An NGO Collective Long-Term Objective
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Published in International Associations 24, 1972, March, pp. 151-154.
Revised extract from: International
Organizations and the Generation of the Will to Change: the information system
Joint action, however tentative, needs to be guided by some insight into the
direction in which it is desirable to move. Where do NGOs want to be 10 or 15
years hence? What do NGOs except to be achieving at that time ? What mechanisms
do they expect to be using ?
These are questions worthy of very careful study. Similar studies have been
made in other fields which have noted the, possibilities of dramatic changes
in organizational life generally. How can an NGO act now to ensure that it will
be relevant to the problems of the near and more distant future ?
As an indication of how such an objective is formulated, the following is cited
from the preface to a study by the Committee on Bibliographical and Documentation
Services. (Chairman L. Larry Leonard), of the needs of members of the International
Studies Association (USA) :
Those in quest of a more effective information system in their field can
now be guided by an image of the ideal drawn in bold strokes by the National
Academy of Science's Committee on Information in the Behavioral Sciences under
the Chairmanship of David Easton. The ideal is here portrayed as a 'computer
analogue of the available, intelligent, and informed colleague'.
Such an ideal colleague would read widely, have total recall, evaluate what
he read; he would be able to reorganize materials, recognize fruitful analogies,
and synthesize new ideas. In addition, the ideal colleague would always be
accessible and available to all, either in person or by phone. Finally, he
would be aware of the general interests and current problems of each scientist,
and he could adapt both the content and style of his communications to each
researcher's knowledge, skills and habits.
To approximate this ideal, and perhaps one day achieve it, requires the fashioning
of a complex of components incorporating computer and telecommunications technology
This shows the scholar's ideal environment. Could NGO's define their own ideal
working environment as a guide both to their own actions and to those of the
governmental bodies with which they are in contact ?
It is curious that NGOs, who are so forward thinking with respect to the desirable
changes that need to be made in the world, are so reticent and apparently lacking
in courage on the question of the impact of these changes on their own methods
of organization, operation and cooperation
- whereas paradoxically it is the organizations which are least concerned
with the future of the world as such (rather than for their own benefit) that
are most creative and imaginative in the evolution of new and more adequate
organizational forms. Advocators of change should be more than willing to prepare
their organizations and mode of operations for the consequences of the changes
they advocate - or else find their resolutions faced with the retort .
Physician heal thyself . It is precisely this remark which may emerge from the
debate within the UN on the function of NGOs and the consultative relationship.
In the following sections an attempt is made to summarize some of the features
of an ideal NGO working environment to stimulate debate on these matters.
The activities of international NGOs should be facilitated by international
conventions covering such points as the following :
- international legal status (whether 'recognized' by UN Agencies
or not) and special status in the countries in which it has its offices.
- right to be informed of programmes, problems and organizations affecting
its area of subject, programme or problem competence.
- right to exercise activities in other countries.
- right to negotiate and be represented at governmental meetings on its special
field of competence.
- right of participation in the formulation of programmes to combat social
problems which are its special field of competence.
- right of its national member bodies to participate fully in international
- right to inviolability of offices as well as correspondence and telephone
- right to protection of funds and assets against intervention by public authorities.
- right of access to media of mass communications.
- right to protection against any discrimination in matters of affiliation
- right of access to voluntary coniliation and arbitration procedures.
- right of members to further education and training.
These rights should be recognized as a natural extension of human rights, necessary
for the adequate protection of the latter. (This list, with the exception of
the first two points, is an adaptation of that established by the Committee
on Trade Union Rights of the International Labour Conference, 54th Session (1970)
in a resolution on trade union rights and their relation to civil liberties.
The ILO Director-General is instructed by the Governing Body to o undertake
further comprehensive studies and to prepare reports on law and practice
in relation to these rights with respect to trade unions.
See also: The Universal
Declaration of the Rights of Human Organization; an experimental extension of
the, Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man International Associations,
1971, January, p. 7-26.
Rights of NGO staff
- rights to certain privileges and immunities during the course of their
service with the NGO, particularly with respect to travel documents, residential
requirements, taxation, social security andpension rights.
The international conventions required should not function so as to favour
the creation and continued existence of permanent organizations (tending to
decay into a series of memorials to old problems but should be structured so
as to facilitate the formation and operation of ad hoc, transient, short-life
bodies constituted and dissolved rapidly in response to specific problems. Hopefully
legal recognition of both national and international bodies can be automated
to the point at which (possibly provisional) registration of both the organization
and its interests can be made at one of many computer terminals (such as will
be found in post offices) in a manner somewhat analogous to the current automated
issue of flight insurance contracts at air terminals.
- transient nature of organizations linking a rapid ly-changing network
of bodies and individuals
- need for rapid legal recognition
- need for sophisticated weighted voting procedures to permit the existence
of more complex organizational patterns (on this point see International
Associations, 1970 February, pp. 67-79).
and the relationship of all three to the future world-wide computerized
information system, require careful reexamination of the legal concept of ~
organization, in relation to the rapidly evolving operational definition -
particularly in so far as an outdated legal concept could severely retard, rather
than facilitate, the evolution of organizational forms adequate to the problems
and opportunities of the future.
NGOs should be able to eliminate all the current delays in their contacts with
intergovernmental organizations, other nongovernmental organizations, multinational
corporations and the mass media, whether these take the form of initiative from
the NGO or from outside in response to the NGO's programme. In particular the
relationship between organizations and potential members, supporters or users
of the NGO's information should be considerably accelerated.
It is very important when an outside body desires to make contact to be able
to respond before the interest a wears off, as it tends to do rapidly at the
moment with the delays built into the postal system and the procedures before
a letter can be appropriately answered. The goal for NGOs is to be able to respond
to an inquirer before his "thinking momentum" inrelation to the NGO's
activities is dissipated.
Whilst such delays and hindrances are accepted, many potentially valuable contacts
are lost. This loss represents a loss of resources and support for the whole
international network of organizations.
A few years ago, the UIA offered to give some publicity to a booklet on NGOs
issued by one of the NGO conferences. The horrified response of the person responsible
was, 'But we do not want any publicity'. And yet Curtis Roosevelt,
Chief of the ECOSOC NGO Section, has repeatedly stressed that government delegates
still do not know what NGOs are, what they stand for, or what they contribute
to the UN system (or any government operation, for that matter). This is a major
reason for the negative votes on NGOs in government assemblies.
Some form of common public relations programme could be envisaged which would
establish continuing professional contact with the pres s and news media around
the world - regularly feeding them copy on NGOs. A fundamental problem
is that NGOs lack a public image and operate in a vacuum of recognition at the
transnational level. Not only do they lack a public image, but NGOs in general
do not respond to the label - NGO v. NGOs with one concern tend to view
those with another in the same manner as governmental officials view NGOs as
Each NGO should be able to have access to a pool of shared services in the
cities in which it has offices. These services might, as appropriate, take the
form of any or all of the following:
a) low cost rental in a modern office centre reserved for internationally
active non-prof it organizations. Such a centre could also house :
- UN and LIN Agency Information Offices, and in the developing countries,
the UN Agency Repre sentative responsible for coordina ting country-level
international activity. This would facilitate IGO INGO interaction and would
ensure optimum use of UN information, especially if an integrated library
information service could be de veloped with [NGOs. This approach would counter
the current tendency to r information services to be underused and therefore
ineffective. - National Commissions of UNESCO and other Agencies.
- National NGOs with international activities.
- National inter-NGO organizations. This would facilitate interaction
between the national and international levels.
- Foundations interested in international activities. This would improve
understanding between fund sources and programme-implementers.
- National institutes of international relations (and the associated Iilibraries)
to facilitate interaction between academic and operational programmes.
- International press agencies, both as a source of information and a means
of increasing knowledge of NGOs and their programmes.
See also, separate article Shared NGO Services, this issue, p. 155
b) special services, possibly in the above centre, for organizations
not, requiring full-time permanent office accomodation :
- temporary offices on an hourly or daily basis for small organizations requiring
only a part-time secretariat and for visiting representatives of organizations
based in other countries.
- letter boxes for the mail of organizations without fixed permanent offices
but requiring a permanent mailing address.
- temporary offices for ad hoc, project or campaign organizations, particularly
those constituted at short notice in response to natural disasters. shared
use of high-quality modern office equipment (duplicators, offset, photocopy,
addressograph, accounting machines, franking machines, etc.) which are not
economically justifiable for a single organization. services which can be
associated with the presence of many NGOs in the same building (telephone
exchange permitting "conference calls", receptionist, porter/messenger
/handyman /concierge, cafeteria /restaurant, travel agent, bank, post office,
telephone answering service, telex, reception area/reading room, library,
film, library, videotape library, photograph library, re co rd fire /theft
security vaults, etc.)
- joint services which can be run under contract 'for groups of interested
NGOs (mailing and despatch services, accounting / book-keeping, duplicating
and printing, copy typing, typing of letters dictated onto tape, office cleaning,
secretariat administration, use of computer time for mailing and research,
publication sales and distribution services, bulk purchases of office stationery
and supplies, etc.)
- professional services (accountant, lawyer/tax consultant, translators, interpreters,
congress organizers, fund raisers, agents to obtain paid advertising for insertion
in NGO periodicals, public relations officer, press and information service,
librarian, abstractor, consultants on the formation, organization or programme
implementation of NGOs, consultants on governmental relations, etc.)
- shared addresses for distribution of periodicals or sales literature (e.g.
conference reports to UN Agencies, or publication lists to libraries) or for
the galvanization of a network of agencies and fund sources in response to
- collective or shared representation services, particularly to resolve the
problem of adequate NGO representation at meetings of UN Agencies with which
they have consultative status. (This rather resembles the type of representation
which a country's diplomatic service offers its many government departments,
businesses, cultural organizations etc.). Also the need for effective lobbying.
Such services could also be made available on a reciprocal basis to NGOs which
do not have their offices in that city, in exchange for representation at
Agency meetings in other cities.
- shared meeting rooms with simultaneous interpretation and audiovisual equipment.
Any or all of the above services could be run as a cooperative. This is a thoroughly
explored formula for partially associating independent agents in a limited collective
enterprise. (Undoubtedly the views of the International Cooperative Alliance
would be most valuable on this point). It is very important to note that the
more services that NGOs succeed in pooling the more their overhead expenses
will be reduced whilst at the same time diverting funds from the commercial
sector into the cooperative itself such that the cooperative profits to the
benefit of the grouped NGOs as a whole (e.g. the case where NGOs spend funds
in their own cafeteria/ restaurant).
There is no reason why the existence of the cooperative should not be the basis
for a number of other services:
- sharing of some staff over holiday periods.
- group insurance and pension schemes for secretarial and other staff in'
the centre who might otherwise be tempted to seek employment where there
is greater long-term security.
Nor is there any reason why the he centre, as a cooperative, should not come
to an agreement with other centres in other countries to facilitate:
- mobility of secretariats and the establishment of regional or subsidiary
- 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 there national equivalents.
If it is desirable that NGOs should be strong and effective in their chosen
domain, then any problem or weakness they may have through being forced to work
as follows, should be eliminated :
- in inadequate office accommodation which may discourage important contacts
as being a symptom of functional inadequacy.
- with out of date equipment which produces poor quality results slowly.
- without the benefits of a multitude of ancillary services.
- physically isolated from other NGOs with whom frequent contact could be
of benefit to the NGO's operations and the initiation of joint activity.
Research on creativity shows that a certain minimum number of people active
in the same domain need to be subject to frequent face-to-face
contact (e.g. coffee breaks) to provide the "critical mass" necessary
for new and imaginative solutions to a problem to be envisaged. It seems to
have been forgotten that NGOs, collectively, contain amongst themselves all
the expertise, in the form of professional services, needed to make their
combined operations highly successful. NGOs should perhaps consider these,
points in relation to the needed imaginative, multi-disciplinary, multiagency
programmes which must be developed and implemented in response to increasingly
complex global problems. A network of international centres is a step in the
The poor working' conditions described above should be eliminated.
NGOs have four problems with regard to funds which should be overcome :
- Locating fund sources
- NGOs should be able to use an information system to locate individuals,
foundations and governmental programmes interested in making funds available
to NGOs in specific programme areas rather than depend on chance contact as
at present. Similarly the information system should permit the NGO to be located
by such bodies.
- The time taken for communication to be established should be reduced to
a matter of days or, in the case of natural disaster, to hours.
- Locating channels for programme funds
Similarly, NGOs should be able to use an information system to locate the most
appropriate international and national bodies through which to make available
funds for a specific pro- gramme. As above, in the case of natural disaster,
the time for communication to be established should be reduced to hours.
Fund redistribution: NGOs should be able to overcome the difficulty
whereby funds are voted every two or more years for programmes which may become
irrelevant during that period in comparison with the need for new programmes
adapted to newly detected problems in the NGO's domain. Flexible fund allocation
and distribution techniques developed from the programme planning and budgeting
system (PPBS) should permit rapid and continuous modification and funding of
programmes in response to new problems as they evolve.
Fund transfers: NGOs should be able to reduce the current crude and
expensive exchange of correspondence which occurs before a potential member
or supporter transfers funds for dues or in support of a particular programme.
Each action of the NGO reported through the information system should result
in automatic fund transfers from supporters to the NGO's account (and from there
to programme accounts). This would be done as an extension of the current use
of credit cards to permit fund transfers to be registered via computer data
links across a city.
NGOs should be able to work with communication equipment which can overcome
the following barriers to communication
Distance: The geographical separation of NGO main offices (e.g. New
York, Geneva, Paris, London, Brussels, etc.) and NGO regional and national branch
offices (e.g. the developing countries) should be significantly reduced as a
factor hindering NGO activity.
This could take the form of: subsidized direct telephone lines between NGO
centres permitting "conference calls", subsidized telex lines, data
Locating appropriate contacts: The momentum of NGO activity should not
be lost at any stage because it is impossible to obtain the contact address
of it person or organization (known or unknown) responsible for a given topic
or programme. This should apply not only with regard to single contacts but
also to multiple contacts (e.g. locating people or bodies which might wish to
participate in a given project; setting up a mailing list for the distribution
of a fact sheet during the life-cycle of some crisis). A series of international
referral centres may be an intermediate step.
Locating key problem areas: The momentum of NGO activity should not
be diverted temporarily into operational cul-de-sacs at any -stage
because of assumptions (known by some NGO in the organizational network to be
incorrect) about the relationship, or lack of relationship between, subject,
programme or problem areas. The communication equipment should guide the NGO
user across discipline boundaries in locating the key problem areas (and corresponding
contacts) where use of minimum resources has a maximum chain-reaction
or "multiplier effect" on the solution to a series of dependent
Information overload: NGOs should be able to use the information system
to register (on a daily or weekly basis) precisely
- those fields in which they are interested
- those fields which some consider relevant to their own but in which they
are not interested
with the assurance that this will ensure that other bodies will automatically
send documents, etc., corresponding to these limits - thus eliminating
the need to receive and read piles of documents to locate a few items of relevant
The interests registered by the NGO may be interpreted by other bodies as being
related (in terms of their perspective) to other subject, programme or problem
areas in which -the NGO should be interested and about which it may not
be aware. The receiving NGO should recognize that it is essential for it to
remain "open" information sent on the basis of any such new understanding
of the relationship between problem areas.
Inability to understand: It should be possible to use the information
system to guide the user, as a "learner" to greater understanding of
a particular subject, programme, or problem area as it proves increasingly significant
to his NGO. This feature will become increasingly important as specialization,
organization and the pace of change oblige everyone to re-learn continually
to be able to respond to advances in understanding in their own fields.
Each NGO, and eventually each individual, should be able to participate in
a two-fold continuous process of interaction with a world-wide information
- supplying specialized data to the system within its field of special competence
for the benefit of its members and other users
- retrieving information f rom the system on matters which it considers relevant
to its field of competence or essential to the administration of its programme.
Supply of information by NGO: Each NGO should be able to supply to the
system the details of :
- its future meetings and the subs tantive matter topics to be discussed
- topics of resolutions arising from meetings
- topics of new projects or programmes on which the NGO is engaged
- new problems which it believes it has detected
- topics of new reports which it has produced
- names and addresses of contacts of the NGO who should be alerted automatically
if information on a given topic enters the system anywhere around the world.
Each NGO should feel assured that every "event" which it supplies
with reference to a given topic is automatically signalled to IGOs, NGOs, governments,
universities, etc., around the world which have already indicated continuing
interest in that topic to the system.
Due to increasingly rapid evaluation in understanding of the many fruitful
alternative ways of categorizing, ordering, and interrelating disciplines and
problems, each NGO should feel confident that each of its new insights into
significant interrelationships across accepted subject boundaries can be made
known to the system in order to draw the attention of other bodies automatically
to new opportunities or dangers related to matters in which they are currently
Retrieval of information by NGO: Each NGO should feel entirely con-,
fident that it will automatically be alerted concerning any of the following
events around the world on a given topic :
- plans for or invitations to meetings
- proposals for or action on a pro gramme
- proposals for the creation of an organization
- reports or documents - resolutions formulated
- names and addresses (where nonconfidential) of persons or organizations
active on a given topic
- contracts or funds availability for programmes.
In addition each NGO should feel confident if a new problem is detected in
some other subject area which in any way affects its own field of concern, then
this relationship will be automatically signalled so that the NGO can begin
to receive information on events concerning the new topic as they affect its
field of competence.
Furthermore, given the increasing complexity and jargonization of issues and
relationships between issues and the need for continuous re-learning,
each NGO should feel confident that if issues or relationships are signalled
by the system which, though supposedly relevant (due to some one's new insight),
cannot be comprehended, then the system can be used in such a way as to make
the relevance clear, using audio-visual instructional techniques.
Each NGO should be able to make use of such a sophisticated information system
in the full knowledge that the cost to the NGO of entering any event into the
system will be shared equitably between the NGO (wishing to inform certain categories
of persons or organizations) and persons or organizations (wishing to be informed
on the topic in question). And in addition, when neither the budget of the NGO
nor that of the bodies desiring to receive the information (i.e., low resource
bodies or those of "borderline relevance", from the sender's viewpoint)
will ensure that the information is transferred, resources from agencies interested
in. subsidizing Communications on the topic in question should automatically
be drawn upon to maximize the number of bodies contacted.
The existence of such a world information system would be a disaster rather
than a boon if provisions were not made for the following features :
- means of insuring that the very existence of the system does not create
an elite of users and a multitude of organizations and persons excluded from
participation because of costs or other criteria (creating a further gap bedeveloped
and developing countries).
- means of administering the system to be as loose, open, and democratic
as possible, such that no group can control its use or misuse the data it
- means of using the system such as to permit NGOs to detect, make known and
democratically counteract use made of it which they, consider unbeneficial.
The stress has been placed upon the perspective of the nongovernmental organizations.
But clearly such a world information system would be of diminished value without
the full participation of governmental and profit-oriented bodies, with
programmes on problems of significance to society as a whole. Given the increasing
importance of ad hoc bodies and the shorter life cycles of organizations, it
is essential to extend participation to active individuals who as potential
members, executives, consultants, representatives, initiators of new programmes,
or detectors of new problems, are the key to society's response to crisis, as
well as being, in many cases, the sole continuing link between 6 series of ad
hoc organizations on a given topic. (In this way the currently immutable organization
is established within the information system as a temporary pattern of relationships
between individuals or other organizations - to be dissolved in favor
of more useful or fulfilling patterns when the members so choose.).