Mobilization for Alienation vs. Catalysis for Participation

the critical choice for the United Nations system

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Published in: International Associations 25, 1973, August-September, pp. 407-412 [PDF version]. Slightly revised version reprinted under the title: Mobilization of Public Opinion: yesterday's reponse to today's problems Transnational Associations 31, 1/2, 1979, pp. 8-14 [PDF version]

The Problem

The United Nations often appear to be rapidly destroying itself. Books now appear with titles such as The Defeat of an Ideal; the self-destruction of the United Nations (Shirley Hazzard. Macmillan, 1973). Disillusionment concerning the capacity of international organization to solve world problems is now widespread. This is particularly true of the United Nations system of organizations (and extends corrosively to staff members of each secretariat).

The 'image' of the system has rightly ations and hopes have been disappointed, and a feeling of uncertainty and doubt defenders of its ideals" (Mahdi Elmandjra. The United Nations System; an analysis. Faber and Faber 1973.).

This disillusionment, and the realization that we may have to live with the problems and adapt to them, has lead to severe cuts in United Nations and. Agency programme budgets now viewed as increasingly symbolic in value. The U.N. has even had difficulties in meeting its payroll and other day-to-day obligations. The situation has been considerably aggravated by the recent dollar devaluations (The pensions of retired United Nations civil servants have been effectively reduced by 30-40 % with no possibility of compensation under present circumstances.). All available facts and figures indicate that a major crisis cannot be much longer postponed" says one UN General Assembly document. "Clearly, if a full, final and viable settlement of the Organization's urgent financial difficulties is to stand any chance ofsuccess, substantial voluntary contributions (or their equivalent) additional to those already paid or pledged must be assured. Whether they will be forthcoming in sufficient amount will be very much dependent on the response made, in the first instance, by the major Powers of the United Nations". They have not been forthcoming. Politically the major Powers no longer have any great need for the United Nations (For example : the European Security Conference, the Middle East. Vietnam the hijacking issue, etc.).

On the whole the United Nations system of intergovernmental organizations have become less and less effective as matrixes for international cooperation, particularly In regard to problems where substantial interests of the great powers and generally the developed countries are directly or indireclly involved" (Gunnar Myrdal. In: Mahdi Elmandjra. Op cit. p. 13.).

With the exception of some specialized technical agencies, it has become an arena in which developing countries are placated and contained by encouraging them to spend endless hours in formulating toothless resolutions with little hope of implementation (Chadwick F. Alger. International Associations 1972. pp. 461-464: "The analysis has shown that only 53 of some 2000 (less than 3%) decisions in the assemblies and executive bodies of the UN, ILO and WHO created new activities in the years 1955. 1960 and 1965..).

The UN Response

Faced with this situation the United Nations has only two responses, one internal, the other external. The internal response is to devote "an entirely disproportionate part of the energy of delegates and secretariats"to the matter of "coordination" - a "large scale escape" into these issues has been used by great powers to curtail the organizations' effectiveness, according to Gunnar Myrdal (In Madhi Elmandjra. Op. cit.; This matter will be considered in a later issue). The external response is to considerably accelerate the persuasion of public opinion and the creation of "political will". This was stressed by the Secretary General of UNCTAD as being of the highest priority "in order to avoid a second Development Decade of even deeper frustration than the first one"(TD/96).

To meet this challenge ECOSOC's Centre for Economic and Social Information (now incorporated into the office of Public Information) prepared a report (A/AC. 141 /L.71) which was submitted to the fourth session (meeting from 29 September 1969) of the Preparatory Committee for the Second United Nations Development Decade. The report concerned mobilization of public opinion for the Decade. Extracts were published. in International Associations (1970, 3, pp. 154-156) and a critique appeared in the following Issue (1970, 4, pp. 221-224). The report was used as a guideline in terms of which CESI and, to some extent, OPl have been functioning since 1970.

The UN Secretary General has just produced a Review and Appraisal of the "Dissemination of Information and Mobilization of Public Opinion Relative to Problems of Development"(E/5358, 21 May 1973). This is the follow-up to the CESI report of 1969 and records progress made on the mobilization front. The information for the Secretary General's review "is drawn from replies submitted by member States... But in view of the, limited number of replies received to the three questions raised about public attitudes, it was necessary to draw on other sources of information as well. Of the 12 replies received, 10 were from industrial countries..." (paras 3-4). This is indicative of member States' interest in the matter.

However, "While some of the submissions discussed the impact of such activities on the public mind, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that, in spite of governmental efforts and similar programmes by nongovernmental organizations, the state of public opinion on matters of development, particularly in the industrialized countries, is generally less favourable today than it has been in the past. This tends to be borne out by empiric observation" (paras 5-6). The review notes that "It wouldprobably be unfair to conclude that a sudden callousness had overcome public opinion in the developed countries. It is more like a closing of the gates to a pattern of generalizations perceived as outworn by over-use" (para. 20). [It is rather Ironical to note that "NGOs" are mentioned here for the first time (they were not mentioned in the 1969 report) In a manner which effectively spreads the blame for the inadequacies of the CESl/OPI approach which has not attempted to involve NGOs In a common participative approach but to "brief"them on its own approach.]

Presentation by Dr. Margaret Mead, World Society of Ekistics
at February 1973 meeting of the ECOSOC Council Committee.

"I am speaking against the background of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm, June 1972. There was an enormous interest in this Conference and many non-governmental organizations were very anxious to participate, but there were many hurdles to be overcome...

The fact that a great number of nongovernmental organizations were finally represented at Stockholm and succeeded in making a tremendous contribution to the climate of opinion within which the Conference succeeded, only emphasizes the fact that much better arrangements will need to be made in the future for open and free access to the secretariat of the Environmental Programme and for all parts of the United Nations. Experience has shown that what we need is a network within which non-governmental organizations can communicate with each other, reinforce each other's programmes and plans and provide the expertise and citizen support needed by the United Nations.

The organization of the Environment secretariat with headquarters in Nairobi and offices in New York and Geneva, gives us a new opportunity to revivify the whole relationship between the Secretariat of the United Nations, in all its aspects, and public opinion and scientific expertise all over the world. Unless the conflicts and structural competition within the United Nations can be resolved, the non-governmental organizations will be left frustrated and divided, and the United Nations will lose its constituency without which its many projects cannot survive. I hope, Mr. Chairman, that these discussions will lead to the development of a new network style, multi-access set-up, in which the dangers of bottlenecks, take-over by small groups, and monopolies of input and output wilt disappear".


(Extract from a review of UN "mobilization"in International Associations, 1970, no. 4)

The word "mobilization" has special associations and was clearly chosen for that reason. Just as in the past, people have been mobilized for war, the UN is now proposing to take the lead in mobilizing people for the war on want. From a governmental point of view, there is perhaps little difference. It is (as one dictionary puts it) a case of making the people mobile and readily available, and calling into active service in readiness for a course of action decided by government.

The question could however be raised as to whether there were not some attitudes deriving from war psychology which are not directly associated with the mobilization of the public - such as artificially generating a crisis mentality. