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Problems Hindering Action of International Nongovernmental Organizations


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Paper presented to a panel on the evaluation and extension of public participation in international organizations at the 18th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association (St Louis, USA, March 1977) under the title: Practical problems of using the potential of INGO networks as an extended version of a presentation to the UIA Geneva Symposium published under the title Pseudo-issues paralyzing transnational association action (International Associations, 28, 1976, 12, pp. 571-573). Published in: The Future of Transnational Associations from the Standpoint of a New World Order Brussels, UIA, 1977, pp. 168-205. Also distributed under the title Practical Options in Using the Potental of International NGO Networks. [NB: With changing terminology, in 2003 it would be entitled Problems Hindering Action of Global Civil Society Networks]. Reprinted in: Transnational Associations 32, 4, 1980, pp. 180-185 [PDF version]. Also a French version under the title: Les problèmes entravant l'action des organisations internationales nongouvernementales (OING)
Debate about INGOs
Problems hindering INGO action
Conclusion concerning problems
Guidelines for remedial action
Remedial action
** 1. Shared facilities in "transnational centres"
** 2. Alternative forms of organization
** 3. Alternative forms of meeting
** 4. Facilitative action by IGO secretariats
** 5. International convention on INGO legal status
** 6. Improvements in INGO information and communication
** 7. Improvements in information and communication about INGOs
** 8. Facilitation of network processes
** 9. Network organizational strategy
** 10. Network vocabulary


The title of this paper contains an ambiguity which usefully reflects the ambiguity of the subject matter. There are in fact several conceptions of the "practical problems in using the potential of INGO networks".

These include:

1. The practical problems for an external body in making use of the INGO networks in support of its own programmes and objectives, irrespective of the programmes and concerns of the INGOs. Typically, and commonly, these are the problems for the UN system (through its Office of Public Information) in attempting to mobilize and galvanize the INGO networks in support of UN programmes (conceived as being the only programmes of satisfactory legitimacy and effectiveness).

2. The practical problems of making INGO networks function better, according to the criteria of an external body recognizing the benefits arising from the activity of such networks operating their own programmes in the light of their own objectives and priorities. Typically, although infrequently, these are the problems for a foundation concerned to increase the general operational effectiveness of INGOs as the best means (although indirect) of ensuring the achievement of its own objectives.

3. The practical problems of developing the usefulness of INGO networks for the INGOs in the networks in the light of their own criteria of how best this could be achieved.

4. The practical problems for an outside individual or group in attempting to build (membership, working, information) contacts with different INGO networks' Typically, these are the problems of the informed general public or a newly created, and enthusiastic, active group, wishing to relate to similar initiatives in other countries via the INGO network

The problems identified in this paper have not been ordered in terms of these different possible perspectives, nor in terms of their implication for: IGOs, INGOs, national governments, local groups, scholars, individuals, etc.' In fact each of the problems can usefully be examined for any such possible implications.

The paper also identifies some areas for innovative response to the complex of problems hindering full use of INGO networks. In fact examination of what can usefully be done, namely what has not yet been done, serves to highlight other aspects of such problems.

Debate about INGOs

It is useful to review briefly the current status of discussion concerning INGO networks and their utility. There are several focal points:

Unfortunately, none of these areas of debate has been able to broaden its focus to include the problems of INGOs in general. The academic focus has been primarily concerned with demonstrating either the negative effects of North-West based INGOs or their lack of impact on the inter-state system. The IGO focus has been primarily concerned either with exploiting the resources of the existing INGO networks or manoeuvering to minimize the number of INGOs it needs to recognize to carry out its own programmes.

In the case of the INGO focus, every effort has been made to ensure that the debate was restricted to concern with the consultative arrangements with a particular IGO, avoiding general discussion of the problem for INGOs with all IGOs, or of the general problems of INGOs whether linked to IGOs or not

It is difficult to avoid the general impression of a series of continuing sterile debates about "pseudo-issues" effectively (although not deliberately) structured to avoid converging on conclusions which could legitimate any recommendations for remedial projects to increase the general value of INGO networks. Such issues can be termed "pseudo-issues" because, from a very realistic and practical point of view, there is little that can be done about any of them individually at this point in time. Such issues should better be seen as constraints on any action strategy, rather than the prime policy concern in connection with INGOs, as tends to be the case in IGO, INGO and academic circles. Hopefully many of these problems will be overcome at some stage, but it would seem to be unnecessarily short-sighted to allow them to constitute delays to effective development of the full potential of the INGO network. The organizational instruments for action may in many cases be imperfect, but concentrating attention on their imperfections may simply obscure the fact that they are already quite adequate for many tasks-and that the specific imperfections are in large part a circumstance of the times rather than of their nature. Practical approaches to improving their ability to perform their functions may well be the quickest method of reducing their imperfections.

It is too easy to lose sight of the fact that the available institutions are failing to contain the complex of problems on which they purport to focus. At this point what is required is a series of practical low-cost projects to revitalize the whole organizational network and not defensive debates which:

The point is well illustrated by the words of Bradford Morse, UN Under-Secretary-General for Political and General Assembly Affairs to the ECOSOC Committee on NGOs (March 1975):

"The complexity of the problems and needs we face today, however, and the vast growth in previously non-existent transnational preoccupations have created the necessity for more active and creative co-operation. None of us alone-as individuals, governments or organizations-can hope to meet the demands and challenges which confront the global community. To enhance the prospects for success, we must all join forces to the fullest extent possible. For only by sharing our ideas, our knowledge and our needs, and by working together will we be able effectively to make use of our limited resources and receive the full benefit of our mutual efforts. Further steps must be made to rationalize the existing relationship between the United Nations system and the non-governmental community." (See also Appendix 3.)

(It is part of the current malaise that the sincerity of the above statement, in contrast to that of a long-series of similarly-worded publicity releases by a variety of UN officials, is only established by knowledge of the behind-the-scenes scuffling associated with it and the manner in which action on it has been avoided.)

Problems hindering INGO action

In Challenges to International Nongovernmental Organizations, 34 problems are identified. It should be noted that the identification of the problems does not imply any judgment that a particular problem "really exists" but only that it is believed by some to exist and gives rise to concern and debate, even if ill-informed. It should be emphasized that a linear presentation of this type completely obscures the interconnections between problems, by which one aggravates another. This is best seen in Appendix 1, which identifies a set of interlinked problems. This helps to show the limited value of focusing remedial action on a particular problem embedded in a network of problems which ensure its re-emergence.

Conclusion concerning problems

As pointed out in introducing the series of problems, they are best perceived as a mutually reinforcing network (see Appendix 1). Depending on the choice of focus and context, most of the problems may be defined as "key" problems (1).

A particularly unfortunate pattern of reinforcements leads to the following:

This in turn provokes the problems (which contribute to those identified in Challenges to International Nongovernmental Organizations) via various intermediary problems:

Guidelines for remedial action

The following points must be borne in mind in identifying practical changes for future organizational action

In addition to these negative constraints there is an urgent need for some positive vision of social change and the organizational base to support it. It is vital to switch from the current narcissistic focus to a new context for debate on INGO-related matters, thus establishing a conceptual environment conducive to the generation of positive recommendations.

If none of the above problems is likely to be resolved, what is to be done in the short term? Some will feel free to ignore INGOs. The INGOs will however continue to exist in one form or another. The key question is how to by-pass these issues and to find some way of ensuring that all possible organizational resources are brought to bear on the many problems to which the world appears to be exposed.

Not only is it of limited value to focus on the 700 NGOs with consultative status, rather than on the 2700-5000 international organizations (Yearbook of International Organizations. Brussels, Union of International Associations, 1977, 16th edition, 806 p), but equally it is of limited value to focus on the latter rather than on the whole universe of organizations including those at the national and sub-national level.

There are an as yet uncounted number of such organizations- possibly several million through which people associate, work and express themselves, and by which their views are molded. And yet these uncounted organizations constitute one of the last unexplored resources of society with which to respond to the problems with which we are faced. Whilst the governmental and business organizations are now well accepted, the associational world is poorly understood-despite its well-documented contribution to all aspects of human affairs. The denial of the importance of the continuing role of these associations now leads governments to believe that they can create a new international economic order alone, ignoring the social dimension which is the special concern of these bodies. Others continue to place their hopes in some form of world government or world federalism, ignoring the increasingly visible weaknesses of national governments whether federal or not.

How can we facilitate the action of this immense network of organizations given constraints such as those noted above? How can we facilitate whatever action is possible, whenever it is possible between whatever coalition of organizations is possible, with whatever degree of coordination is possible? How can a network organizational strategy emerge?

One vision which recognizes the role of INGOs is that of Alvin Toffler, as expressed in testimony to the Committee on Foreign Relations of the US Senate in 1975 (see Appendix 2). An attempt at formulating the kinds of principles which could usefully guide a new style of transnational action has also been made (Principles of transnational action. an attempt at a set of guidelines. In: The Open Society. report of a seminar to reflect on the network of international associations. Brussels, UIA, 1973, pp. 104-114).

