Union of Intelligible Associations
Union of Intelligible Associations

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Encyclopedia Project (Explanations)

Overview: Contextual challenge

Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential


Much has been written on the challenge of our times. It could be argued that further statements on the dimensions of the crisis are both repetitive and counter-productive. Specific problems are the topic of frequent media coverage and of reports by bodies of the highest authority. There are also many positive indications that nurture hope that major crises may be averted. The events in Eastern Europe are an example -- although it is not clear whether the excitement at such breakthroughs, and the new possibilities they offer, do not also serve to obscure other emerging crises to which we prefer not to give attention.

In such a context, what then is the value of a new edition of an Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential of this kind ? Especially when information overload has itself become more than a minor problem, do we really need yet another book on the problems of the world ?

The programme through which this Encyclopedia is produced is based on the assumption that our difficulties in responding to the challenge of the times lie as much in how we process information with a view to action as in the process of implementing solutions. There seems to be a prevailing confidence in the methods of the international community in response to the problems of the times. This is less than warranted by the very partial successes of the strategies implemented -- and the dimensions of the many problems that continue to grow. This confidence is sustained in part by the methods of the academic community, to the extent that their theoretical preoccupations are brought to bear on issues faced by society.

It would appear that a number of unquestioned assumptions are made in responding to the problems of society. The assumptions are implicit in difficulties such as the following:

1. Pseudo-objectivity of analyses of problems

The vast majority of descriptions of problems recognized by the international community are produced using methods which depend upon authoritative interpretations of the significance of data, whether quantitative or not. The manner by which the data is selected varies, as does the basis for the interpretation of any such data by different international organizations (or other constituencies). The importance, and even the existence, of many problems thus becomes questionable in the debates between constituencies. "Over-population" is the most striking example. And yet reports continue to be produced claiming objectivity in exhorting use of particular strategies, whilst implicitly or explicitly suggesting that other interpretations are suspect. The dynamic between such opposing perceptions and priorities is not captured. As a result any remedial programmes are undermined by the dynamics inherent in the relationship with any opposing perception. This can then be used as a convenient scapegoat in the event of failure.

2. Withholding of relevant information

The reports produced are those based on readily available, acceptable information. In the case of official reports, it is conveniently forgotten that standard procedures require that information embarrassing to particular governments or interests should be omitted or toned down. Much information is available only on a restricted basis, if at all. Information is only "classified" because of its importance, which suggests the conclusion that much that is made available for use in public reports is of little real consequence. Data significant to understanding of problems may simply be withheld, especially in the case of embarrassing incidents in which a cover-up policy is implemented. Issues relating to the incidence of leukaemia in people deliberately exposed to nuclear tests in the 1950s are an example. This dimension is seldom reflected in authoritative reports.

3. Issue avoidance

Within a pattern of institutions mandated to deal with recognized problems, any indication of the emergence of problems that are inadequately handled is perceived as a threat to those whose budgets and careers depend upon positive evaluations of their incumbency. The tasks of organizations are complicated enough as they now stand. Further complication is therefore resisted. Reporting procedures, basic to budget and career assessments, therefore tend to avoid mention of programmatic weaknesses or the emergence of new problems (unspecified within the unit's mandate). The emphasis is on "upbeat" reporting in order to conceal deficiencies. Bad news is unwelcome at any level of an institutional hierarchy. The bearer, as was traditionally the case, may be severely penalized. Evaluations of institutional responses to problems tend to fail to reflect this dimension.

4. Misrepresentation of information

Information made available tends to be presented in such a way as to encourage the most favourable interpretations. Thus, aside from the process of issue avoidance, active steps may be taken to cast a positive light upon events or to support favoured arguments. Information may be "adjusted", especially in the case of statistics or the results of monitoring exercises. If necessary various forms of deception may be practised, even by official bodies. Disinformation is one such practice. The production of some reports can be seen as an effort to dissuade and to distract rather than to provide a basis for more appropriate action.

5. Biased expertise

Experts of any discipline survive through the fulfilment of contracts, as is increasingly the case for industry-funded university departments. Their continuing survival depends on their ability to meet the requirements of funding bodies. The work of eminent specialists may even be undertaken through organizations "fronting" for vested interests. Experts must therefore be sensitive to the kinds of conclusions that are acceptable. In such circumstances experts can, if necessary, be found to support any position -- if only that there is "no proven link" calling for politically sensitive action. The conclusions of some highly authoritative reports may therefore be pre-determined by ensuring the presence of appropriate experts on the investigatory body (a procedure known as "stacking" a committee). Any subsequent effort to question the report from other perspectives can be disparaged as quibbling by the unqualified serving other interests. The question of the degree to which some of the major reports have been biased in this way has not been explored.

6. Corruption

Many programmes have been carefully designed in response to problems and yet have failed or under-performed. Whatever the official explanation, there is much evidence to indicate that an important factor in such failure is the activity of involved individuals in attempting to profit to an unforeseen degree from the resources and influence that they control during the execution of the programme. Much of the evidence is anecdotal, although well-known to those with any experience in the field. Much is reported on a daily basis in the quality press. It often touches those at ministerial level. Such corruption, although possibly occurring in many forms, is not confined to any particular group of countries, as some in the industrialized countries would like to claim, although it does tend to be more discreetly organized there. Such semi-formal subversion of programmes is tacitly accepted, even at the highest level within international organizations. No international study of corruption has ever been made. Its potential for undermining new strategies is never officially mentioned when they are advocated.

7. Harassment

Individuals aware of any of the issues noted above are not free to report on them in written form -- or rather they do so at their own risk. Typically most official bodies require that employees sign non-disclosure agreements which may well apply after termination of their employment. Any attempt to provide hard evidence can severely affect career opportunities (such as through "blacklisting") in the case of official actions. In the case of unofficial actions, as with various systems of corruption, it can lead to severe peer group pressure from those who do not wish "the boat to be rocked". Harassment can also take physical form, especially against external activists and "whistleblowers", where cases of assassination have been documented. The action of the French government against the Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand is an example. Naturally official reports tend to be discreet where such threats may be brought to bear.

8. Short-termism

In producing official surveys on the challenge of the times, the priority of many is naturally to ensure their survival through to the next budgetary cycle. In a political environment it is short-term issues which are the guarantee of survival. Longer-term issues can safely be given lower priority, even when they are exacerbated by short-term decision-making. A focus on short-term action creates the impression of effective action even though it may be counter-productive in the longer-term. This cannot be effectively dealt with in reports addressed to bodies governed by short-term priorities.

9. Ambiguity

Consensus under the above constraints can be most easily achieved through use of ambiguity, each constituency projecting onto an agreement its own interpretation. "Development" is the most tragic example. According to a definition favoured by commercial interests, any degradation of the environment can be interpreted as a development achievement (as typified by "clearing" the land). "Sustainable development" can thus be widely approved through being understood as "sustainable competitive advantage". Clearly international reports run the risk of being shelved if they do not permit such ambiguity of interpretation. This effectively undermines what many are led to assume is the purpose of such strategies.

10. Unaccountability

The accountability of institutions and those responsible for them is limited. Many institutions cannot be effectively held accountable for their abuse of the social or natural environments. Thus the World Bank has been able to resist any sensitivity to environmental issues for at least a decade after these formally became a concern to the United Nations. Senior management can seldom be held accountable for the unethical actions of their employees, even when they are responsible for the pressure giving rise to such actions. The whole framework of "plausible deniability" runs throughout organizations. The chief executive is thus well insulated and able to deny knowledge of any unethical action by the body for which he is responsible.

11. Violation of commitments

Commitments in response to problems are violated, whether they take the form of breaches of electoral promises, neglect of resolutions of international meetings, or failure to conform to the agreed provisions of intergovernmental treaties and conventions. Given the development of contract law and the regulation of advertising claims, it might be asked why similar standards are not applied to the promises and claims made by those seeking political power.

12. Loss of integrity

In the context defined by the above issues, personal integrity is easily compromised or readily sacrificed. In any competition for resources, it becomes a luxury. In any particular case, it is unclear how compromised an eminent authority may be in supporting some position. This is also true of countries whose declared support for positive initiatives is often totally compromised by previous or parallel commitments to programmes having the reverse effect (typified by military aid to repressive regimes). In the case of international organizations, the most striking symbol of loss of integrity has been the Waldheim incident and the silence of the great powers aware of the facts (unless it is to be assumed that their intelligence agencies are unbelievably incompetent). It is extremely difficult to raise such questions in relation to new initiatives.

13. Loss of credibility

Much has been learnt as a result of the limited success of programmes over the past decades. People are increasingly aware of the issues indicated above. As a result there is a widespread erosion of the credibility of institutions and official expertise. Increasingly this extends to any organized activity. There is awareness of the ways in which the media are used to manipulate opinion and to spread disinformation. Much of this loss of credibility may indeed be unjustified and even paranoid. It nevertheless affects the ways in which reports and new programme initiatives are received.

14. Disparagement of complementary initiatives

The great majority of views on the problems of society, social directions, and possible alternatives are posited with little or no reference to any other views, past or present. When such reference is made, it tends to be made disparagingly or with condescension. Competition for scarce resources obliges organizations, and departments within organizations, to define an approach which establishes the irrelevance of other initiatives whose activities might under other circumstances have been considered complementary.

15. Dubious standards of proof

Within these constraints, the tragedy is that any truth about the challenge of the times has become something movable, an illusion to be marketed for the benefit of the few. There is no standard by which the pronouncements of collectivities can be assessed with any degree of confidence. The greater the resources controlled, the greater the pressure to deceive unless constrained to do otherwise. Standards of proof developed by science or judicial systems have been shown to lend themselves to abusive manipulation even in the most respected democracies. It has not been possible to prove, in the scientific sense of the term, that such abuse is exceptional rather than systemic. There appears to be no way that powerful institutions can prove their integrity or that of their representatives. To use the favoured phrase, there is "no proven link" between statements emanating from such collectivities and the reality with which the world is faced. It is clearer to state that their reports have higher or lower degrees of correspondence with that reality, according to the pressures to which they are subject.

16. Policy vacuum

The crises of Bosnia and Somalia have resulted in the widespread acknowledgement of the inability to formulate policies adequate to modern challenges with any expectation that they would be implemented. It is fast becoming a cliche that the political world is running out of ideas. In this connection it is a signal failure of modern intellectuals that they have been unable to supply a coherent basis for morality and ethics as an alternative to those of tradition.

It would be both naive and presumptuous to assume that any body could escape the above constraints. However, rather than seeking coherence in the presentation of information from a selected group of authorities -- the approach of many reports on the condition of the world -- a different approach is possible. This can open the door to more radical insights into the dilemma of the times precisely because it explicitly recognizes difficulties such as those indicated above.