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Yesterday's Problems or Tomorrow's Problems

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Part B of: Next Step in Inter-organizational Relationships (1971)

Notes on the problems associated with the current crisis in the relations between intergovernmental and nongovernmental bodies, with particular regard to the United Nations Specialized Agencies and the consultative status arrangement. Distributed by the Union of International Associations as UAI Study Papers ORG/1.


There are two possible NGO attitudes to change:

1) NGOs adopting the passive attitude wait until events in their environment force them to make a decision and modify their activities.In this situation all initiative is left to other bodies. It is not necessary to waste time planning for the future because the NGO can wait for the hypothetical future to become the present before acting.

2) NGOs adopting the active attitude examine the future -- whether 5, 10, 20 or 30 years ahead -- to see what problems and opportunities will present themselves. On the basis of this assessment they take decisions today to prepare to meet these problems in the manner most advantageous for the objectives of the NGO.

Those who ignore the problems of the future -- and the opportunities which will be available for their solution -- will be swamped by those problems, to which they will be largely irrelevant.

The active attitude demands that NGOs:

(a) find out what is possible and

(b) decide what they want, in the way of

at different periods in the future: 1972, 1975, 1980, 1985, 1990. Given a recognition of what they want, concrete steps can be taken to plan and act to achieve what is required in the light of the problems and opportunities available.

Just as buildings are no longer built to last hundreds of years-- because the owners realize that a new structure will be required in 10 or 15 years -- so organizational and consultative machinery should not be designed as though it were going to be adequate to the problems and opportunities 5 years hence.

Either of the above attitudes may be taken with respect to consultative status and NGO joint activity.

To date, the passive attitude has been taken. No consultative status conference has yet suggested that the probable situation of NGOs 20, or even 5, years from now should be examined and prepared for. The whole current debate arises because the UN system attitude and practice with respect to NGOs has changed. The change has come from the UN side and the NGOs are quite unprepared.

But the passive attitude extends even further, the NGO proposals made for change in the machinery are merely proposals to adapt to the changes already made in the UN system. The NGOs are planning for the evanescent present -- which becomes the past overnight -- and ignoring:

The emphasis should be placed on the ability to reorganize collectively, rapidly, and flexibly, in response to new problems, instead of creating cumbersome machinery, positions, and committees, which must, quite naturally, attempt to justify their own relevance to whatever problems may arise even though they may be incapable of undertaking an adequate response.

Is it the preservation of an organizational mechanism or the accomplishment of its objective that is most important? A savage reminder by Donald Schon (BBC Reith Lecturer, 1970). is that many organizations currently active constitute "a series of memorials to old problems."

It is most encouraging to note the theme of the 1971 Spring seminar in Torremolinos of the Catholic International Union for Social Service, namely, "Subir les changements ou les prevenir."

It is even more encouraging to note the following, from a speech by Henrik Bear, Secretary General of the League of Red Cross Societies, at the 15th International Conference on Social Welfare:

"The fantastic rate of change in society has forced us all -- governments, professionalbodies, volunteer organizations -- to re-evaluate much more frequently than before our goals, objectives and techniques. This means we can wipe the slate clean to some extent. Problems which concerned voluntary agencies only a short time ago are no longer, if still existing, of primary importance.

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