World Problems Project
Significance: Precedents and parallels
World Problems Project
1. Previous UIA initiatives
The Union of International Associations, an international non-governmental
organization founded in Brussels in 1907 partly on the initiative of two
Nobel Peace Prize laureates (Henri La Fontaine, 1913; Auguste Beernaert,
1909), had activities prior to 1939 which are of historical interest in
relation to the current project. These include:
(a) Annuaire de la Vie Internationale (Vol I: 1908-1909, 1370
pages; Vol II: 1910-1911, 2652 pages) which included information on problems
with which international organisations were concerned at that time;
(b) Code des Voeux Internationaux: codification générale
des voeux et résolutions des organismes internationaux (1923,
940 pages, under the auspices of the League of Nations), which listed those
portions of the texts of international organisation resolutions which covered
substantive matters, including what are now regarded as world problems.
It covered 1216 resolutions adopted at 151 international meetings. The
subject index lists some 1200 items.
(c) Paul Otlet, co-founder of the UIA, produced in 1916 a book entitled
Les Problèmes Internationaux et la Guerre which identified
many problems giving rise to and caused by war, and proposing the creation
of a League of Nations. In 1935 he attempted a synthesis which touched
upon many problems and their solution within a society in transformation.
The preface bore the title "The Problem of Problems". He also dealt
with this question in 1918.
The different series of publications of the UIA since 1949 constitute
a useful source of information on problems recognized by international
organizations, especially the Yearbook of International Organizations.
The programme to produce this Encyclopedia was initiated in 1972 with the
support of Mankind 2000. The first edition was produced in 1976 (under
the title Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential). Work
on the second was initiated in 1982, leading to publication in 1986.
2. Reference books and surveys
(a) By intergovernmental bodies: Several of the major bodies
within the United Nations system publish reference books which include
descriptions of a broad range of many world problems. The World Health
Organization has published Health Hazards of the Human Environment.
The International Labour Organisation publishes Encyclopaedia of Occupational
Health and Safety. The World Bank has published Environmental, Health
and Human Ecological Considerations in Economic Development Projects.
It continues to publish annually the World Development Report. The
United Nations Environment Programme (in cooperation with the World Resources
Institute) publishes the Environmental Data Report.
Individual divisions within the United Nations system produce a very
large range of document series which present summaries of the current state
of a particular world problem area, eg the periodic Report on
the World Social Situation produced by the UN Department of Economic
and Social Affairs. Statistical yearbooks or reviews are produced by the
Apart from the United Nations system, many of the 300 other conventional
intergovernmental organizations (and the 1500 of other categories of intergovernmental
body) produce detailed analyses, summaries, or statistical surveys relating
to the world problems in their domain. For example, the Environment Directorate
of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development produces a
series of reports on individual environmental problems. The Council for
Mutual Economic Assistance has created an International Institute for the
Study of Economic Problems in the Worldwide Socialist System.
Some major international organizations periodically attempt to review
the range of world problems with which they are concerned, in an effort
to redefine their priorities for the future. Thus, for example, UNESCO
has produced an Analysis of problems and table of objectives to be used
as a basis for medium-term planning (1977-1982). This exercise resulted
in the identification of 12 major world problems that were linked to 59
objectives. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development produced
in 1973 a List of Social Concerns Common to Most OECD Countries.
Such bodies hold a multiplicity of international meetings, frequently
on specific world problems, which give rise to meeting reports that may
identify new world problems and contain valuable material on them. Overviews
of this activity may be obtained from publications of the Union of International
Associations such as the 3-volume Yearbook of International Organizations
(b) By international nongovernmental bodies: As with the intergovernmental
bodies, many of the 4600 conventional international nongovernmental organizations
(as well as the 4000 of other categories of international body) undertake
The annual report of Amnesty International is a well-publicised example.
The International Institute for Environment and Development and the World
Resources Institute collaborate in the production of World Resources,
initially intended as an annual publication, with each volume complementing
previous ones rather than being updates of them. The volumes offer reviews
of issues together with data tables.
Again, overviews of this activity may be obtained from the 3-volume
Yearbook of International Organizations (1990).
(c) By individuals and other bodies: Encyclopaedias and similar
general reference works contain descriptive information concerning a wide
range of problems, although the problem is generally not recognized as
a problem but rather as a phenomenon. Important problems may be omitted.
