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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 he 10 or 15 years hence ? What do NGOs expect to be achieveing 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 mill 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) :
"Thoese 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 bo more than willing to prepare their organizations and mode of operations for the consequences of the changes they advocate - or else find theirresolutions faced with the rétorque "Physician heal thyself". It is precisely this remark which may émarge 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.
a - Legal Rights
The activities of international NGOs should be facilitated by international conventions covering such points as the following :
- Organization rights
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 "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
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 mill be found in post offices) in a manner somewhat analogous to the current automated issue of flight insurance contracts at air terminals. The:
and the relationship of all three to the future world-wide computerized information system, require careful re-examination 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.
b - Shared Services
Each NGO should be able to have access to a pool of shored services in the cities in which it has offices. These services might, as appropriate, take the form of any or all of the following:
- low cost rental in a modern office centre reserved for internationally active non-profit organizations. Such a centre could also house:
- special services, possibly in the above centre, for organizations not requiring full-time permanent office accommodation: - 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, record 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 natural disaster. - 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 audio-visual equipment.
- UN and UN Agency Information Offices, and in the developing countries, the UN Agency Representative responsible for coordinating 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 developed with INGOs. This approach would counter the current tendency for 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 programmeimplementers.
- National institutes of international relations ( and the associated libraries) 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.
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 bo 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 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 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. NewYork 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 :
- in inadequate office accommodiation 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....such conditions should be eliminated. With regard to the last point, 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, multi-agency programmes which must be developed and implemented in response to increasingly complex global problems. A network of international centres is a step in the right direction.
c - Funds
NGOs have four problems with regard to funds which should be overcome :
d - External relations
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 "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 inquiterbefore 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.
e - Communication Requirements
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 office (e.g. to the developing countries) should be significantly reduced as a factor hindering NGO activity. This could take the form of : subsidized direct téléphona lines between NGO centres permitting "conference calls", subsidized telex lines, data links, etc.
- 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 a 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 stop.
- 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 effact" on the solution to a series of dependent problems.
- 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 information.
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" to information sent on the basis of any such new understanding of the relationship between problem areas.
- Inability to understand: It should be possible to usethe 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, jargonization and the pace of change oblige everyone to continually re-learn 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 intersection with a world-wide information system:
- Supply of information by NGO Each NGO should be able to supply to the system the details of:
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 automaticall to new opportunities or dangers related to matters in which they are currently interested.
- Retrieval of information by NGO: Each NGO should feel entirely confident that it will automatically be alerted concerning any of the following events around the world on a given topic:
In addition each NGO should feel confident that 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 complexityand 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 instructual techniques.
Each NGO should be able to make use ofsuch 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 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 "boderline 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:
The stress had 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 a series of ad hoc organizations on a given topic. (In this may the currently immutable organization is established within the information system as a temporary pattern of relationships between individuals or other organizations -- to bo dissolved in favor of more useful or fulfilling patterns when the members so choose.)
this work is licenced under a creative commons licence.