University of Earth
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World Problems Project (Explanations)

Comments: General

World Problems Project


1. Degree of disagreement

There is a high level of disagreement about the "facts" relating to any so-called problem. Institutions are resistant to treating as "factual" that with which they are not yet organized to deal. This is also true of academic disciplines, when the social reality of a problem is in advance of the theory required to recognize its existence and structure any informed response. In principle there is merit in such disagreement because it allows for alternative frameworks through which a problem may be viewed through the creative juxtaposition of different perspectives -- thus avoiding the trap of being inappropriately "locked into" a particular framework. In practice the level of disagreement amongst "competent authorities" leaves much room for manoeuvre by those who wish to manipulate the ambiguity to their own advantage.

2. Solutions as problems

Increasingly responses to problems are perceived as problems in their own right. Where this is not immediately the case in the short-term, the longer-term effects of any solution often prove to be problematic. As in medicine, for most drugs there are "side effects". This reflects the insight that "for every problem there is a solution that is immediate, simple and wrong".

3. Problems as solutions

Many problems are in effect "solutions" to other problems, however much the nature of the solution may be regretted. Clearly any problems resulting in the death of individuals contribute to easing the problem of "overpopulation". There is merit in reflecting on the possibility that the human race engenders appropriate problems to constrain its own excesses, where it fails to deal adequately with those excesses by some consciously organized means. It may be more a question of the human race becoming increasingly vulnerable to those problems by which its excesses can be constrained.

4. Peter Principle of problem perception

There is a tendency for world problems to be most clearly defined at a level just beyond that at which individuals or institutions are competent to deal with them. By analogy with the Peter Principle for the promotion of individuals within organizations, problems get aggregated or analyzed into a form which "disenables" those who might be expected to act upon them -- and who are thus provided with a convenient excuse for their limited impact on them. At the more limited level at which action could be effectively taken the problem definition is then not considered appropriate (thus failing to discourage the inappropriate action at that level based on inadequate insight). The problem at the more limited level is considered to be "part of", or a "symptom of" some larger, or more fundamental, problem on which it is believed action should be focused. It is precisely at this level that the effectiveness of action is severely inhibited. Action at both levels tends to be inhibited or inappropriate.

5. Short-termism

The general response to problems by institutions is governed by short- termism. Institutions endeavour to devise solutions which can be made to appear as though effective action is being taken, whether or not that action is effective either in the short-term or, more significantly, the long term. Institutional action is evaluated through reporting systems designed to emphasize positive achievements by each hierarchical level reporting to that above it. Such systems encourage suppression of information on inadequacies, or at least delay its emergence until some later reporting cycle. Often organizational units cannot be usefully held accountable for failures made during a previous programme/budget cycle. The focus is on institutional survival through the current cycle. Long-term problems, and the need for longer-term programmes of action, tend to have a very low priority, except for public relations purposes.

6. Suppression of information and "cover-ups"

Large amounts of information are "classified", primarily because of its value for "national security" and "competitive advantage", or to avoid "embarrassment" to interested parties. It is in the interest of institutions and individuals to suppress information that might endanger their own professional survival and advancement. The practice of "cover-up" is widespread. It ensures wide opportunities for "official denials" that there is any matter for concern.

Increasingly information of any value is somebody's "intellectual property" and is withheld unless an appropriate, and often costly, payment is made. Intergovernmental organizations produce documents which are distributed on a "restricted" basis, only partly for cost reasons. There is therefore merit in querying whether the information in the public domain adequately describes the network of problems with which humanity is faced. If information is so important that it needs to be withheld or suppressed, then presumably a proportion of it concerns problems on which it is judged inappropriate to inform the public because of the seriousness of the implications. To this extent, studies of the operations of the international community can only be superficial and unrealistic if they are solely based on documents in the public domain, as are most studies at this time.

7. Corruption

The problem least frequently mentioned in connection with any studies of the crises facing humanity is that of corruption in whatever form. This is especially true of studies by intergovernmental organizations which are anxious to avoid embarrassing their member states.

Informally, industrialized countries have drawn attention to the level of corruption in developing countries -- as one of the principal excuses for reduced commitment to development assistance. Despite daily press reports, the prevalence of corruption, of many types and at all levels in industrialized countries (even involving presidents of countries), remains unexamined as a systemic ill.

Corruption is frequently mentioned in investigative reports by journalists (quoting appropriate sources) on the failure of action against problems. The press, whether in industrialized or developing countries, tends to be the only place where reports of corruption appear, since they tend not to be the subject of any further investigation, except when they take the form of isolated scandalous incidents. Policies in response to problems tend to be designed as though systematic corruption was not a significant factor in undermining their effectiveness, whether partially or completely.

8. Inability to handle unwelcome information

This may be seen in governmental response to such problems as acid precipitation, CFCs, food poisoning and smoking. In each case there is a phase in which experts are found to argue that there is "no proven link" justifying rapid action. Delaying tactics are readily used. Governments renege on commitments or scale down any attempts to implement remedial action.

9. Need for "bad" problems

There would seem to be a fundamental need for the presence of a special class of problems which the majority of society can agree are totally repugnant, at least in any formal communications. Problems which have served that function include: nazism, torture, and apartheid. The prime characteristic of such problems is that they should be prevalent in a distant society, in the past, or in secret locations (whose existence can be readily denied in one's own society). Such problems have a global consensus building function across boundaries that usually fragment society. No "reasonable" person would be associated with them. The cessation of the Cold War and the reconfiguration of the apartheid situation in South Africa may lead to situations in which other problems have to rise to prominence to fulfil their functions in this respect. Examples of such problems might be the increasing concern with sexual abuse of children (paedophilia) on the one hand and the totally repugnant behaviour of Iraq on the other. If people need the existence of such problems in order for their own behaviour to shine by contrast, it would seem that care needs to be taken in eliminating them.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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