Union of Intelligible Associations
Union of Intelligible Associations

Projects Overview (Explanations)
World Problems Project (Explanations)

Significance: Acknowledgement of the universe of problems

World Problems Project


The flood of documents produced by international organizations contains a very large number of facts, preoccupations, statements of belief, programme proposals and criticisms of other initiatives. Faced with this flood, most bodies survive by ignoring all but a small fraction of it. They endeavour to carve out a small niche, cultivating a support network of similarly minded bodies and formulating the most powerful strategy possible for them in order to act on the problems they perceive. This includes undermining the initiatives of those whom they perceive to be causing or sustaining such problems.

Many coalitions of organizations have "answers" to the current crisis, however they choose to perceive it. The proponents of each such answer naturally attach special importance to their own as being of crucial relevance at this time, whether in the short-term or for tactical reasons, or in the long-term as being the only appropriate basis for a viable world society in the future. However this widespread focus on "answer production", a vital moving force in society, obscures both the significance of the lack of fruitful integration between existing answers and the manner in which such answers undermine each other's significance. The mind-set also fails to recognize the positive significance of the continuing disruptive emergence of new "alternative" answers.

Amongst this multitude of answers, explanations put forward as objective, rational and factually-based by scientific and government authorities are increasingly questionable because of peer group, political, security, religious and commercial pressures guiding evaluation and reporting. The many exercises in producing global strategies based on an overview of extensive ranges of problems are themselves far from free from such influences. They tend to appear successful when they succeed in reducing the complexity of the problematique. There is considerable confusion about the nature of integration whether amongst the disciplines or especially in relation to policy initiatives.

The communication space of the international community is thus characterized by claims and counter-claims attesting to or denying the importance of particular problems, or questioning the manner in which they are defined. The challenge is to determine what new kind of information tool could usefully reflect this communication condition, offering integrative insights, but without simply adding to the existing confusion. Adding to this challenge is the fact that any such attempt is in many respects totally presumptuous -- particularly when undertaken with limited resources.

In the paragraphs that follow, and with the aid of quotations from a variety of authors, an attempt is made to show the significance of a problem-focused approach. By this is meant an approach that focuses on problems in all their negativity rather than on solutions to problems. The basic point being that only by knowing more about the nature of problems and how they combine together will it be possible to conceive of more adequate solutions which have any hope of widespread support.

1. Multiplicity and gravity of problems

There is widespread recognition of the number and seriousness of the problems faced by mankind, as acknowledged in texts such as the following:

"It is unforgivable that so many problems from the past are still with us, absorbing vast energies and resources desperately needed for nobler purposes: a horrid and futile armaments race instead of world development; remnants of colonialism, racism and violations of human rights instead of freedom and brotherhood; dreams of power and domination instead of fraternal coexistence; exclusion of great human communities from world co- operation instead of universality; extension of ideological domains instead of mutual enrichment in the art of governing men to make the world safe for diversity; local conflicts instead of neighbourly co-operation. While these antiquated concepts and attitudes persist, the rapid pace of change around us breeds new problems which cry for the world's collective attention and care: the increasing discrepancy between rich and poor nations; the scientific and technological gap; the population explosion; the deterioration of the environment; the urban proliferation; the drug problem; the alienation of youth; the excessive consumption of resources by insatiable societies and institutions. The very survival of a civilized and humane society seems to be at stake." (U. Thant, Secretary-General of the United Nations on the occasion of United Nations Day, 1970).

Although there is agreement that there are many problems and that many are serious, little concerted effort has been made to determine how many problems there are. Such efforts as have been made have generally been limited to identifying major or critical problems, usually guided either by political expediency or by the particular objective of a major agency. For example, one study for the President of the USA, resulting in 6 problems analyzed in detail, was based on a procedure whereby 1000 problems were deliberately filtered through a succession of phases down to 100, to 50, to 20 before the "final sort and aggregation". (Assessment of Future National and International Problems. US National Science Foundation, 1977, NSF/STP 76- 02573). Only the final 6 were submitted to the President. No further mention is made of the 994, whatever their importance to particular constituencies. At that time UNESCO engaged in an exercise to identify the "major world problems" with which it was concerned and identified 12 (Medium-Term Plan 1977-1982. UNESCO, 19 C/4).

2. Interrelationships between problems

It is becoming increasingly evident, and increasingly accepted, that problems interact with one another. This situation is illustrated by the following:

"In spite of much publicity, the complexity and magnitude of the problems faced by man if he is to survive as a social animal is still only adequately conceived by specialists, and it derives not so much from the mere multiplicity and gravity of problems awaiting a solution in our technological society, or in what the Battelle Institute has described as the "frightening series of problems now appearing over the horizon", as from the fact that between these multiple problems there exists an incalculable number of inter-relationships which, whether ascertained or not, greatly restrict the range of action open to the policy-maker. It is this situation which has brought about the tendency for the solution of one problem to create a number of new ones, often in fields only distantly related at first sight to the original matter. In particular, this not being fully understood, there is a general disposition to envisage and treat the symptoms of trouble, particularly the more obvious ones such as the various forms of pollution of the environment, rather than to deal with the root cause which is to be found in the inadequacy of the decision-making machinery of human society under any form of government at present known. Serious errors in decision-making with regard to the Tennessee Valley or the rivers feeding the Caspian Sea or the application of DDT have produced disastrous consequences which cannot be remedied by going back to the starting point. It is necessary to start from the position as it now exists, and necessary to fully understand it, for which purpose full and processed information is required." (Sir Peter Smithers. Governmental Control; a prerequisite for effective relations between the United Nations and non-UN regional organizations. New York, United Nations Institute for Training and Research, 1972, p.45-46).

"The systems of international trade, payments and finance are component parts of an interdependent world economy. The functioning of each is intimately related to that of the others; and present or prospective arrangements in the three spheres must be viewed in terms of the requirements for economic expansion and structural change in the world as a whole. The interrelationships have many facets and may take a number of forms. Examples are not hard to find: inadequacies in the flow of finance, long-term or short-term, may obstruct a mutually advantageous international division of labour; an improperly working adjustment process may exert deflationary or inflationary pressures, and encourage restrictions on flows of goods and finance; rigidities in trade patterns may generate chronic instability in currency markets; the capacity to service accumulated debt may be impaired by an inadequate rate of growth in the export markets of debtor countries. Any tension between the established international economic mechanism and the dynamics of economic growth will be reflected in difficulties in the monetary, financial and commercial spheres. A malfunctioning in any one of these spheres will generally produce stresses in the others also. Acute problems, when they arise, may emerge in the form of commercial, financial or monetary imbalances that appear to be localized in particular countries or groups of countries. Deeper analysis will, however, often show that the problems of one country or group of countries in one sphere are intimately related to concomitant problems in other countries and in other spheres and that adequate overall solutions depend on parallel and consistent measures in several different fields, having regard to the interests of all countries. What may appear to be a problem unique to one sphere may be symptomatic of wider and more far-reaching tensions in the international economic system as a whole." (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Interdependence of problems of trade, development, finance and the international monetary system; report by the Secretary-General. Geneva, UNCTAD, 6 July 1973, TD/B/459, para. 1- 3).

3. Problem generation

Not only are there many interrelationships between problems, but in some cases the combined presence or interaction of two or more problems can lead to the emergence of new problems. Thus workers in factories are often exposed simultaneously to different physical or chemical agents which interact and which have a combined effect significantly different to the sum of the effects of the various agents encountered independently. Another example is the synergistic relationship between malnutrition and infection which in its combined form constitutes a major problem in developing areas.