Thus although Diderot's Encyclopaedia in the 18th century includes an entry
on torture, the 1975 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica does
not, nor does the International Encylopaedia of the Social Sciences.
A World Design Science Decade (1965-1975) was proposed by R Buckminster
Fuller to the International Union of Architects at their 6th World Congress
in 1961. This proposal called for the initiation, by schools of architectural
and environmental planning around the world, of a continuing survey of
the total chemical and energy resources available to man on a global scale,
and of human trends and needs in relation to these resources, and of how
the use of these resources may be redesigned to serve all humanity. This
proposal led to the creation of the World Resources Inventory at Southern
Illinois University (Carbondale) and to the production of a series of documents
by R Buckminster Fuller and John McHale relating to each phase of the programme.
Phase 1 was entitled World Literacy re World Problems, for which
one of the documents produced in 1963 was Inventory of World Resources,
Human Trends and Needs.
In the period 1970-72, the Institute of Cultural Affairs and the associated
Ecumenical Institute (Chicago) undertook an extremely comprehensive survey
of the range of contradictions with which society was confronted. This
material was ordered in various ways in a series of unpublished studies
one of which identified 385 contradictions grouped into 77 categories.
These contradictions were perceived as underlying problems in many sectors
(economic, cultural, social, etc). From 1974-78 this material was
used to guide 50 community dialogues in some 30 countries. Each of these
gave rise to further sets of contradictions described in a series of internal
Lester Brown, with colleagues, has produced an annual State of the
World report, since 1984, which is widely distributed. The English-language
editions are published by the Worldwatch Institute (Washington DC) of which
he is director. The report reviews current problems in fields such as ecology,
resources, hunger, population and energy.
In an effort to reach a wider audience, two overviews of the planetary
situation have been provided in similar formats. The Gaia Atlas of Planetary
Management (1985) is edited by Norman Myers and reviews and illustrates
problems and possibilities in relation to land, ocean, elements, evolution,
humankind, civilization and management. The Gaia Peace Atlas; survival
into the third millenium (1988) is edited by Frank Barnaby.
There are an increasing number of reports by individuals and organizations
focusing on environment-related problems. For example, Jacques Cousteau
and the Cousteau Society have produced The Cousteau Almanac; an inventory
of life on our water planet (1979) which reviews many problems.
A number of school textbooks and teachers guides have been produced
on world problems: World Problems in the Classroom; a teacher's guide
to some United Nations tasks, which gives information on 12 problems
(1973); One World; sources and study guide, which gives information
on 5 problems (1971); World Problems, which gives information on
6 problems (1971); and World Problems; a topic geography (1973),
which gives information on 36 problems in 8 groups. Many others have been
produced in more recent years.
3. Independent commission reports
A series of "independent commissions", loosely related to the United
Nations system, have produced influential, authoritative reports on broad
ranges of issues. These have provided a vital focus for reviews of problems
and strategies free from many of the constraints of particular institutional
frameworks. It is unfortunate that these reports each fail to integrate
the findings of those that preceded them, often failing even to mention
Capacity Study of the United Nations Development System (Jackson Report,
Commission on International Development (Pearson Report, 1969).
Reshaping the International Order, meeting from 1974-76 (Tinbergen RIO
Independent Commission on International Development (Brandt Commission),
meeting from 1977-82 (1980, 1983).
International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems (MacBride
Commission), reporting in 1980.
Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues (Palme Commission),
meeting from 1980 (1982).
Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues, meeting from
World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission),
meeting from 1983 (1987).
Commission on Health Research for Development (Evans Commission), meeting
from 1987-90 (1990).
South Commission (Nyerere Commission), meeting from 1987-90 (1990).
These reports derive much of their importance from their role in articulating
possible global strategies. Intergovernmental and nongovernmental bodies
may collaborate in this process, as is especially noteworthy in the case
of IUCN, WWF and UNEP in producing a strategy document on the environment
4. Research and modelling
(a) By intergovernmental bodies: The United Nations University
is chartered to devote its work to research into the pressing global problems
of human survival, development and welfare that are the concern of the
United Nations and its agencies. This is done through a network of research
and post-graduate training centres and programmes located around the world
and coordinated by a central body. Its project on Goals, Processes and
Indicators of Development (1978-82) strongly influenced the content of
a number of sections of this publication.
