University of Earth
Projects Overview (Explanations)
World Problems Project (Explanations)

Method: Problem naming

World Problems Project


1. Misnamed problems

There seems to be a general lack of precision in thinking about and naming problems. A major internal review of the United Nations notes, for example, that: "The United Nations System does not possess precise criteria for defining problems which have some chance of being taken seriously by the international community as a whole. The identification of problems which should be the subject of "major conferences", for example, is done mainly on the basis of the existing sectoral schedule of problems: industrialization, science and technology, agrarian reform, population, women, environment, water resources, etc. But frequently the subjects chosen do not represent really new problems, or they are only repetitive devices for driving home the claims of the Group of 77 (increased aid from the industrialized countries, etc). Hence major conferences of this type often culminate in "action programmes" which in spite of their title do not embody anything concrete and do not contribute to any change in the respective attitudes of the participants...." (para 127).

Elsewhere the same report states: "The task of identifying world problems occurs when the time has not yet come for negotiating but only for recognizing as a whole the existence of elements of a "problematique" common to all countries, but without any suggestion of going beyond the analysis stage. These problems are dealt with at all levels. In virtually all programmes of all organizations there is a research and identification component of this type. However, only a few problems gradually emerge from all this corpus...and they are gradually identified as suitable for possible discussion on the convergence of national policies or the negotiation of common standards. Thus the questions of the environment, population, certain social problems, economic and monetary problems are at various stages of identification within the world forum." (para 112). (Maurice Bertrand. Some Reflections on the Reform of the United Nations. Geneva, UN Joint Inspection Unit, 1985, JIU/REP/85/9).

2. Shorthand denotation of problems

The lack of precision in thinking about problems arises in part from shorthand usages by which issues are identified in the media and in political debate. As an example, the Director-General of UNESCO produced a report to the 18th General Conference (Paris 1974) concerning the "Analysis of problems and table of objectives to be used as a basis for medium-term planning (1977-1982)". It was specified that this should include "all major world problems...coming within UNESCO's purview and relevant to its goals." The major world problems identified as such were: 1. Human rights; 2. Peace; 3. The advance of knowledge - scientific and artistic creativity; 4. Exchange of information; 5. Communication between persons and between peoples; 6. Concepts and methodologies of development; 7. Policies and strategies for development; 8. Infrastructures and training for development; 9. Greater participation by certain groups in development; 10. Man's natural environment and its resources; 11. Man in his environment, 12. Population.

In these examples the problems are not named in such a way as to be recognizable as problems. "Peace" and "youth" are not problems as such. Both are values to many. Peace is a major value and goal of UNESCO. The use of such words on their own to name problems is therefore quite unhelpful. Peace and disarmament are only problems in a very special and cynical sense explored by the Iron Mountain Report (Lewin, 1967). Use of such words to denote problems therefore has to be questioned. Quite different words may be called for to name meaningfully the problem implied by such shorthand usage (for example, in the above case: conflict and alienated youth). "Peace" as a positive and desirable condition cannot also be the name for a problem. "War", "conflict" and other tensions are what is presumably meant. The only problem which could justifiably bear the name "peace" is that arising from any negative features of peace as a condition (eg lack of stimulus, etc), and even then some negative qualifier should be supplied for clarity (eg "unjust peace").

For an organizational system to consider the problem and the objective as identical can only lead to considerable confusion. It is even counter-productive because the organization is then motivated to perpetuate problem-solving activity irrespective of whether or not the problem persists as originally perceived. It is presumably for such reasons that the Batelle Institute's DEMATEL Project required that problems had to be stated not as goals to be attained but as unacceptable situations for which there are numerous perceived solutions.

It may be argued that the UNESCO document does not suggest that "human rights" is a problem, but rather that the problem is "the problem of human rights". In other cases this technique of adding "problem" to the descriptor is widely used when no adequate term is available (eg the urban problem, the youth problem, the drug problem). This technique has been avoided in this section because it tends to blur (and even discourage) any focus on component problems. As the report of the UNESCO Executive Board (93 EX/4, 31 July 1973, para 51) notes: "There are no youth problems as such, but only problems that affect youth." What problems make up the issue areas known as "the youth problem" and "the urban problem"?

3. Negative-naming of problems

None of these names given by UNESCO to the problems it is facing would be considered acceptable as problem names for entries in this section. It is the "lack of human rights", or their infringement, which constitutes the problem. Similarly, it is the presence of conflict, or the instability of any period of peace, which are the problems. (Human rights and peace, as such, are goals or values). Exchange of information is the name of a process, which if it operated inadequately, as it does, would constitute a problem. "Man in his environment" does not denote a problem but a subject of study or debate. "Population" denotes the (number of) people living in a place, country, etc, or a special group of people. Only when this number is too high, too low, or increasing too rapidly, etc, can problems be considered to exist. An effort has therefore been made in this section to locate an appropriately negative name to clarify and make evident the supposedly negative nature of the societal problems for which entries are included. With respect to the population issue therefore, it may be made up of "overpopulation", "underpopulation", "inadequate birth control" and similar problems. Only by requiring that a negative name or phrase be found for the problem, and by avoiding the use of "problem", could problems be satisfactorily isolated from issue areas and programme objectives (see also Language-determined distinctions in the Introduction).

4. Ambiguity

As noted earlier, problems are not necessarily named in an unambiguous manner. There is no standard problem terminology. As a result the same problem may be named in a variety of ways. But it is also the case that different problems may be referred to by the same name. A more specific problem may in one context be given the name of its broader problem in another context. Some problems are more effectively named, or are more widely acknowledged, under a metaphoric name (eg the greenhouse effect).

5. Degrees of distinction

Because of the variety of ways in which a given problem may be named, especially when different constituencies use different names for the same problem, there is some difficulty in locating and eliminating duplicates in the database. The question that must then be asked is whether very different names are referring to the same problem, to different aspects of the same problem, or to different problems. And even if they are referring to distinct problems, is it appropriate to reflect this distinction by attaching such names to different filing numbers. An example of a dubious distinction is "lack of trained labour" compared with "lack of skilled labour".

6. Combining problems

To restrain premature proliferation of problems in the database, especially in the absence of adequate information, closely related problems may be held as a single problem but with a string of (indexed) names for these various different problems. These can later be split off into separate problems when this is justified.

7. Problem renaming (see later Note)

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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