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April 2000

Identifying, Counting and Categorizing Intergovernmental Organization

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Paper prepared for the National Intelligence Council project conference on "The Evolution of the Nation-State through 2015"
Center for International and Security Studies, University of Maryland, 18 April 2000


This paper takes the approach that there is a long history of initiatives in responding to its theme, many of them based on data collected in the UIA's Yearbook of International Organizations (see Tables referenced below). However many of these have been carried out in periods when the nature of what existed as "intergovernmental organization" was considered relatively unambiguous and clearly defined. It is indeed useful to see a core group of relatively static and permanent bodies in this light. But with the rapid complexification and increasingly fluid, dynamic of the global, electronically-enhanced society that is foreseen for the 21st century, it is valuable to look at more comprehensive ways of categorizing the features of what amounts to an ecosystem of international organizations. This is particularly useful in order to be able to explore more precisely the nature of the interlinkages with other transnational bodies and networks, especially when this leads to hybridization of form and function across classical categories.

There is obviously an interdependence between "categorizing" and "identifying" that clarifies the subsequent challenge of "counting". The empirical approach taken in gathering information for the databases of the Yearbook of International Organizations leads to the detection of forms of "intergovernmental organization" that do not necessarily fit well within simpler category schemes -- although such needs must be respected. The degree of misfit may well raise interesting questions about the nature of what is being identified, the categories used, and what may well escape such detection for whatever reason.

Basic data on intergovernmental organizations

The data presented annually in the 4-volume Yearbook of International Organizations, summarizing the profiles therein on intergovernmental and international NGO bodies, takes the following form:

Volume 1: Profiles:

Volume 2: Countries (secretariat / membership)

Volume 3: Classified guide by subject

The published data by subject does not currently distinguish between intergovernmental bodies and international NGO, primarily for reasons of space and the resultant complexity of the tables.

Volume 4: Bibliographical resources (including extensive references to studies of intergovernmental organization)

Classification by subject

The subject classification scheme of the Union of International Associations was first used in the 1984 edition of the Yearbook of International Organizations after presentation to a project group of the United Nations University. It has been refined annually since then. It is applied to automatically recluster some 50,000 organizations (intergovernmental and international NGO) in the Yearbook database, as well as the preoccupation of these bodies, namely the 31,949 "world problems" and 32,551 "strategies" -- as the main databases of the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. The profiles within these databases are hyperlinked together in the web versions at The subjects may also be browsed in tabular (matrix form) ( form as entry points to this data. This scheme is also used for access to international organizations on the CD-ROM variant of the Yearbook, which permits limitation of hits to intergovernmental bodies.

The classification scheme was designed after review of the standard international schemes that were notably unsatisfactory with respect to the rapid evolution of topics on which organizations focused. They were especially inadequate with respect to organizations concerned with a multiplicity of topics (preventing unilocal classification without distortion). A matrix format was used to help shift the paradigm from the conventional laundry lists of topics to an integrative structure more consistent with the pattern of functional interaction between subjects (for extensive commentary see

Classification of intergovernmental organizations by formal dimensions

The focus of this section is on the tentative elaboration of a framework of categories that may open questions about missing information -- about "species" of intergovernmental organization that have hitherto eluded adequate identification and therefore counting. A parallel is seen with the methodological challenge of identifying species of plants and animals in the natural environment -- although the taxonomy of intergovernmental organization is as yet undeveloped. A rich scheme of categories may serve to predict the possible existence of hitherto unidentified forms of intergovernmental organization. More interesting however, is the role that it may perform in encouraging the design and use of hitherto unforeseen types of organization ("UTOs"), where these may have valuable functions to perform in the ecosystem of organizations. The current fashion for genetic engineering may prove an intriguing metaphor for the embedding of memes from one organizational species into another. We may be entering an era of designer organization.

For this approach to be useful, the challenge is to identify some dimensions "along which" various kinds of intergovernmental organization may be detectable. These dimensions can then be structured as an array whose cells effectively define particular categories for which counting procedures can be designed or envisaged.

Such an approach, if it is to be based on Yearbook data, should be related to its long-established approach to addressing aspects of this issue. This has the merit of:

The intention is to proceed progressively from the relatively unambiguous to the more ambiguous and challenging cases:

Clustering dimensions

The dimensions have been tentatively clustered into three Groups.

Group 1: This clusters dimensions that tend (singly or in combination) to be prime determinants of whether a "body" can be recognized as "existing", whether because it has some tangible form (physical offices), a legal form, and especially whether these have some pattern over time. The Yearbook data has long been sensitive to ways in which forms of social organization may substitute for what is conventional viewed as an "international organization". This is notably seen in, the distinction between a treaty-based organization, an intergovernmental "organization" not constituted by treaty, and a treaty without any administering organization. Clearly in many cases the nature of the functions regulated by treaty, may not require any hands-on administration. Certain established patterns of regular information exchange between governments may require neither, treaty nor organization. This is especially interesting where such a pattern obviates the need for either. It is a functional substitute, but as such needs to be recognized for the role it performs in any functional analysis of the relationships between governments.

1.1: Formality:
1.2: Legality
1.3: Duration

The most conventional and narrow view of intergovernmental organization would focus on bodies that were permanent and treaty-based with secretariats -- the first variant of each dimension. They are also the easiest on which to obtain data.

Group 2: This clusters dimensions which determine (singly or in combination) whether any body can be detected as an intergovernmental initiative, whether or not it exists according to the Group I cluster.

2.1: Openness
2.2: Mediation
2.3: Autonomy / Emanation
2.4: Hybrid
As a result of characteristics elaborated in Group III (below), it may be somewhat difficult to determine whether a given pattern of organization can usefully be categorized as intergovernmental or not.

The most conventional and narrow view of intergovernmental organization would focus on bodies that were public, unmediated and autonomous, non-hybrid forms -- the first variant of most dimensions here. As such they necessarily raise few challenges to data collection. The other variants (whether singly, but especially in combination) raise very interesting challenges for what is usefully meant by intergovernmental organization in practice, and what it may come to mean in the future.

Group 3: This cluster is more descriptive of the nature of the body, possibly as a basis for determining its importance or effectiveness in comparison with other bodies.

3.1: Laterality-Membership
3.2: Laterality-Action
3.3: Membership mix
3.4: Sectoral focus
3.5: Interactivity
3.4: Mode of operations / arrangements
3.5: Exceptions

The most conventional and narrow view of intergovernmental organization would tend to avoid the variants on each dimension which apparently detract from the "intergovernmental" quality because of their specificity. At what point, for example, do bodies and initiatives primarily controlled or funded by a single government to act in other countries (such as for development aid, or military assistance) justify exclusion from any data collection on intergovernmental organization? These bodies evoke the most controversy within a multilateral intergovernmental community.

Inter-organizational relationships and (hyper)links

It can be argued that major shifts in "international organization" have been occurring over recent decades:

1. From action by the single organization on its environment to action by networks of organizations, effectively redefining the functional boundaries of organization (through strategic alliances, partnerships, coalitions, multi-group initiatives and campaigns, etc). In this light, the meaningful unit of analysis is shifting increasingly from isolated entities to networks or configurations of entities.
Unfortunately, although "network" has been a fashionable concept since the 1970s, it has essentially been used as a superficial metaphor that has not been backed up by any "network analysis" in academic studies of international organization, nor through the use of such analysis to articulate any "network strategy". Complex networks have continued to emerge in practice through patterns of relationship and exchange, especially via the Internet. Intergovernmental systems, such as that of the EU, have proliferated a myriad of such "networks" for a wide variety of purposes. But any analysis of inter-organizational networks tends to be as a software by-product of web hyperlink and traffic patterns rather than in relation to the functional content and its implications for organizational strategy and management operations. It is questionable whether any inter-organizational networks can be said to have been designed in terms of some insight into network theory.
2. The previous trend has been further complexified by the mix of organizations in any such pattern and the extent to which the relationships may be extensively, if not primarily, defined through electronic exchange. In conventional terms the relationships may include: membership (and "observer status"), reporting (eg the World Bank to the UN), working arrangements (with IGOs, MNCs, NGOs), consultation (with NGOs, etc), and information exchange. However all of these conventional categories are increasingly challenged by their transformation within an electronic environment, and what this implies with respect to understanding and managing the significance of such electronic contacts across hierarchies rather than following channels.
3. From "proper hierarchical channels" to unforeseen links (even "unauthorized") between "unrepresentative" bodies acting at every level (individual, local, sub-national, national, sub-continental, continental, inter-continental), often in an ill-defined "semi-official" capacity (cf the initiatives of former-President Jimmy Carter). The integrity of the nation-state is as likely to be destabilized by internal the initiatives of a proliferating number of multi-form actors, including local and sub-national governments, as it is by external actors -- although these too may take the form of initiatives of sub-national governmental actors. In the absence of adequate data collection capacity, there is a strong case for using statistical techniques to predict the numbers and linkages of such sub-national agencies and actors in order to fill out the institutional picture world wide. A further consideration is that many such organizations can usefully be seen as as themselves made up of networks of sub-entities -- especially to the extent that an organization "hierarchy" decreasingly reflects the functional complexities of that organization. This is one reason for the some of the challenges in identifying and categorizing some types of intergovernmental body noted above. Furthermore, any intergovernmental organization, at least potentially, has many avenues of interaction from within its hierarchy with points within the national agencies of its member governments.
4. From emphasis on "representativity" to emphasis on capacity, initiative and "creativity" whether by bodies such as Medecins sans Frontieres, Greenpeace, or single individuals. This is typified by the explosive development of web initiatives of their origins at CERN. Some IGO webmasters have taken initiatives that would have been impossible in the pre-electronic era.
5. From institutional definition of issues and initiatives to issues and initiatives redefining institutions. Intergovernmental organization is increasingly issue-led, with the ability of IGOs to espouse issues (defined outside their conceptual and organizational frameworks) being subject to what might be termed the "trailing institution syndrome". This is notably the case with "transversal" or "cross-sectoral" issues, where a traditional single issue may appear controllable but a combination of issues engenders totally unstable situations for which older mandates are completely unprepared. It is not the "global" nature of single issues that is becoming the challenge but the "globular" nature of issue complexes. As with institutions, it is the networks of issues that are the challenge, although unfortunately the feedback networks between issues are much better "organized" than those between institutions and manifest increasing capacity to destabilize institutional initiatives.
6. From reliance on a single strategic plan to dependence on an "ecology" of strategic initiatives. Intergovernmental institutions are faced with great difficulty in explaining a track record of broken promises and delivery failures on single plans: "health for all by the year 2000", "employment for all", "education for all", "freedom from hunger", "justice for all", "security for all", "peace for all", "shelter for all", and so forth -- currently followed by promotion of "communication for all" and "information for all" for a conveniently distant future time. The lack of strategic coordination between UN agencies typifies the problem which is of far greater scope if regional IGO strategic initiatives are included. There is an effective dependence on an ecology of strategic initiatives without any capacity to explore the dynamics and sustainability of this ecology or to discover new routes to policy coherence of a higher order. Again, it is not the "global" nature of single strategies that is the policy challenge but the necessarily "globular" nature of strategic complexes. And, as between the institutions responsible for them, the feedback between the strategies is lacking in all but minimal coordination, unlike the unpredictable consequences of their effects on each other.
7. From real, objective, stable, substantive issues to dynamic, media-spun, issues of perception. Obvious examples include BSE, GMOs, beef hormones, and the current destabilization of the Havana meeting of the Group of 77 by the issue of Elian Gonzalez. Elian might be considered an interesting example of a highly influential "non-state actor" -- affecting both national and regional politics.

The argument here is that there is a need to move beyond the "institutional illusion" of a kind of "body-count" paradigm in assessing intergovernmental organization operations for the 21st century. Specifically the conceptual challenges might be:

The Yearbook data has long been the subject of a form of link analysis beyond conventional membership data. A "citation" analysis by type is regularly presented, both for intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations (see Tables 3.1 and 3.2). In their CD and web-based form, the Yearbook-linked databases have been adapted so that many such links become hyperlinks. In the web variant, a further adaptation is being made to enable exploration of link patterns as mapped networks of links rather than as single links. In the database of over 30,000 "world problems" on which the 50,000 "international bodies" focus, this has been further extended in order to isolate "vicious" (feedback loops) -- on the basis that such loops necessitate a shift in the level of strategic analysis from isolated problems to self-regenerating loops (see Tables 5 and 6). A similar approach could be taken to "serendipitous" (and possibly "vicious") inter-organizational networks and their strategies. The challenge is to create a conceptual scaffolding or prosthesis for the emergence of higher orders of policy coherence -- that is comprehensible and communicable (see checklist of papers) and an analysis of the policy dilemmas associated with Agenda 21 (more).

Associated with this shift in unit of analysis is the need for new ways to visualize organization and network complexes. Examples, generated experimentally on-the-fly from UIA data as navigable virtual reality structures, are presented in Tables 7.1 to 7.4. Their features provide hotlinks into UIA data profiles or to organization web sites. It is in relation to such structures that the nation-state will have to navigate and evolve.