The United Nations Institute for Training and Research directs research
into problems which are of interest to the Secretariat and the Assembly
of the United Nations and which is primarily of interest to national officials
and diplomats. UNITAR has undertaken a future studies programme, particularly
in terms of impact on the United Nations. The United Nations Research Institute
for Social Development conducts research into problems and policies of
social development during different phases of economic growth. The United
Nations Social Defence Research Institute undertakes research into the
field of prevention and control of juvenile delinquency and adult criminality.
Many other such specialized international research units exist.
The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (whose members
are the principal scientific academies in each country) initiates and supports
collaborative and individual research in relation to problems of modern
societies arising from scientific and technological development.
The General Conference of UNESCO adopted a resolution at its 23rd Session
(1983), creating a major programme concerned with reflection on world problems
and future-oriented studies. This was reconfirmed at its 24th Session (1985).
During the first two-year period a symposium was held on the creation of
a decentralized network for analysis and research on world problems (1984).
During the second two-year period, with a budget of $1.8 million, it was
proposed to track the evolution of the global problematique and its perception
by different schools of thought, encourage research on it and promote exchanges
of information and ideas on world problems through the network. The programme,
severely threatened by internal and budgetary problems, has given rise
to a series of over 50 studies. The first of these contains the report
of a Scientific Workshop in 1987 on world problems in the year 2000 (UNESCO,
1987). Another study, jointly by the Institute for Scientific Research
on Systems and the Institute of Philosphy of the USSR Academy of Sciences,
deals with the systems analysis of world problems (Institut de recherches
scientifiques sur les systèmes, 1988)
Within the United Nations system efforts are being made by the various
statistical units to move towards the implementation of a System of Social
and Demographic Statistics which could serve as the principal data base
on many social problems, but particularly for the preparation of social
indicators by which many problems are identified and tracked (1974).
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, as the result
of the first phase of its Social Indicator Development Programme, has produced
a List of Social Concerns Common to Most OECD Countries (1973) with
the object of identifying the social demands, aspirations and problems
which are or will likely be major concerns of socio-economic planning processes.
The social concerns identified are those "which are of sufficient importance,
present or potential, to the governments of those countries for them to
want to have indicators available on a comparable basis." A social
concern is defined as "an identifiable aspiration or concern of fundamental
and direct importance to human well-being as opposed to a matter of instrumental
or indirect importance to well-being." Social concerns involving means
rather than ends are excluded. The list identifies 24 concerns in 8 groups;
14 of the concerns also have a total of 56 sub- concerns indicated against
them. Each of the 24 fundamental social concerns "may be viewed as the
summit of a vertically linked hierarchy of an indefinite number of sub-concerns
representing the important aspects and means of influencing the fundamental
concern. At the same time, there are various kinds of horizontal linkages
or relationships among these hierarchies; a particular concern or sub-concern
may have simultaneous effects on a number of other social concerns...It
will remain with the planners for specific sectors to extend the hierarchy
further downwards to suit their more detailed sector planning, evaluation
and programme needs and to establish horizontal relationships between the
diverse components of the hierarchies." The document notes that "Commonality
of social concerns among Member countries tends to be greatest at the highest
level of generality, diminishing as the definition becomes more specific."
(b) By international nongovernmental bodies: The Club of Rome
(created in 1968 by a group of 30 individuals and limited in membership
to 100) initiated in 1970 a Project on the Predicament of Mankind. This
had as its objective the examination of the complex of problems in the
world, conceived as a world problematique in that: the problems occur to
some degree in all societies; they contain technical, social, economic
and political elements; and that they all interact. The project has been
conducted in phases:
- The first phase led in 1972 to the very well-publicised study under
Dennis Meadows entitled The Limits to Growth. This examined the
interaction of five basic factors (or problem areas) that determine and
limit growth on the planet.
The second phase resulted in 1974 in the production of a report Mankind
at the Turning Point by M D Mesarovic and E Pestel in which the global
system outlined in the previous phase was disaggregated into ten major
interacting geographical regions and analyzed with new methods.
- The third phase in 1976 led to the production of a report on Goals
for Global Society (under the direction of Ervin Laszlo) which identified
sociological, psychological and cultural inner limits which could give
positive direction to human aspirations. The Club of Rome world system
modelling exercise has stimulated many emulators and rectifiers. A survey
of these has recently been produced (1982). The Club was also responsible
for initiating in 1974 the project on Reshaping International Order, mentioned
The International Federation of Institutes for Advanced Study is a mechanism
for transdisciplinary and transnational initiatives to assist society to
cope with an increasingly complex, rapidly changing and interdependent
world. The Institute sponsors global modelling activities. Since 1987 it
has been active in establishing a Human Dimensions of Global Change Programme
(also known as Human Responses to Global Change Programme) to complement
the UNESCO-ICSU International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme.
The Battelle Memorial Institute, through its Geneva Research Centre,
conducted the DEMATEL project (namely Decision-Making Trial and Evaluation
Laboratory). The objectives were to help find better solutions to world
and generalized problems based on a better understanding of the problem
structure or so-called world problematique, in order to avoid the selection
of solutions that are in fact problem-generating. A survey of problems
perceived by about 100 responsible and knowledgeable persons was prepared
in 1972, and led to the production of a list of 48 problems in 14 groups.
The initial questionnaire and proposed follow-up questionnaire were designed
to determine the perceived relative importance of problems and their affect
on each other. Mathematical techniques for the analysis of these systems
of interrelationships were then developed. An objective was to produce
a map of the world problematique (1973).
The organization Futuribles International undertook in 1986-87, under
UNESCO auspices, a world-wide survey among eminent persons from varying
geopolitical and ideological backgrounds selected for the quality of their
thinking on major world problems and the prospects for change (Futuribles
The experience of elder statesmen has been harnessed through the InterAction
Council of Former Heads of Government. The reports of its meetings endeavour
to provide a synthesis of perspectives on the longer-term issues to which
society is vulnerable (InterAction Council, 1990).
(c) By individuals and other bodies: A large number of research-oriented
institutes have programmes which attempt to identify and focus on one or
more of the most critical world problems. Such institutes are usually related
to some aspect of planning, forecasting, futures, technology assessment,
or policy sciences. An overview of the range of this activity may be obtained
from Michael Marien's Future Survey Guide to 50 Overviews and Agendas
(1990). This is essentially an update of his Societal Directions
and Alternatives; a critical guide to the literature (1976) and to
the regular Future Survey Annual; a guide to recent books and articles
concerning trends, forecasts and policy proposals, produced by him
for the World Future Society which publishes it.
A number of institutes maintain the results of extensive surveys of
current activities around the world in their own data banks. Such a survey,
in the field of future studies, has been conducted for the United Nations
Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) by the Center for Integrative
Studies. The World Future Society produces a directory of future-related
resources and a periodical surveying them.
Most institutes are primarily concerned with a limited range of major
problems, such as population, resources, or environment (within which are
of course grouped many other problems although usually not distinguished
as such). An exception is the Hudson Institute which has identified 78
technological crises in 7 groups. Many institutes necessarily conduct such
research to identify the problems which will affect the body or area from
which their funding is derived, eg Europe 2000, Hawaii Commission
on the Year 2000, or individual corporations interested in predicting the
environment within which their products must be profitable. There is a
well-recognized tendency for institutes to switch programmes from year
to year as new problems appear on the horizon of funding bodies.
There is a tendency for special institutes to be created in each country
for the comprehensive analysis of policy alternatives, national goals,
and national priorities. These necessarily involve a focus on the world
problem context. An example is the Institute for the Analysis of Public
Choices established by the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies.
There is of course an unknown amount of government-sponsored classified
research as well as corporation-sponsored proprietary research. This may
well be superior to anything that is publicly available, although it is
likely to suffer from the disadvantage of being oriented in terms of the
Numerous books and articles by individual researchers identify specific
world problems or groups of problems and propose taxonomies for them. However
the number of problems taken into consideration is usually less than 10.
An exception is Hasan Ozbekhan's series of 28 Continuous Critical Problems
(1969). During his period as Executive Director of the Club of Rome (prior
to the Limits to Growth exercise) this was extended in an internal document
to approximately 50 problems. These problems are system- wide and are characterized
by the fact that they cannot be solved independently of the rest of the
There is a very extensive literature on social problems and social issues.
An Encyclopedia of Social Reform was even produced at the end of
the 19th Century. There appears however to be an important difference between
what are currently included under the term world problems and what is currently
meant by a social problem, although even amongst sociologists there is
disagreement as to the definition of a social problem. Thus in Contemporary
Social Problems edited by R K Merton and R Nisbet, 15 major social
problems are identified. The exclusion of other possible problems is justified
by the statement: "Sociology is a special science characterized by concepts
and conclusions, which are based on analysis and research, yielding in
turn perspectives on society and its central problems. For many decades
now, sociologists have worked carefully and patiently on these problems."