"There is, then, no such thing as the food crisis. Similarly, there is no such thing, in isolation, as the population crisis, the urbanisation crisis, the pollution crisis, the armaments crisis, the oil crisis, the energy crisis, the fertiliser crisis, the resources crisis, the water crisis, the soil crisis, the fish crisis, the technology crisis or the trade crisis. Each of these crises acts on the others, and while it may be useful to focus attention on them one at a time, none of them can be solved unless the others are taken into account. This hydra-headed world crisis is difficult to comprehend... The dilemma at Rome, as at Stockholm, Caracas, Bucharest and elsewhere, is that the poor and hungry nations sense that the isolated crisis on the agenda is but a part of a wider population- resources-development crisis which unless resolved in toto will condemn them for good to the status of second-class citizens on their own planet...the present series of international conferences suffers from a universal catch-22, which states that any problem we can solve is part of a larger problem which we cannot." (Jon Tinker. The Green Revolution is over. New Scientist, 7 November 1974, p.388-393).

Although there is agreement that there are interrelationships between problems, little concerted effort has been made to identify how many there are and between which problems. Such efforts as have been made have generally been limited to determining adequate descriptions (in mathematical terms) for the nature of the relationships between a handful of major or critical problems. The relationships between other problems have only been explored within the various specialized domains, irrespective of any wider significance. Communication between such domains is generally agreed to be poor or non-existent.

4. Complexity of the inter-problem network

By the manner in which the simple interactions between the problems combine together, a new condition, namely a problem system or problem network is identifiable, as illustrated by the following:

"Many of the problems we experience today have been with us for a long time and those of recent vintage do not seem insurmountable, of themselves. The feature that is wholly new in the problematic aspects of our situation is rather a frightening growth in the size of the issues and a tendency toward congealment whose dynamics appears to be irreversible. The congruence of events appears suddenly possessed of a direction and a total meaning which emphasizes the insufficiency of all the proposed solutions increasingly and reveals rigidities that are not stable or set, that do not confine the problems but enlarge them, while also deepening them. This suggests that our situation has an inner momentum we are unable fully to comprehend; or, rather, that we are trying to cope with it by means of concepts and languages that were never meant to penetrate complexities of this kind; or, again, that we are trying to contain it with institutions which were never intended for such use. Therefore, even to be able to talk meaningfully about these problems (or, is it a single problem that is facing us?) we need first to develop a conceptual approach and a language we can use, which correspond better than what we now have to the essence of the situation." (Hasan Ozbekhan. Toward a general theory of planning. In: Eric Jantsch (Ed). Perspectives of Planning. Paris, OECD, 1969, p.144).

"Problems misbehave. Instead of neatly slipping into clean-cut categories that correspond with the names of ministries, scientific disciplines, and problem-solving programs, they tend to fuse with each other and become a tangled web. Thus, as a society becomes more complex, analysis of the housing problem leads one into industrial location, transportation, technological development, fiscal policy and intergovernmental relations. Any serious analysis of the population problem leads one into the consideration of the resource base for supporting any given population level, appropriate technologies in the use of such resources as well as in birth control, social security, opportunities for female education and employment, and a variety of cultural and motivational questions. Any problem of ethnic or geographic imbalance within a country cuts across all problems and programs that affect any ethnic or regional subdivision of the country." (Bertram M Gross. Strategy for economic and social development. Policy Sciences, 2, 1971, p.353).

The Club of Rome introduced the term "world problematique" to denote the current situation in which mankind is no longer confronted by identifiable, discrete problems, each one amenable to being dealt with on its own terms, but by an intricate and dynamic maze of situations, mechanisms, phenomena, and dysfunctions, which, even when they are apparently disjointed, interfere and interact with one another, creating a veritable problem system. "Our present situation is so complex and is so much a reflection of man's multiple activities, however, that no combination of purely technical, economic, or legal measures and devices can bring substantial improvement. Entirely new approaches are required to redirect society towards goals of equilibrium rather than growth. Such a reorganization will involve a supreme effort of understanding, imagination, and political and moral resolve." (Commentary by The Club of Rome Executive Committee on The Limits to Growth. New York, Universe Books, 1973, p.193).

Although there is agreement that interrelationships between problems are so numerous as to constitute a complex network or system, little concerted effort has been made to map this complexity. Such tentative efforts as have been made have generally been limited to the production of simple maps of the relationships between major or critical problems, or (in a few cases) the production of more detailed maps for some particular problem area.

5. Increasing inadequacy in response to the problem network

The traditional and planned approaches to problems are recognized as increasingly incapable of containing the problem complex as it is now emerging. This situation is illustrated by the following:

"Evidence is mounting that the environment which managers seek to control - or, at least, to guide or restrain - is increasing in turbulence and complexity at a rate that far exceeds the capacity of management researchers to provide new and improved methodologies to affect management's intentions. Faced with the consequences of force-fed technological change, and the concomitant changes in the social, political, psychological, and theological spheres, there is real danger that the process by which new concepts of management control are invented and developed may itself be out of control relative to the demands that are likely to be imposed upon it." (Introduction to a 1968 management conference session of the College of Management Control Systems, The Institute of Management Sciences)

"While the difficulties and dangers of problems tend to increase at a geometric rate, the knowledge and manpower qualified to deal with those problems tend to increase at an arithmetical rate." (Yehezkel Dror. Prolegomenon to policy sciences, AAAS symposium, Boston, 1969)

"Social institutions face growing difficulties as a result of an ever increasing complexity which arises directly and indirectly from the development and assimilation of technology. Many of the most serious conflicts facing mankind result from the interaction of social, economic, technological, political and psychological forces and can no longer be solved by fractional approaches from individual disciplines." (Bellagio Declaration on Planning. In: Erich Jantsch (Ed) Perspectives on Planning. Paris, OECD, 1969).

"What finally makes all of our crises still more dangerous is that they are now coming on top of each other. Most administrations...are not prepared to deal with...multiple crises, a crisis of crises all at one time...Every problem may escalate because those involved no longer have time to think straight." (John Platt. What we must do. Science, 28 November 1969, p.1115-1121).

"Scientists and business and political leaders in virtually every country are becoming increasingly aware that the human race is facing more crises than its social and political institutions can handle adequately....Many important steps are now being taken to meet these problems. These steps, however, are often shaped to fit existing institutional patterns or to be politically or commercially expedient, while other measures of perhaps equal or greater importance have not yet been started. Moreover, the multitude of crises and their complexity and interactions so overburden the mechanisms that have been designed to handle them that there is a valid fear that these mechanisms will break down at the critical moment and make the disasters worse." (R A Cellarius and John Platt. Councils of Urgent Studies. Science, 25 August 1972, p.670-676).

"...the world is becoming so complex and changing so rapidly and dangerously and the need for anticipating problems is so great, that we may be tempted to sacrifice (or may not be able to afford) democratic political processes." (H Kahn and J Wiener. Faustian powers and human choices. In: W R Ewald, Jr (Ed). Environment and Change. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1968).
6. Inadequacy of institutional response to problems

The weaknesses of the organized response to problems are best illustrated by the following:

"The map of organizations or agencies that make up the society is, as it were, a sort of clear overlay against a page underneath it which represents the reality of the society. And the overlay is always out of phase in relation to what's underneath: at any given time there's always a mismatch between the organizational map and the reality of the problems that people think are worth solving...There's basically no social problem such that one can identify and control within a single system all the elements required in order to attack that problem. The result is that one is thrown back on the knitting together of elements in networks which are not controlled and where network functions and the network roles become critical." (Donald Schon. Beyond the Stable State; public and private learning in a changing society. London. Temple Smith, 1971)

"Since problems were for so long deemed to be immutable, functions already assumed became more important than aims. Thus the attainment of major national goals, such as the elimination of illiteracy or the improvement of agricultural yields, called for the development of the relevant government functions, such as education and agricultural policy. In the sequel, within each of these functions, new goals were inferred from extrapolations of goals already achieved; the functions defined the problems to be met, and reassessment of the problems at hand did not lead to the redefinition of the function...The rigidity, fragmentation, and institutional competitiveness of bureaucratic practices are obviously both causes and consequences of this state of affairs. Bureaucratic development is partly a result of the vagueness of aims pursued. The determination of new aims is often not sufficient, however, to overcome these weaknesses, which also stem from the inclination of bureaucracies to resist innovation. For these reasons, contemporary societies are called upon to challenge certain forms of organisation that can no longer render the services they require, because in these societies, change and uncertainty have become the constant companions of prosperity. Thus, it has become a commonplace that many new problems, over the last quarter of a century, have been recognized too late by the government machine, which has often been moved to action only by the advent of a crisis...Any attempt to assess dissatisfactions, define opportunities, and formulate new goals inevitably runs counter to established policies that have been instrumental in the emergence of new problems. It will therefore always be difficult to look to operational agencies and policies for an objective effort to redefine aims that may involve agonizing reappraisals, challenge existing interests, or simply call for a sense of perspective incompatible with the responsibilities of day-to-day action. For this reason the identification of emerging problems is a function that tends to be overlooked by traditional public administration and therefore cannot be wholly integrated with it..." (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Science, Growth and Society. Paris, OECD, 1971, p.60-61)

"Consider the problem of poverty among minority groups. Our nation is committed to reducing poverty. We do not know how to approach solving the problem without creating other undesirable conditions in the process. Our government comes at a problem, like minority group poverty, from many directions: some officials are convinced that all that is necessary is to stimulate economic growth, others call for better education, still others advocate a direct transfer of income, and of welfare. This is much like many blind men feeling parts of an elephant and then being asked to describe it. The man who describes the trunk is as right as the man who describes a leg; both are partially right. Division of problems into subproblems without knowing their overall dimensions hardly ever contributes to a situation." (John Crecine and R D Brunner. A fragmented society; hard to govern democratically. In: Information Technology; some critical implications for decision makers. New York. The Conference Board, 1972, p.178)

"Institutions, firms and (thanks to television) private citizens today receive critical information very quickly indeed; the aggregate picture at federal level is slow by comparison to materialize. To put the point the other way round, then, the body politic has wildly overactive reflexes. In the body physiologic this is the condition of clonus - it is a symptom of spasticity. If we live, as I suspect, in a spastic society it is because of clonic response. And by the expectations of these arguments, the clonus will get worse." (Stafford Beer. Managing modern complexity. In: Committee on Science and Astronautics, US House of Representatives. The Management of Information and Knowledge. Washington, US Government Printing Office, 1970, p.45).

"...increasing specialization makes all problems more difficult. With more economic and social development, the subdivision of labour is carried to extremes never dreamt of in previous historic periods. The more effective and efficient organizations and planning bodies are those that operate for narrow and segmental purposes, thereby rendering much more difficult any effort to achieve mutual adjustment or coordination. The more able, honoured and highly valued expert is the one who works within an increasingly narrow sphere and who has great difficulty in communicating with other experts as well as laymen." (Bertram M Gross. Strategy for economic and social development. Policy Science, 2, 1971, p.353)