Remedial action

As mentioned earlier, identifying suitable projects to develop the potential of INGO networks also serves to highlight, through their consequences, the kinds of problems which need to be overcome. In conformity with the above guidelines, the following projects are all essentially non-directive, requiring limited resources, but contributing directly to the release of considerable resources, currently blocked by the consequences of directive and stateoriented policies. Suggestions for research in support of such action have been given elsewhere (Transnational association networks; selected list of research topics on international non-governmental organizations. International Associations, 24, October 1972, pp. 481-485.) as have suggestions for more appropriate organizations, meetings and information systems (Complexity; its constraints on social innovation. Transnational Associations, 29, 4, 1977, pp. 120-125; 29, 5, pp. 178-189.).

1. Shared facilities in "transnational centres"

Whether in capital cities of developing or developed countries, the offices of international non-governmental organizations are usually scattered so that face-to-face contact between organization staff and membership is infrequent. Organizations are often poorly housed and equipped. In major cities, notably New York, Geneva and Paris, some organizations are grouped together within the same office building. They may or may not share facilities such as a conference room, restaurant, receptionist, library, etc. This formula is however very suggestive as a model for the future. There seems to be a strong case for encouraging the construction of such "transnational centres" and for developing the administrative techniques for sharing certain facilities and equipment in an economically viable manner. Such centres help to ensure that:

  1. there is a concentration of internationally oriented expertise in major cities-a "critical mass" of people whose interaction generates new programme concepts and acts as a magnet for uncommitted resources. As in the case of multi-meetings, no formal relationship is imposed on organizations sharing office facilities. Informal contact is however maximized so that fruitful working relationships can emerge as and when appropriate.
  2. the same centre could also usefully house such currently scattered bodies as the: UN and UN Agency Information Offices, and in developing countries, the UN Agency Representative responsible for coordinating country-level international activity; national commissions of UNESCO and other Agencies; national NGOs with international activities; national inter-NGO organizations; foundations interested in international activity; national institutes of international relations; international press agencies; temporary offices for committees to galvanize activity in relation to official international years (e.g. human rights, population, mental health, etc.) and days; the focal point within the city for town twinning (sister-city) arrangements with towns in other countries; temporary offices and facilities required to focus effort in time of disaster in the country, or to mobilize such resources for assistance in time of disaster in another country; national and city United Nations Associations, Unesco Cubs and similar bodies.
  3. the concentration of activity would facilitate the creation of bodies not present in a particular country (e.g. the creation of United Nations Information Offices in developing countries) where without such a supportive environment it would be difficult to maintain them.
  4. a wide variety of office and professional services could be shared under many possible formulas, some of which would benefit organizations not requiring full-time permanent office accommodation.
  5. some of the services could be run under the well-developed "cooperative" formula; a number of such cooperatives could be the basis for other services: sharing of some staff over holiday periods; group insurance and pension schemes for secretarial and other staff who might otherwise be tempted to seek employment where there is greater long-term security; mobility of organization secretariats and the establishment of regional or subsidiary offices; staff mobility and professional advancement without loss of financial benefits; operational contacts (e.g. telex links) to facilitate coordination of activities initiated at different centres (e.g. New York and Geneva) or between international centres and their national equivalents.
  6. interaction and programme coordination between bodies in developing countries concerned with focusing international aid for that country.
  7. there is a visible symbol to the general public of the reality of international action. As such, permanent exhibitions, films shows and internationally oriented periodical libraries open to the public could usefully stimulate public interest in both the developing and the developed countries.

2. Alternative forms of organization

Attention should be given to alternative forms of organization, possibly more appropriate to a response to some features of the highly turbulent problem of environment. Existing experiments by some INGOs in this direction should be encouraged, as well as attempts to form organizations specifically adapted to function in an evolving network of collaborating organizations in which advantage lies in the ability to associate with any emergent configuration of organizations rather than to protect an old configuration (Complexity; its constraints on social innovation. Transnational Associations, 29, 4, 1977, pp. 120-125; 29, 5, pp. 178-189; also 1977, 10.) .

3. Alternative forms of meeting

Attention should be given to the various possibilities for using the meeting environment to establish communication patterns within and between organizations which are currently obstructed. Of particular interest at a time of scarce travel funds is the use of "multi-meetings" namely the scheduling of a number of meetings on related topics during the same period at the same location (1).

4. Facilitative action by IGO secretariats

The current emphasis in the debates on the restructuring of the UN system and on the new international economic order render it improbable that attention will be given to the following which are therefore listed "pour memoire", although each point has been expanded in detail elsewhere (Inter-organizational relations. in search of a new style. In: The Open Society; report of a seminar to reflect on the network of international associations. Brussels, UIA, 1973, pp. 115-132.).

5. International convention on INGO legal status

Further attention could be given to this matter, bearing in mind the previous initiatives noted (page 204). Such a convention might cover the following points (all of which, excepting the first two having been identified by the International Labour Conference, Committee on Trade Unions Rights, 1970):

Although such a convention would have many significant positive consequences, it is not clear whether the negative consequences of an overly rigid or discriminating convention would not cause more harm than benefit. The experience of Belgium should be studied. It is still the only country to have special legislation giving favourable recognition and facilities to international scientific bodies (law of 25 October 1919) later expanded (law of 6 December 1954) to benefit philanthropic, religious, educational and other bodies (See text in: "Guide pratique a l'usage des organisations internationales etablies en Belgique". Bruxelles, Federation des associations internationales etablies en Belgique (FAIB), 1968, 3rd edition). Provision of status in international law for transnational associations would considerably facilitate their activities and increase their effectiveness. Such recognition should however avoid the imposition of artificial constraints upon the network of organizations to give rise to a select class of isolated unchanging entities which would obscure the presence of excluded bodies and interrelationships of social significance.

6. Improvements in INGO information and communication

By definition international organizations are faced with the need to communicate over very long distances. The efficiency of this communication is vital to the effectiveness of the organization and its programmes. But the "distances" involved are not only physical. There are several barriers to communication which can be summarized as follows:

7. Improvements in information and communication about INGOs

Basically INGOs are in urgent need of a standard public relations campaign to accomplish the following:

The success of any such campaign of course requires a move away from "INGO" to some positive term like "transnational associations

8. Facilitation of network processes

It is clear that intra- and inter-organizational networks are growing, multiplying and evolving in response to perceived social problems and possibilities for action. These changes are in large part unplanned (and unfinanced) from any central point and appear to be self-correcting in that "excessive" development is compensated by the emergence of counteracting networks. Little attention is given to facilitating this growth so that in some cases it may be considered dangerously spastic. Despite this the network of organizations (international, national, and local) of every kind and with every pre-occupation, represents a major unexplored resource. The (synergistic) potential of this network, if its processes were facilitated. is unknown.

Possibilities for facilitating these processes include:

9. Network organizational strategy

The elements of the strategic problem at this time include:

These networks, and others, are not static structures. They are changing rapidly in response to pressures and opportunities perceived in very different parts of the social system. As such they, and component sub-networks, are not controlled or controllable by any single body, if only because the complexity cannot be handled by any single body or group of bodies.

The strategic problem therefore is how to ensure that the appropriate organizational resources emerge, and are adequately supported, in response to emerging pressures and opportunities. But in would seem that this must be achieved without organizing and planning such organized response-for to the extent that any part of the network is so organized, other parts will develop (and probably should develop) which will favour and implement alternative (and partially conflicting) approaches.

The challenge is therefore to develop the meaning and constraints of what may be termed a network strategy. This is an approach which facilitates or catalyzes (rather than organizes) the emergence, growth, development, adaptation and galvanization of organizational networks in response to problem networks, in the light of the values perceived at each particular part of the social system.

10. Network vocabulary

Whether amongst academics, policy-makers, administrators, or other practitioners, the frequency with which "network" is now used is not matched by any increasing facility in distinguishing between types of network. Because clear and simple concepts are lacking, together with the appropriate terms, discussion of such social complexity can only be accomplished, if at all, by the use of extremely cumbersome and lengthy phrases which tend to create more confusion than they eliminate. A vocabulary is required which is adapted to complexity. In the absence of such a vocabulary, debate tends to avoid discussion of issues which emerge from such complexity and concentrates on issues which can be adequately expressed via the existing vocabulary. This creates the illusion that the issues which can be discussed are the most important because of the visibility accorded them by the vocabulary at hand.

There is therefore a real challenge to the social sciences to identify concepts associated with complexity and to locate adequate terms with which to label them in their relation to systems.

The development of such a network vocabulary would provide a powerful means for objectifying and de-mystifying the complexity of the organization problem and conceptual networks by which we are surrounded and within which most of our activity is embedded.

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