(1971) Social problems would therefore appear to be those problems perceived
by sociologists as being the central problems of society.
A major study was commissioned by President Carter and resulted in the
production of the Global Report 2000; a report to the President
by the US Council on Environmental Quality.
Numerous studies of world order have been made in which the focus is
placed on the political-social-legal forms, organizations and institutions
envisaged as being relevant to the solution of world problems, especially
those connected with organized violence. The most extensive of these is
the World Order Models Project (sponsored by the Institute for World Order),
which has given rise to a series of publications (1972-1979).
Numerous surveys have been conducted of community attitudes towards
local problems and problem-solving. An example is the Benchmark programme
of the Academy of Contemporary Problems (Ohio State University). Other
surveys have been made of some special-interest membership organization
concerning the relative importance of current problems or those that they
perceive as emerging in the foreseeable future. A few nation-wide surveys
of this type have been conducted. Thus, for example, in 1968 the Sunday
Times in the United Kingdom requested that readers write in to draw
attention to problems or suggested remedies, and then published a compilation
of the results.
In 1984-85 the BBC sponsored a Domesday Project in which 10,000
British schools participated. The results have been made available to the
schools on laser disk. An international equivalent is envisaged. The Institut
Français d'Opinion Publique conducted a survey in France concerning
40 problems to determine their relative probability, gravity, and ability
to stimulate individuals to activity. (The results were reported at a Colloque
International sur la Perception Nouvelle des Menaces in 1973). The Center
for Integrative Studies, on behalf of the World Academy of Art and Science,
questioned 3000 international organizations concerning the relative importance
of 25 problem areas in an effort to identify world priorities; the survey
respondents added 196 other items. (The results were reported at the second
Conference on Environment and Society in Transition in 1974).
The Educational Policy Research Center of the Stanford Research Institute,
produced a study in 1971 on Contemporary Societal Problems. This
attempted "to identify and to interrelate the driving problems of our
time, both national and international, to develop a useful perspective
from which to better understand these problems, and to thereby identify
crucial dilemmas whose understanding seems necessary if societal continuity
is to be ensured." The report explored the use of resource allocation
analysis as a tool for the identification of neglected societal problems
and presented it as part of a more general problem analysis procedure.
The study made "a comprehensive attempt to list all relevant societal
problems." Three overlapping procedures were used: (a) a selection
of prominent (mainly American) persons of known divergence in both ideology
and professional background were asked to nominate other persons whom they
regarded as having the best grasp of current problems, to identify key
materials on current problems, and to identify they key problems they saw
as being most crucial at that time and in the future; (b) published results
of previous systematic attempts to identify, categorize, or list societal
problems were collected; (c) using the information collected a core sample
of texts was collected for detailed analysis. The body of the report (27
pages) distinguishes between substantive, process, normative, and conceptual
problems, and then compared the conventional and a proposed transformational
view of societal problems. The appendix (46 pages) listing societal problem
descriptions and taxonomies, consists of six items: Ralph Borsodi's Seventeen
Problems of Man and Society; the US National Industrial Conference
Board's Perspectives for the 70's and 80's. Karl Deutsch's Issues
which the proposed center for national goals and alternatives should address;
the Institute for the Future's Future Opportunities for Foundation Support;
and John Platt's What we must do. These identify 17, 118, 35, 64, and
8 problem areas, respectively. The sixth item, resulting from the literature
search and the leading thinker survey, lists 46 problem areas in seven
A proposal was made in 1972, by Richard Cellarius and John Platt for
the creation of International Councils of Urgent Studies to seek out and
support the kind of research effort on world problems that would be inappropriate
(or suspect) if sponsored by national governments. They identified some
210 areas of urgent research under 25 headings within 6 main groups.
A number of universities have courses on problem-solving. For example,
the Mershon Center Program of Transnational Intellectual Cooperation in
the Policy Sciences (directed by Chadwick Alger) at Ohio State University
has a graduate course in problem-solving in international organizations.
In addition to identifying and comparing the various problem networks and
their interdependencies, a focus is placed upon the networks of organizations
concerned with the networks of problems. At Swarthmore College there is
a programme on problem complexes in public technology. Southern Illinois
University, through a programme originally directed by R Buckminster Fuller,
operates a World Game that introduces students to interactions between
problems and resources.
5. Historical and traditional initiatives
See following note
From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential