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An NGO Collective Long-term Objective

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Printed in: International Associations 24, March, pp. 151-154. [PDF version]
Revised extract from: International Organizations and the Generation of the Will to Change: the information system required (1970)

Joint action, however tentative, needs to be guidedby 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 ide 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 association (USA):

Those in quest of a more effective information system in their field can now be quided by on 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 intereste 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 telecommunicatins 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 NGO's, 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 now and more adequate organizational forms. Advocators of change should be more than willing to preparetheir 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 NGO's 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.

Legal rights

The activities of International NGOs should be facilitated by International conventions covering such points at 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, pp. 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 to 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 aswill be found in post offices) In a manner somewhat analogous to the current automated issue of flight insurance contracts at air terminals.


and the relationship of all three to the future world-wide computerized informationsystem, require careful reexamination of the legal concept of " organization" in relation to the rapidly evolving operational definition particularty In so far as an outdated legal conceptcouldseverely retard, rather thanfacilitate, the evolution of organizationalforms adequate to the problems and opportunities of the future.

External relations

NGOs should be able to eliminateall 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 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 ittends 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 activites is dissipated. Whilst such delays and hindrances are accepted, many potentially valuable contacts are lost - this loss represents a loss resources and support for the whole international network of organizations.

A few years ago, the UAI offered to give some publicity to a booklet on NGOs by one of the NGO corderences. The horrified response of the person responsible was. "But me 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 NGO's are, what they stand for, or what the 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 ofcommon public relations programme could be envisaged which would establish continuing professionalcontact with the press 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". NGOs with one concern lend to view those with another In the same manner as governmental officials view NGOs as whole.

Shared services

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 modem office centre reserved for internationally active non-profit organizations. Such a centre could also house :

b) special services, possibly in the above centre, for organizations not requiring full-time permanent office accomodation:

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. (Undoublecly 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 founds from the commercial sector into the cooperative itself such that the cooperative profits to the bene?? of the grouped NGOs as a whole (e.g. the case where NGOs spend founds 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:

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:

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:

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 penult 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 lor programme funds

Similarly, NGOs should be able to use an information system to locale the most appropriate international and national bodies through which to make available funds for a specific programme. 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 fundsare 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 modiftcation and funding of programmesin response to new problems as they evolve.

Fund transfers

NGOs should be able to reduce the current crude and expensive exchange of correspondance 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.

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 offices (e.g. the developing countries) should be significantly reduced es 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 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 aperson 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 of " multiplier effect " 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

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 use the information system to guide the user, as a " learner ", to greater understanding of a particular subject, programme, or problem areas 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-hold continuous process of interaction 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 signalledto 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 now 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 interested.

Retrieval of information by NGO

Each NGO should feel entirely confident that it will automatically be alerted concerning any of the following eventsaround the world on a given topic:

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 concom, 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 ?argonization of issues and relationships between issues and the need for continuous re-learning, each NGO should feel confident that it 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 auch 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 info 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, re, sources 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 II provisions were not made for the following features :

The stress has been placed upon the perspective of the nongovernmental organizations. But clearly sucha 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 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 of fufilling patterns when the members so choose).

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