Conclusions on the capacity, legitimacy and cohesion of the nation-state in 2015

The importance of intergovernmental organization innovation in the 21st century may well lie in:

The global challenge for the 21st century is how to explore and develop "organizational ecosystems", operating "ecosystems of strategies", to deal with "ecosystems of problems", in the light of "ecosystems of values". Equivalent challenges exist at the national level. It is unfortunate that these challenges are addressed by nation "states" in a strategic environment which has largely shifted its centre of gravity from "statics" to "dynamics" (as pre-figured in 1972 by Jay Forrester's classic study of World Dynamics). It is perhaps no accident that a focus is placed on "State of the Union" and "State of the Environment" reports when these can only be still photographs of phenomena that minimally require moving pictures to capture their dynamics. It is clear that the dynamism of problems, and the creativity of transnational criminal networks, will drag the nation-state into a new mode over the years to 2015 -- catalyzed by the the potentials of the Internet with which the politically apathetic younger generations will identity.

The many territorial disputes that currently destabilize global society point to the failure of intergovernmental organization to shift to a more complex level of analysis of boundaries. For a review of the unexplored mathematical possibilities, in the light of the Kosovo crisis, see Judge, 1999. This assumes that the current intergovernmental policy gridlock derives from entrapment in impoverished policy metaphors (see Judge, 1992)

Within this emerging environment, much depends on a shift in perspective -- possibly to be labelled a paradigm shift. In a world of "gaps" (North-South, male-female, young-old, etc), the most fundamental gap is liable to be between commitment to the static attributes of "states" and an ability to function in terms of dynamics (and the kind of strategic nimbleness extolled as a key virtue by Silicon Valley initiatives). As with many gaps, many bodies and institutions will learn to function on either side and will be able to transit between them (a mode that is obvious with the co-existence of organizational systems from different centuries in some developing countries). Just how nation-states respond to the challenge of embodying this discontinuity remains to be seen. It is clear that many of the information systems on which they depend are switching to a dynamic interactive mode.

The core challenge of nation-states is liable to be their over-identification with static boundaries (territorial, jurisdictional and conceptual) and structures in a world that is liable to be defined above all by shifting boundaries and structures in transformation -- if only in practice. The nation-states that will evolve into this new environment will be those that discover ways of getting "into the flow", supported by appropriate uses of information systems. This implies an institutional version of 'flow' as studied by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1991) - increasingly explored in relation to corporations.

These points make it possible to suggest that a desirable form of governance will focus its attention on the emergence and movement of policy-relevant metaphor-models in society. Many possibilities lie in enhancing and ordering that movement, which is better conceived as the life-blood of the international community. The challenge lies in bonding metaphors to concepts to provide vehicles for the latter to move effectively through information and institutional systems - as motivating and reframing concepts rather than solely as part of the streams of information processed.

Governance, and the integrity of the nation-state, is then fundamentally the process of ensuring the emergence and movement of such "guiding" metaphor-models through the information system, as well as their embodiment in organizational form. Such stewardship also requires sensitivity to the decreasing value of any metaphor-model (at the end of its current cycle) and the need to adapt institutions accordingly. The stewardship required of the metaphor-model "gene pool" is analogous to that currently called for in the care of tropical forest ecosystems (as the richest pools of species and as vital to the condition of the atmosphere).

The merit of this vision of nation-state governance to 2015 is that it does not call for a radical transformation of institutions -- which is unlikely in the absence of any major catastrophe. Rather it calls for a change in the way of thinking about what is circulated through society's information systems as the triggering force for any action. At present governance in the international community is haunted by a form of collective schizophrenia -- a left-brain preoccupation with "serious" academic models and administrative programmes, and a right-brain preoccupation with the proclivities of public opinion avid for "meaningful" action (even if "sensational"). This schizophrenic battle between models and metaphors could be resolved by legitimating the metaphoric dimensions already so vital to any motivation of public opinion as a vehicle for the models. There needs to be a two-away flow however from model-to-metaphor and from metaphor-to-model, as in any interesting learning process.

Nation-states will survive and evolve to the extent that they are able to cultivate more attractive, dynamic metaphors as information-interpretation vehicles through which to navigate the complexities of a turbulent society.


Union of International Associations. Web databases access

Union of International Associations:

Union of International Associations. Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. K G Saur Verlag, 3 vols. 1994-5, 4 ed. [commentary]

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow : The Psychology of Optimal Experience. HarperCollins, 1991

Anthony Judge:

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