7. Competing "key problems"

The relationships and significance of each of the lesser-known problems may well be recognized in the appropriate sectors of the available scientific literature, but may thus only influence a limited sector of society. This means that information systems, organizations and programmes often recognise only one particular set of problems and over-identify with them. This results in a multiplicity of candidates for "the key problem" requiring maximum allocation of resources to bodies,which may not intercommunicate even though each may stress the importance of defining its own problem in relationship to other problems. Hasan Ozbekhan makes the point: "This almost subconsciously motivated attempt, that of a sector to expand over the whole space of the system in its own particular terms and in accordance with its own particular outlooks and traditions, compounds the problem by further fragmenting the wholeness of the system. For sectors cannot become systems, they can only dominate them; and when they do they warp them. Hence this tendency toward the spreading of sectoral primacies over the full social space must be viewed with alarm. It is a portent, and an ominous one, of the conflicts and dislocations that await us unless a system-wide integrative approach is worked out..." (Hasan Ozbekhan. Toward a general theory of planning. In: Eric Jantsch (Ed). Perspectives of Planning. Paris, OECD, 1969, p.83-84). There is also the suspicion that the network of problems may be better integrated than the networks of organizational and conceptual resources which could be brought to bear upon them.

8. Institutional difficulties in identifying problems

The "Bertrand Report", a recent major internal review of the difficulties afflicting the United Nations system (Maurice Bertrand. Some Reflections on Reform of the United Nations. Geneva, UN Joint Inspection Unit, 1985, JIU/REP/85/9) notes: "In short, it is the sectoralized, decentralized and fragmented structures of the System that are the reason for its failure to adapt to the solution of development problems." (para 104) "The countries concerned need a World Organization capable of facilitating syntheses, organizing co-ordination, helping to find long-term financial arrangements, and granting many-sided aid to solve the most urgent problems. What the United Nations System offers them is a series of divergent and contradictory recommendations, some 30 bodies whose action has to be coordinated with that of some 20 sources of bilateral aid, but it does not help them to solve their medium and long-term financial problems." (para 106)

"In other words, since the Organization here is confronting the essential mission it should fulfil, we have to ask ourselves whether it is properly equipped to do so; whether the results obtained so far are satisfactory or negligible; and whether the Organization really does possess the organs capable of reflecting upon and identifying the problems and the framework of negotiations which the modern world needs. The replies to these questions are inevitably negative; the machinery of negotiation is not easily identifiable and separable from the rest of the activities under the various sectoral programmes and does not constitute a coherent system. The results achieved relate only to a few limited fields and do not represent solid progress in the direction of changing world consensus. This situation has its political reasons, which are well known, but they do not explain everything. Actually, it is the structure of negotiations offered by the World Organization that is ill-adapted to solving the problems of the modern world." (paras 107-8)

"They call for considerable preliminary efforts to identify the problems which are susceptible to negotiation before any negotiations can begin. This work of identification is complex, and it comes up against difficulties of a cultural, technical, ideological and semantic kind; it can often only be concluded when a preliminary agreement is beginning to take shape on a given concept; so that it is no longer surprising that it implies attempt after attempt at formulation, often clumsily done, and that it is a source of endless talk. Negotiation among 160 parties presents specific technical difficulties other than those of the size of the meeting chamber or the organization of simultaneous interpretation. It involves the definition of interest groups whose composition and dimensions vary according to the subjects dealt with, and the method of representation of these groups." (para 109)

9. Absence of consensus concerning problem priorities

In 1974 Jan Tinbergen noted that only two years after the (Pearson) report of the International Commission of Development suggested accelerated growth for the developing world, the results of the Club of Rome study indicated the necessity for decelerating world growth. He suggests that these two objectives are not necessarily irreconcilable, but are very close to being incompatible. The two sets of recommendations clearly emerged from studies which detected different problems as being of major importance. Robin Clarke, in demonstrating the pressing need for alternative technology, examined 9 problems (from pollution to alienation) and showed how five different functionally significant constituencies perceived the problems and the necessary solutions. Consensus appeared to be minimal.

It is a fact of political and social life that there is no general consensus on the relative priority of problems. As noted in the first report of the Social Indicator Development Programme of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development: "Commonality of social concerns among Member countries tends to be greatest at the highest level of generality, diminishing as the definition becomes more specific." The degree of consensus also increases when the problem is perceived as being so extensive that it can only be solved by some improbable combination of institutions or "everyone acting together".

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential