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Published in International Associations 24, 1972, May, pp. 284-286
Revised from: International Organizations and the Generation of the Will to Change - the Information Systems Required (1970)
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Inter-Agency Coordinating Board are currently looking for new mechanisms via which to improve the UN's contacts with NGOs, to increase the effectiveness of their action during the Second Development Decade. Country level information is a U.N. priority. What are the NGO priorities ? What proposals should be put forward by NGOs's current investigation of the consultative relationship mecha nism ? What independent action should NGOs take ? These are some of the points discussed at the Milan Seminar (May 17-19, 1972) of the Union of International Asso ciations.
Everyone resists changes to the existing méthode of organiza tion, particularly those proposed by outsiders. This is a classic situation. Those in favor of new approaches see the disadvan tages of the old and turn a blind eye to its positive features. Those in favor of continuing the traditional approach consider its faults minor and remediable by gradual improvement, whilst remaining skeptic toward the need for any fundamentally new departures. Perhaps this awkward situation can be bypassed in the case of the needs of the NGOs.
Let all the existing NGO conferences, secretariats, and bureaus and working parties remain as they are, grouping those organi zations which currently attend them. No changes at all are made, so that no one need fear that things are being reorgani zed with unpredictable results :
Suppose that all NGOs, whether in consultative status or not, with a particular agency, are now approached so that :
a) those willing to collaborate would agree to the following only :
-- that their organization's name should be placed on a mailing list
-- that they would either
- Send in to a central secretariat (possibly a commercial secretarial service, it no agreement can be reached on the use of an NGO cooperative or on some operation via any par ticular NGO's secretariat.), periodically, the topics in which they were interested, or
- Answer a standard questionnaire, periodically, iden tifying the topics in which they were interested
-- that the central sécréterait would sort the replies and prepare a combined list of all NGOs interested in a particular topic, and periodically send updated copies of such lists to the NGOs in question
b) those not willing to collaborate but do not object to the following only :
-- that their organization's name should be placed on a mailing list
-- that periodically the centra! secretariat would update the topics in which it was thought the NGO was interes ted
-- that the central secretariat would sort the replies, pre pare combined lists of all NGOs interested in a particu lar topic and periodically send updated copies of such lists to the NGOs in question
Note that no NGO receveiving these lists or sending infor mation to the central secretariat need " recognize "the secretariat or the " potential association ", or any other NGO associated with the potential association. (N.B. For a description of the " potential association " technique, see New types of social entity; the role of the potential association. International Associations, 23, 1971, 3, pp. 148-152).
On the basis of the combined resources of the NGOs currently interested in a given topic, the NGOs in question could arrange by their own independent initiative transient activities of the following type :
Note that no NGO need recognize any NGO not involved in the given transient joint activity in which it is interested -- and of course is in no way obliged to respond to any particular ini tiative from one of the interested NGOs.
Now the existing NGO joint conferences, committees, secreta riats, can be conceived as being structures which have already gelled or crystallized out of the potential association, around particular topics of interest with different degrees of formality and permanence.
But by using the flexibility inherent in the potential association concept, those NGOs involved in any of the existing structures could together, quite independently and where appropriate, and of their own initiative, decide to " dissolve "that particular structure into the potential association, and recrystallize a slightly different structure or simply to create new structures in parallel. The potential association concept facilitates this, and provides such actions with a conceptual and information framework for any such change.
With respect to the UN system and the consultative status mechanism, some new structures which might each be crystal lized out at some future date, when appropriate, only for as long as is necessary (i.e., either once only, periodically, or as a permanent structure) are as follows :
Examples of the different types of existing, permanent and semi-permanent, joint NGO structures are based upon :
Any of the above structures could be rapidly crystallized out of the potential association as the problem situation demanded. The stress should, however, be placed not on the joint NGO NGO or NGO-IGO organizations existing at any particular point in time, but rather on the ability to switch flexibly to other patterns of NGO-NGO or NGO-IGO organization as new pro blems, crises and opportunities arose. These new coordinating or joint bodies might take any of the following forms :
The ideal would be to reach a peak of flexibility at which :
The goal is to have two joint bodies where the division of interests within an existing body warrants this, or conver sely to create one joint body where the overlap of Interests between two existing bodies is sufficiently high. The inten tion should, however, be to facilitate rapid links to both greater subdivision and greater coordination as each problem requires new responses. Loyalty should not be to a fixed pattern of joint activity, but to the most effective new pattern for each new crisis -- namely to the pattern forming potential.
Namely the goal is to have organizations and permanent committees where such are needed, regular meetings only where such are sufficient, and irregular meetings or ad hoc committees when this is all that is necessary. The intention should, however, be to facilitate the rapid changes between one formula and another, to ensure the best possible res ponse, with the least waste of effort in response to each new change in the problem's phases.
A very important feature of this technique is that the multitude of joint conferences organized according to subject, regional, or procedural interests, or geographical location of offices, is then recognized to be the most appropriate response to the need, for contact at that particular point in time. Through the potential association mechanism, attention is constantly drawn to the possibility of other
Any of these might prove to be a more appropriate response at a later point in time. In this way, cumbersome plenary confe rences need only be used when essential. The potential association mechanism is therefore one which keeps the NGO organizational resources in a state of prepared ness for any form of combined activity
The potential association mechanism, therefore, constantly draws attention to new forms of inter-organizational joint activity (irrespective of whether NGO-NGO or NGO-IGO, or even IGO-IGO). Hopefully, this will evolve over time into collaboration of greater and greater effectiveness.
There are two additional features of the potential association mechanism :
a) Just as individual NGOs and their objectives do not benefit in the long run from an isolationist strategy, so the effecti veness of the totality of the NGOs will be severely threa tened unless the improvement of their own mechanism is meshed with that of the national NGO mechanisms which are the base and justification for international activity. In this context, two types of national NGO mechanisms may be distinguished
In this way the international mechanism is constantly faced with the Third World's problems.
b) In a similar manner, it is insufficient for NGOs to be satisfied that NGO-NGO and NGO-IGO, and NGO-national interaction mechanisms are satisfactory. Any NGO-orien ted mechanism must be structured to mesh with IGO-IGO information systems, particularly in the UN system, as they are created. Such information systems, once launched, are liable to develop much more quickly -- if more inflexi bly -- than NGO mechanisms. Nevertheless, it is vital that NGOs systems should be in a position to intereact with IGO systems..
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