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Report of the UN Center for Economic and Social Information (CESI)


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Part of: International Organizations and the Generation of the Will to Change (UAI Study Papers INF/5, 1970)


The UN Preparatory Committee for the Second United Nations Development Decade entrusted to CESI, which is associated with the Office of Public Information, the preparation of a report on the measures undertaken and envisaged "with a view to mobilizing public opinion in regard to the objectives of the Second Development Decade". The Report is also to be considered a response to similar requests "formulated by the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, the UNCTAD Trade and Development Board, and other United Nations bodies." (p.2)

In view of the criticisms made of the Capacity Study and the Pearson Report on the question of public information, this Report clearly represents a "missing link". It is through the measures reviewed in this Report that the "will" to act to support development is to be created.

The second section of the Report consists of an analysis of the "complexity and urgency of the problem". This concludes that: the task of explaining the necessity of promoting economic and social development is "one of the most difficult that Governments and intergovernmental bodies face today"; "development itself is not a simple idea"; "aid is only one factor among the numerous elements required to generate development"; "it would be pointless to continue appealing to individuals, charitable feelings or humanitarian sentiment alone"; "a sense of lasting participation can only result from the prior understanding of the fundamentals of a given situation and the true nature of a problem"; "it is unfortunate that the impression has often been given that formulae could be devised which would bring a rapid solution to one of the most complex and intricate problems of our age. one of the consequences of information programmes which tend to over-emphasize the part played by the United Nations system in the field of development rather than showing the total nature of the problem"; "the consciousness has to be conveyed that unless a global, coordinated and all-out effort is urgently made, our world will continue to drift towards irremediable disequilibrium"; "the thinking which produced the existing information concepts and methods, is no longer relevant or adequate to the present task"; "public opinion, in almost all cases, is national opinion".

From which it follows that: "the task of reaching, the largest possible number of specific groups within the national framework must be the responsibility mainly of national authorities rather than the information services of an international organization such as the United Nations....the task of persuasion must belong to Governments. However, these Governments respond to major national segments of the population -- i.e. business, workers, farmers, teachers, religious leaders and youth. Consequently, these groups have a major role to play. There is thus a two-way f low."

a) Mobilization of will

Mobilizing public opinion, creating a sense of lasting participation, generating the wholehearted support of the general public, and creating will or political will, appear to be treated almost synonymously as the objective to be accomplished by the UN public information effort.

Whilst the desirability of a common will can be clearly seen, are will and public opinion synonymous except in a very superficial sense -- perhaps sufficient for voting purposes? But even if they are not synonymous, does the mobilization of public opinion result in the mobilization of will? These are rather abstruse questions, but the possibility of inferring that will can be mobilized is very clear [As for instance in: Young, Whitney. Suggestions for mobilizing public will to appropriate political action. Ekistics, 28, October 1969, pp. 264-5.]. In a sense, this provides an operational definition of will.

The word "mobilization" has special associations and was clearly chosen for that reason. Just as in the past, people have been mobilized for war, the UN is now proposing to take the lead in mobilizing people for the war on want. From a governmental point of view, there is perhaps little difference. It is (as one dictionary puts it) a case of making the people mobile and readily available and calling into active service in readiness for a course of action decided by government.

The question could however be raised as to whether there were not some attitudes deriving from war psychology which are not directly associated with the mobilization of the public -- such as artificially generating a crisis mentality. Given that it is in the process of mobilization that the people's freedom of action is bent to that of its leaders associated with the government apparatus, once the process of mobilization is completed, a war machine is in being and individual will can no longer be taken into account. It is the psychology of the various stages in this process, which form one topic of peace research.

The question raised here is therefore whether in a free society, and under what conditions, public will can or should be mobilized by government. In addition there is the implied definition of man and human nature, and the rights of man, in the supposition that his will can be bent to suit the government strategy, however benign its intentions. Is the will that can be so induced or manipulated to be considered no different in quality, desirability and durability from self-generated will? These are old questions.

The space devoted to these issues in the Report does not correspond to the number of problems raised by some of their implications. There is a radical difference, as is intended, between informing those members of the public who desire information, and scientifically designing a campaign to influence individuals via the leaders whom they respect. This is very similar to the problem posed by corporations trading in their own shares to control artificially its value in the market. How democratic is the selection of the cause for which people should be mobilized?

There is a total lack of awareness that will should be formed by mature reflection on the part of the individual and not by artificially manipulating his environment. In a democratic society each organized group has the right to attempt to influence the individual. It is from his interaction with these groups -- his total social environment -- his own experiences that his freely chosen course of action -- his will -- germinates. The UN, according to the Report, should intervene in these processes without, as might be considered its responsibility, revealing any understanding of the complexity of the processes involved.

b) Stages in the progressive definition of "want"

At any one point in time, the UN public information programme will have a particular conception of the ends to which public opinion is to be mobilized -- the current definition of "want". Now this definition derives from political processes during which "want" is defined by government positions on programme issues. One may assume a lag of one year between programme formulation and impact of the information programme on the public.

But the government positions are formed as a result of political processes at the national level. One may assume a lag of two years between public sensitivity to a problem and formulation of a government programme on that particular aspect of "want".

On this basis, and it would appear to be a case of underestimating rather than overestimating, the current topics which are stressed in the UN public information programme are those which individuals and groups in a significant number of countries were sensitive to three or more years ago. The countries in which this is the case will be precisely those developed countries from which it is desired that more aid should be obtained. But, according to this argument, the individuals and groups and particularly the elite, will now be aware of aspects of "want" three years in advance of those to which the UN system is permitted to be sensitive in providing "global directions".

There is no question that the UN system will help to reinforce government positions on issues of "want" but will its programmes be as forward looking as the views of the elite it is trying to influence? And if not, will this not give rise to the frustration that jeopardizes the image of the UN at the national level as a growth point for change?

The Report suggests that in future the information programme should not over-emphasize the part played by the UN system in the field of development but should show the "total nature of the problem", "the fundamentals of the situation and the true nature of a problem" and the need for a "global, coordinated and all-out effort" (p. 5). The Capacity Study however indicated that no one in the UN system had a clear view of the totality of UN operations. How then is the public information programme to acquire information on the totality of UN and non-UN operations to show the total nature of the problem? Furthermore, given that the definition of the problem and what is "true" takes place at the national level and in non-political bodies, how is the UN to acquire the complete picture, given that it is only sensitive to an earlier definition of the true ramifications of the problem?

The assumption made by the Report is that the UN knows what the critical problems are and is in a position to define them for the public and to lead the way. This may be true in the case of the developing countries, but takes no account of the intellectual expertise in the developed countries that are not drawn into the UN orbit -- the Capacity Study noted this problem with respect to management expertise.

Who determines what the total nature of the problem is, how is this shown, and what is the function of a group which considers that there is an extra element to be added to, presumably the UN's, finally agreed version of what the total nature of the problem is?

The Report notes three flows of information: UN to Government, Government to group; and group to Government. Under "group" is meant the elite leaders of the groups. This would appear to be a highly simplified analysis of the processes involved. It would appear to ignore: other intergovernmental bodies (some with important development concerns); once again the international non-governmental bodies which are extremely interested in influencing their national member groups; and the complexity of inter-organization structure at the national level which does not only give rise to groups of people, but groups which group groups and so on. Each extra level may either be an opportunity or an information filter.

c) Meaning of "groups"

The use of the word "groups" has been very subtly phrased. Clearly it may imply either an organized or an unorganized group depending on to whom the information programme is being justified. Consider: "Governments respond to major national segments of the population -- i.e. business, workers, farmers, teachers, religious leaders and youth. Consequently these groups have a major role to play." (p. 7)

This in no way implies the involvement of national and local organizations in the information programme. The object of the programme is to influence the leadership, "public opinion responds to leadership". Note it is not the members of a non-governmental body which respond to leadership, just the public en masse. But consider the following comment concerning:

"the whole concept of concentrating one's efforts in molding public opinion by trying to influence an "elite", who are then expected to provide the leadership in mobilizing public opinion...I would point out that even the most influential individuals need institutional machinery to carry their influence to others (and incidentally to reinforce their own convictions) NGOs are groups of like-minded people who have come together because of the need to establish institutional associations for pragmatic reasons, social pressure, or idealism....

In order to execute these programmes these groups have institutional machinery to communicate with their members and to secure their support or acquiescence for the organization's programme and/or platform. It would be the hope of any strategy to use the organizational machinery, although taking advantage of this machinery is not easy, for these organizations are set up for their own purpose, and not for other organizations' purposes. (This is where the United Nations' attitude is so often frustrating to NGOs)." (Roosevelt, Curtis. The politics of development: a role for interest and pressure groups. Paper presented to an SID Conference, New Delhi, 1969).

It would appear that the Report is only interested in the UN, Government, leaders and the public. Once again there is a total lack of interest in the social structure. And yet the Report can state: "the social component is in fact the one of ultimate importance". The definition of "social" however is tied very closely to that of social welfare, very close to the economists recognition of this term as important to the working environment: "the social component is concerned with the objectives of health, education and those things which in the end affect the spirit of man as well as with problems such as the population explosion, the basic reasons for starvation and malnutrition." (p. 4)

d) Consequences of development

It is quite clear that the proposed public information programme is to be geared entirely to development. It will be organized solely for that purpose. The philosophy of the programme has been thought out with that in mind.

The debate at the national level is however turning strongly in the developed countries to problems of pollution and the environment. Given the earlier argument that there is a time lag before UN programmes incorporate the latest national thinking, it would appear that either the philosophy of the Report will have to be modified within one or two years, or else it will be argued that development programmes include environmental programmes anyway, or finally a separate environmental public information programme may be set up to contact the same "groups" at the national level. The essence of the information problem, namely that it is not only the development problem in itself which is complex, but that there is a control problem of balancing between maximum development and minimum pollution, which could be beneficially based on an integrated information programme, is not recognized.

e) Target audience data bank service

The Report mentions as possible activities what seem to be fairly standard public information procedures: readerships symposia, briefing papers, field trips, involvement of youth (student speakers), films. It does not mention the most significant activity of CESI which is described in a later report entitled "The Target Audience Data Bank Service" (CESI/PC.69-13)

In this document it is stated that CESI has as one of its basic objectives "the channeling of selected information on social and economic activities to distinct categories of opinion-making and decision-making elites in each country." The Service "is designed as an inter-Agency cooperative undertaking for the sharing, compilation and maintenance of individual, organizational and statistical data on all such audiences..."

It has been found that there exists in the UN system "a huge fund of audience data, amounting to well over one million names and addresses" which it would be possible to put on computer for use by the UN Agencies.

According to the document "CESI's own original idea of the Service as a single, centralized, computer facility quickly gave way (after visits to many Agencies) to the concept for a central factory for audience data feeding computer-usable the various computer installations within the UN system." It would seem that individual Agencies did not wish to lose control over their own confidential lists.

"To possess information is to possess power. A monopoly of information can give a form of security. There are, in all organizations at all levels, a selective withholding and extending of information. Sole possession of information can make others dependent on oneself. Withholding of information can knit the scope and power of others, actions and reduce the threat to oneself. Control of information channels can isolate certain persons from the remainder of the organization and keep them within one's own sphere of influence." (Forrester, J.W. A new corporate design. In: Jantsch, Erich, Perspectives on Planning, Paris, OECD, 1969, p. 435)

The organization of the data nevertheless highlights the individual, the leader. The organization with which he is concerned, if any, seems to be a secondary feature. The system is now being implemented.

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