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The Union of International Associations

A Profile

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Originally published in World Union-Goodwill (Volume 2, June 1962, 3, pp. 40-43).


Near the centre of Brussels, occupying part of the famous Palais d'Egmont, there is the headquarters of one of the most important international organisations of our time. It is virtually unknown to the general public, has a modest budget and staff yet is recognised as the leading authority in its field.

The UIA, or the Union of International Associations, to give it its full title, specialises in research and the provision of information about all kinds of international organisations. It also offers certain advisory services to facilitate the work of such organisations. Its purpose is to promote international co-operation, and in particular non-governmental or 'people to people' co-operation.

The work of UIA symbolises a development in thinking and practice that constitutes one of the most remarkable peaceful revolutions known to history. Today there is hardly a branch or form of human activity that is not international in some aspect, and has not a corresponding international organisation, or more correctly a parallel series of international organisations. One series is the outcome of cooperation between governments. The other is the result of the efforts of interested individuals and groups to help one another. The latter is historically the older and still the more widespread and diversified development.

Broadly speaking, the two series of institutions should reinforce and com plement one another. Inter-governmental agencies establish a stable framework of international relations within which the 'free,' or non-governmental organisations (N.G.O.'s as they will hereafter be called) can work and develop. N.G.O.'s have a means or rapprochement between peoples to which inter-governmental organisations, by their very nature, cannot appeal. N.G.O.'s bring together individuals who are linked to the same profession; who have common spiritual or material interests; who enter into personal contact in a spirit of service, with a fruitful give and take between ideologies and aspirations and a loyal recognition of rights and wrongs. By all these means they develop mutual fellowship, appreciation of a common task, and habits of cooperation and friendship which survive tensions of a political nature. These contacts represent the real link between the individual and the international community.

Problems of information

The tremendous scale and rate of growth of international work today presents a serious problem. It is hard enough for the international civil servant, or executive officer of an international N.G.O., to visualise clearly, as a whole and in perspective, the true shape and scale of international co-operation. When an effort is made to convey the extent of this international activity to the man in the street, sheer volume hinders understanding.

There is a sense in which adequate information is available. A multitude of books, documents, periodicals and reports are published by international N.G.O.'s. The difficulty lies not so much in the presence or lack of this information but in the task of making it available as a comprehensible unity. Basically there are insufficient general reference works to make it possible to become easily familiar with the main aspects of international life today. This difficulty would be just as great for workers and officials in the international field as it is for private individuals if it were not for the work done by the Union of International Associations.

It was at the turn of the century that two Belgians, Henri La Fontaine, Nobel Prize winner (1913), and Paul Otlet became conscious of the problems and opportunities in this field. These men, pioneers among those who worked for a world community, aimed to bring into closer relationship all international organisations and create, as they called it, a real 'diplomatic corps' of the world of science and social progress. They had formed the International Office of Biblio graphy (1892) and were among the principal promoters of the First Congress of International Associations (1910) in which 132 international bodies took part. It was this congress that gave official birth to the Union of International Associations (U.I.A.)

Clearing house

In spite of the fact that the work in this field of research has gone forward now for nearly seventy years there is still no really satisfactory definition of an international organisation. The U.I.A. defines one as an organisation with offices in three countries and a representative administration elected by vote. On this basis there are some 1500 international organisations today, of which 150 are intergovernmental, embodying every possible variety of aims, interest, membership, co-operative tendencies and effectiveness (perhaps not always reflected by the budget). The U.I.A. acts as an unbiased clearing house, obtains detailed information from each of these bodies and the many others which are in their formative stages or still predominantly national in character, and presenting it through their various publications in a form that is easily digested and understood, throws light on the various organisations and their relationship one to the other.

The U.I.A. are the publishers of the standard reference book in the field of international work known as the Yearbook of International Organizations. This publication, whose forerunner in 1910, called perhaps more appropriately the 'Yearbook of International Life', has been brought out every two years since 1949 by the U.I.A., and since 1956 alternately in English and French editions. The value of this work has been recognised by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, a body which is itself very conscious of the role of N.G.O.'s in international work. In fact, the United Nations accept that since this task is performed so adequately by the U.I.A., there is no need for it to duplicate this Yearbook.

The U.I.A. supplements the Yearbook with a variety of other publications. Their accumulation of information is illustrated by the fact that they have a card index of all international meetings held since 1840; they have some three thousand dossiers on all official and private international organisations; they receive regularly up to one thousand periodical publications of international interest, and their specialised library comprises more than 15.000 books on the subject of international organisations and co-operation. In addition, they have unrivalled knowledge and experience of many other problems common to international N.G.O.'s. Purely from the technical point of view the problems of establishing and running international organisations are not made easier by the variation in legal and fiscal requirements between countries and a series of studies has been made on such questions. Experts in the field, linked through the U.I.A. and under the auspices of Unesco, have built up documentation which forms perhaps the first experimental step to one branch of the science of international co-operation.

All these and many other matters are dealt with in the U.I.A.'s monthly review "International Associations'. Quite apart from presenting a co-ordinated picture of current activities in international life, a varied range of articles touch on new possibilities for international co-operation and comment specifically on the possible effects on voluntary associations of development in the work of the United Nations and the Specialised Agencies. Perhaps "International Associations' is unique among pub- lications of international organisations in having built up a substantial revenue from advertising, thereby helping to break down one of the major barriers to international voluntary work-namely financial limitations.

International conferences

Another area in which the U.I.A. gives expert help and advice to N.G.O.'s is in the arranging of international meetings and congresses. It is probably true to say that the most important aspect of international life, and the raison d'etre of an international association, is the meetings it makes possible between people of opposed views at various forms of conference or congress. It is here that realities are faced and differences seen in their true light. The function of meetings is to reduce as far as possible the friction and resistance caused by national and sectional self-interest and bred by the distortions in attitude introduced by distance.

With the recent rapid rise in the number of organisations and meetings, and their attendant complications, internationally minded cities, which are the usual meeting places, have become adapted to commercial possibilities and standards of efficiency. Many new Congress Centres have been built and congress organising has thus become a speciality and, like other specialities, it has left many traps for the unwary. Perhaps the most crippling is, for instance, to find an English secretary, vital to administrative success, nearly useless because of the complete difference in layout of the French typewriter keyboard. Consequently it is primarily at the level of technical and practical problems that the U.I.A. has sought to assist officials to increase the possibilities for the success of their meetings. The U.I.A. has encouraged the publication of reports by officials familiar with successful techniques. The two works that have appeared to date are 'Theory and Practice of Congress Organisation' and a 'Manual for Congress Organisers'.

Arising from the increasing number of international meetings is the problem of providing information on their date and location. Each meeting represents an area of effective co-operation and it is important that knowledge of this be made available to as wide a circle as possible. In fact one of the problems of congress organisers is publicising their meetings outside the field of their own associations' membership. It must be realised that this is no small problem when during some periods of the year there are over 25 international congresses per day. By various means, including direct contact with congress organisers and from reliable secondary sources, including periodicals, U.I.A. obtains information about all significant international gatherings. The data is published in an annual Congress Calendar and is kept up to date by supplements inserted in the monthly magazine International Associations.

Union of interests

It should be made clear that the Union of International Associations is not, as its title suggests, an actual union of international organisations. International organisations may associate with the U.I.A. and make use of its services by the simple device of taking out a subscription to the monthly magazine 'International Associations' and furnishing regular reports of their activities. Such association implies, of course, a general recognition of the value of the work of U.I.A., but ties it in no way to any particular policy or activity of the organisation. It enables the organisation to take part in the general assemblies of the U.I.A., though without voting rights.

This simple but effective and somewhat informal means of association gives U.I.A. an operational flexibility that it would undoubtedly lack if it became in anyway a 'federation of associations'. Here too the Association points the way by establishing a pattern of informal yet effective working relationships based not on legal formalities but on mutual and cooperative interest.

Co-operation at the international level is rapidly ceasing to be the somewhat haphazard and disorganised affair that it used to be. If for no other reason, the exuberant multiplication of international plans and programmes, the massive supply of documents to be examined, and the ever-increasing technical complications of certain types of international work, are forcing some rationalisation in this field. By providing an unbiased and competent centre of research, information, documentation, and advice the U.I.A. offers the essential and fundamental basis without which no future development of international work would be possible. A clear perspective must be established and a way through the 'maze' of international work found. The U.I.A. seeks to contribute, as it confesses itself, in a somewhat humble mood, to the development of this most important of all areas of human life and work.

It is appropriate to conclude with a quotation from the President of the U.I.A., Senator Etienne de la Valée Poussin :

'The 19th century has tried to be the century of liberty; to ensure liberty it proclaimed its faith in the autonomy of the individual and the absolute sovereignty of States. In the light of terrible experience the 20th century- has understood that if the individual rights of man and the independence of States must be respected, we must also organise co-operation between individuals and collaboration between States.'

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