in search of a new style
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Originally published in International Associations, 1973, pp. 398-404 [PDF version] as an abridged and modified version of the final part of the report of Seminar on the Philosophy and Functioning of International Nongovernmental Organization (Milan, May 1972). Later published in: The Open Society: report of a seminar to reflect on the network of international associations (Brussels, Union of International Associations, 1973, pp. 115-132). Also versions: Français, Nederlands, Espagnol, Italiano, Deutsch.
I. Meeting Style
II. Shared Facilities
III. Information and Communication
IV. New Styles of Organization
V. Changes in Intergovernmental Secretariats
VI. Legal Recognition of International Non-governmental Organizations
VII. Social Recognition
The following points must be borne in mind in identifying practical changes for future organizational action (see also Principles of Transnational Action):
On this basis, the following suggestions for future action can be made:
Suggestion for "Multi-meetings"
This section is a a summary of: The use of "multi-meeting"; proposal for an improvement to NGO/UN
There is an increasing use of parallel or concurrent group and commission meetings during a conference of organization representatives over several days. At the present these groups are usually part of a single conference structure which is organized by an Executive Committee with pre-defined procedural and substantive commitments. These commitments do not facilitate unpremeditated informal contact between organization representatives attending the Conference. It is now generally agreed that such contacts are often the most fruitful consequence of large meetings.
As a relatively simple change of procedure which does not imply any "massive structural reorganization" of inter-organizational relations, several Conferences of organization representatives could be scheduled to take place at the same place during the same time period, instead of being held at different places at different times. In other words, without in any way linking them together procedurally, it would be quite possible to hold the sessions and group meetings of different Conferences in the same physical complex of buildings, in the same way as group meetings for one Conference are currently arranged (e.g. in neighbouring conference rooms with common reception and refreshment areas).
The only link required between the Conferences is a contact committee to arrange for the room allocations. This avoids the many political and procedural difficulties which normally emerge when any such communication is suggested. Such a "multi-meeting" seems a particularly appropriate means of facilitating contact between the:
There is a very considerable overlap in membership and interests between these bodies (See International Associations, 1971, 6. p. 357-359).
A number of international organizations run Conferences at which smaller organizations also meet. Perhaps the most developed example of what is suggested is the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at which 39 other bodies hold sessions (in 1971). Some 10,000 scientists (professionals and amateurs from the general public) register and attend any of 150 group sessions in 49 concurrent subject streams. Some 700 papers are presented. Large meetings within the frame work are addressed by international political and scientific personalities.
Suggestion for "Transnational Centres"
On this topic see also: International Associations, 24, 1972, 3. p. 151-154, p. 155-157.
Whether in capital cities of developing or developed countries, the offices of international non-governmental organizations are usually scattered so that face-to-face contact between organization staff members is infrequent. Organizations are often poorly housed and equipped.
In some cities, notably New York, Geneva and Paris, some organizations are grouped together within the same office building. They may or may not share facilities such as a conference room, restaurant, receptionist, library, etc. This formula is however very suggestive as a model for the future.
There seems to be a strong case for encouraging the construction of such "transnational centres" and for developing the administrative techniques for sharing certain facilities and equipment in an economically viable manner.
The best example of an international centre is the Centre International Varembé opposite the Palais des Nations in Geneva in which some 20 international organizations have offices. Little attempt however has been made to share facilities (e.g. meeting rooms) or equipment, and to make of it a centre of informal contact independent of the United Nations complex.
Even more suggestive of future trends is the network of world trade centres now being set up (built: New York, Tokyo, New Orleans, Seoul, Wellington, Brussels; being built: London, Madrid; planned: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, New Delhi .Paris, Singapore, Antwerp). Yet according to The Economist (12 February 1972) few people in business or government anywhere even know what a world trade centre is, far less have any views on whether it is a good thing.
The idea, according to The Economist, is very simple. Time and money can be saved by concentrating trade facilities in one place. The centres provide space for offices, exhibitions, conference rooms, ancillary facilities (post office, telex rooms, secretarial services, etc.). Some have hotel and entertainment facilities attached. Ultimately the intention is to link all the world trade centres with direct telephone lines and television hook-ups so that conferences can be held in several centres simultaneously. A world data bank of trade and contact information with instant information will be available via satellite at any one of them. Such plans are made through the World Trade Centres Association.
It could be considered urgent that the concentration and interconnection of such facilities for the benefit of the multinational profit bodies should be counterbalanced by the creation of a parallel network to facilitate international programme action on the part of voluntary and intergovernmental bodies.
The Problems and some Suggestions
By definition international organizations are faced with the need to communicate over very long distances. The efficiency of this communication is vital to the effectiveness of the organization and its programmes. But the "distances" involved are not only physical. There are several barriers to communication which can be summarized as follows:
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 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 someone's new insight), cannot be comprehended, then the system can be used in such a way as to make the relevance clear, using audiovisual 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 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.
It is possible to design computer based information systems to assist in this process of information exchange. They do not have to be high-cost, hightechnology systems and can make use of existing installations. Note for example, a review of the U.N. Capacity Study (Anthony Judge, International Organizations and the Generation of the Will to Change; information systems required. Brussels, Union of International Associations, 1970; Acquisition and organization of international documentation (Panel report to a 1972 UN1TAR Symposium). Geneva, UNITAR, 1972. For the potential of such systems, even if exclusive, see: United Nations Association of the USA. Space communications; increasing UN responsiveness to the problems of mankind. New York, UN/USA, 1972.
Current systems planned by or suggested for inter-governmental bodies make no provision for access by non-governmental bodies . However data on the latter will be registered so that they can be propagandized and used. This strategy is self-defeating in the long run.
There are a number of dangers associated with any increase in the effectiveness of information systems, notably:
The Problem of Coordination
The fragmentation, suspicion, duplication, unnecessary competition for limited resources and conscious or unconscious opposition to change and new patterns of activity which is increasingly characteristic of inter-organizational relations, suggests the need for a new type of social entity.
Federations of organizations or even groupings of individuals--as the current solution to this malaise--are considered a potential threat to the autonomy and freedom of action of the proposed members, unless the grouping has a highly specific function (in which case its coordinative power is limited). Members do not want to have things said in their name except on very specific issues with their approval.
Is it not time for a re-examination of the assumption that "organizations" as now known--and they do not differ fundamentally from the first associations and limited liability companies that were created centuries ago--are the only possible form of organizing social activity. This is an incredible absence of development in a society characterized by change in all domains.
Suggestion for the use of "Potential Associations"
Perhaps the impasse in inter-organizational relations and the legal recognition of such entities could be bypassed by creating a new type of social entity.
As a first suggestion, why do we not "create" (or, really, "think in terms of") what might be called a "potential association" ("société potentielle" in French, as opposed to "société anonyme"). Such an association would, as such, not have "members" in the sense of people subscribing in common to a particular set of views or being represented in any way via any election procedure. The relationship would be loose--almost to vanishing point-- to avoid any threat to autonomy.
The bodies brought into relationship via a potential association would be held, or, strictly speaking, would hold themselves, in this relationship simply by the fact that they received information, whether on a paying basis or as some form of subsidized service, from a central point on topics of interest to them.
Such centres, each functioning as the secretariat for a potential association, could take any existing organizational form--the fact that each made available information (on a subscription basis, for example) to a list of people or organizations implies no membership relationship whatsoever.
But, and here lies the difference from the multitude of information distribution operations, the secretariat would also ensure that each "potential associate" or "subscriber" was regularly and rapidly informed of the identity and degree of "interest" or "desire to act" of other associates, with respect to each new subject or issue (falling within the domain of that particular potential association) on which he had also registered his interest (or desire to act, to commit funds, etc.).
Each associate therefore has a comprehensive picture, updated weekly for example, of what new opportunities for joint action are open to him.
On such particular issues contact between a group of associates, selfselected from the total "pool" of associates, is facilitated by the secretariat. This could take the form of a list (of the names and addresses of all associates who had registered the same degree of interest in a given topic) sent to each person on the list--or this could be extended so that a willing contact person was appointed and indicated on the list. Such a restricted "transient" group may then decide quite independently on the organizational form or joint action it has to take, if any, (i.e., whether formal or informal, profit or nonprofit, one-off meeting, organization, joint letter, delegation, etc.) for the period of duration of common interest in the subject. The potential association's central secretariat may, in some cases, then prove to be the most appropriate administrative structure to carry out the secretariat function of the specialized transient group. In other cases a separate secretariat may be created. (See: Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, London, 1970, p. 133 (transient organizations), pp. 340-3 (situational groups); Voir aussi : G.P. Speeckaert. Les associations momentanées d'organisations internationales. Associations Internationales, 1971, 4, pp. 205-217.)
In this way the existence of the central secretariat is continually facilitating and catalyzing the creation and crystallization of a multitude of transient groups--self-selected from the total pool of autonomous associates and dissolving back into the pool on completion of the activity for which they were created. Clearly at any one time a given associate may be, be becoming, or coming to be, a "member" of a number of such transient groups with different: constitutions, degrees of formality, governmental character, continuity, degrees of permanence, binding power over members, types of programme, etc. Such specialized groups may result, in the normal way, in the creation of their own information systems or administrative apparatus --and associates may in fact have no farther relationship with the potential association from which the transient group "gelled". Associates may even then constitute themselves into a more specialized potential association but at no time is the autonomy of the associate infringed upon without his direct consent on the specific issue.
