of embarrassing information is restricted, whatever the justification. The fate of international statistics on crime is an example. Unfortunately the "expert committees" which articulate problems in many organizations produce their reports in a manner which renders them impossible to extract from the archives of those bodies, whether or not it was intended to restrict access to them.

(e) Failure to articulate concerns: It is easy to conclude, whether correctly or incorrectly, that few organizations endeavour to articulate clearly the problems or values with which they are concerned. For many it may indeed be sufficient to accept definitions articulated by others or to focus primarily on solutions. The currently accepted definitions may have been articulated in documents decades earlier. There may be no felt need to reproduce them in currently available documents. It is then less clear how to link such organizations to problems or values.

(f) Emphasis on articulating responses: In general the strengths of international organizations, whether governmental or nongovernmental, lie more in articulating responses to problems that have already been detected and defined rather than in the process of detecting and defining such problems. Presumably because of their relationship to their members, to those providing subventions, or to other bodies to whom they endeavour to establish their legitimacy, efforts must necessarily be the subject of upbeat reporting on programme achievements, rather than on a sharper articulation of existing problems or on the detection of new problems. Like any institution at the national level, they are not designed to be sensitive to problems that have not been anticipated in their programming mandate.

Although there are many exceptions to the above difficulties, it was decided once again not to attempt to indicate specific organization-to-problem or organization-to-value links. This absence is however compensated by the annual classification of problems from this Encyclopedia with organizations by subject in the Yearbook of International Organizations (Vol. 3). This has the advantage of being much more systematic in approach. It has the disadvantage of being insufficiently specific in many cases, since it based on keywords in the titles of organizations.

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