The potential association constitutes a development which is a "hair's breadth" beyond current practice. This is encouraging in that it indicates that the novelty would not be so great as to jeopardize its use. Some organizational techniques which are related to it are: ad hoc committees and working parties, use of mission oriented "task forces" in complex organizations in order to get collaboration across jurisdictional boundaries (this is highly developed in the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation for example), "invisible colleges" of scholars, natural disaster or crisis contact groups, "situational groups" advocated for people passing through the same life situation at the same time, and working groups of NGOs in consultative status with ECOSOC.
"Due to the increasing desire on the part of a number of NGOs to combine for consultation on specific matters under the consideration of the Economic and Social Council or its subsidiary bodies, slowly a new approach has been gaining ground. Without changing the basic concept, the Conference agreed that it or its Bureau may act as a convenor or meetings of consultative NGOs who wish to meet, consult and cooperate on specific matters. The conference or its Bureau should however not bear any responsibility for the actions of the groups thus formed. This method which is certainly capable of further and wider application is not objectionable, provided that there is always a clear distinction defining the competence, the action and the responsibility of the Conference and the Bureau on the one hand, and the competence, action, and responsibility of the cooperating groups or ad hoc commutes of NGOs on the other hand." (A review of the Aims and Objectives and the Structural Organization of the Conference of NGO's in Consultative Status with ECOSOC. llth General Conference of NGO's in Consultative Status with ECOSOC, Geneva, 1969, 11/GC/19, pp. 9-10).
The advantages over these techniques are however highly significant. Firstly, the potential association is given social recognition, it becomes a social phenomenon which can be labelled, discussed and improved upon. At present the processes encompassed leading to the crystallization of such groups occur in a very haphazard, change-dependent, inefficient way (to the horror and despair of members when they finally make contact and realize the effort they have wasted). No information system has yet been designed to facilitate this type of contact--the closest approaches are the high-volume, high-cost, highly specialized, profile-based, journal-abstract systems. Secondly, as a distinct organizational technique it can be active between hitherto partially or totally isolated organizations--as such it increases the whole pace, potential and flexibility of organized activity. Thirdly, by objectifying the tenuous concept of a group of bodies or persons which could link together in different transient patterns under different appropriate conditions, the need to centre attention on existing organizations (with theirtendency to self-perpetuate and constitute obstacles to social change) is diminished in favour of recognition of the range of potential patterns into which the component entities could "gel" in response to new conditions. A meaningful and dynamic social framework for ordinary organizations is thus supplied.
Thus whilst society may, with the use of a technique of this type, form a highly ordered(low entropy) complex at any given time--satisfying short term, stability requirements-- the high probability of switching to completely different high order patterns at later points in time supplies the "randomness" (high entropy) condition essential to the facilitation of social change and development in response to new conditions. In this connection, note Professor Johan Galtung's view on the importance of high entropy for world peace :
"Thus the general formula is : Increase the world entropy, i.e. increase the disorder, the messiness, the randomness, the unpredictability--avoid the clear-cut, the simplistic blueprint, the highly predictable, the excessive order... Expressed in one formula, this seems to capture much of what today passes as peace thinking, particularly of the associative variety." (Johan Galtung. Entropy and the general theory of peace. Proceedings of the International Peace Research Association, Second Conference. Assen, Van Gorcum, 1968; also published as Chapter 5 of Theories of Peace, prepared for Unesco under a contract with IPRA.)
In other words we have a means of ensuring high social stability at each point in time with low predictability over time, or alternatively, and paradoxically, we can think of it as a potentially (i.e. unrealizable) highly ordered situation over time which "contains" a sequence of very disordered situations. An advantage of this is that people and power groups cannot take up feudalistic roles in potential structures. (In this connection see : Johan Galtung. Feudal systems, structural violence and the structural theory of revolutions. Proceedings of the IPRA Third Conference. Assen, Van Gorcum, 1971.)
Fourthly, at a time when the need for greater participation is being felt, the "société anonyme" can be seen as crystallized out of a system of potential relationship between associates known (i.e. non-anonymous) to one another. Namely the transient bodies in which a given associate does not participate are not totally alien to him (provided they arise from the same potential association--the alienating effect of an ordinary organization is thus reduced.
Note that there is no limit to the number of associates of a potential associationn--or to the degree of sub-division or over-lapping between such associations. (Limits worth a moment's reflection are perhaps constituted by the total world population or the total number of groups.)
Two other thorny problems are bypassed:
By implication, both governmental and non-governmental, and profit and nonprofit, bodies at any level could be associates of the same potential association. The feasibility of a given pattern gelling into some effective ad hoc, formal or informal, joint operation would be determined by negotiation as part of the "life" of the potential associations in terms of the political and other constraints valid for the proposed pattern over the period in question.
It could be instructive to speculate on the results of constituting the many thousands of bodies which make up the UN into a potential association. The same applies to the whole intergovernmental system, the nongovernmental system and could be equally interesting at the national and local levels.
Significance for the United Nations
It should be clear that it is precisely this type of method of ensuring a constant, very high and flexible interaction rate which would ensure generation of the maximum amount of self-coordinated new activity, commitment and involvement by associates of potential associations. It is this sort of approach which could be catalyzed by the UN to increase the amount of activity related to development, peace and other UN programme objectives. This could be done for the local and national levels, where the centres of interest lie, to strengthen grass-roots interaction, with the recognition that this will build up and overflow naturally and of its own accord onto the international level and from the developed to the developing countries. This can be achieved without the need for the UN to be responsible for the organization, control or political implications of whatever joint activity gels out-- except where Specialized Agency departmental participation, as an associate in a given activity, is appropriate. It is the increase in the absolute amount of such interaction which will ensure maximum collaboration with, and support for, the sub-set constituted by UN programmes.
For specific proposals for the use of computers to facilitate high inter- and intraorganizational interaction, see Anthony Judge, . Information systems and inter-organizational space. In: Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Association, Special Issue on Social Intelligence (for Development), Winter 1970-71. See also: International Organizations and the Generation of the Will to Change; information systems required. Brussels, Union of International Associations, 1970 (INF/5).
At the present time there is insufficient consensus for any major interorganizational structural change to be implemented to facilitate non-governmental action. This applies particularly to the relations between bodies within the United Nations system, whether:
The probability of implementing any of the following suggestions within an inter-governmental secretariat is therefore inversely proportional to the number of bodies from which approval must be sought. It is useful to list some of them, even if they cannot be implemented, as a possible guide to thinking for the none-too-distant future when international complacency will be severely challenged by economic and social realities:
It is important to draw attention to the fact that international non-governental organizations have no existence in the eyes of international law (whether they are profit or non-profit organizations). Legally such organizations are "out-laws" subject in their operations to the whims of the legislaiion of the country in which they are based or in which they attempt toundertake programmes.
This question was first studied in detail by a Commission on the Legal Status of International Associations of the Institute of International Law in 1910. The Commission's report was presented by N. Politis at its Brussels, 50th anniversary, session in 1923 (Annuaire de I'Institut de Droit International, vol. 30, Session jubilaire de Bruxelles, 1923, pp. 97-173, 348-381, 385-393. The text of a draft convention on the legal status of international associations was approved unanimously at that session (see Annex, page 139) and revised at a 1950 session.
Another early important step taken by The Hague Conference on Private International Law resulted in the adoption in 1956 of a Convention concerning the legal recognition of societies, associations and foreign foundations. This has only been ratified by five of the Conference's Member States. In addition it only covers the recognition, not the activity of such bodies.
The Union of International Associations, after consultation with appropriate experts, submitted to the Director General of Unesco in May 1959 a text for a "Draft Convention aiming at facilitating the work of International Nongovernmental Organizations". This initiative only resulted in some changes to customs regulations governing the movement of NGO goods.
Some studies have since been undertaken by FAO resulting in an investigation in 1969 by the Council of Europe with a view to the preparation of a European Convention. This initiative appears to have been abandoned.
Recent parallel events include work within the European Community to formulate legislation for a "European (profit making) corporation". The Committee on Trade Union Rights of the International Labour Conference (1970) identified the following rights (with the exception of the first two). The ILO Governing Body instructed the Director General to "undertake further comprehensive studies and to prepare reports on law and practice" in relation to trade unions. It seems that such initiatives should encourage further moves towards an international convention covering the following points:
Although such a convention would have many significant positive consequences, it is not clear whether the negative consequences of an overly rigid or discriminating convention would not cause more harm than benefit. The experience of Belgium should be studied. It is still the only country to have special legislation giving favourable recognition and facilities to international scientific bodies (law of 25 October 1919) later expanded (law of 6 December 1954) to benefit philanthropic, religious, educational and other bodies (see Annex, page 136).
A related important problem is that of the legal rights and obligations of staff of international non-governmental bodies--particularly with respect to travel documents, residential requirements, taxation, social security and pension rights. Until adequate job security can be provided to NGO staff, they will not be able to attract and select the most appropriate personnel.
Perhaps most important is to establish the social significance, at all levels of society, of groups and organizations which are neither of governmental or business origin.
In the UN system context this could take the form of ensuring that data is collected and published, in the various statistical yearbooks, on the number and variety of social groups at the local and national levels in each country-- as is done for data on individuals (Demographic Yearbook, although in much greater detail), museums, schools, newspapers, cinemas, etc. (Unesco Statistical Yearbook), diseases (WHO and FAO Yearbooks), etc. This would help focus attention on the function of this vast network of groups as a major unexplored resource in support of social and cultural development.
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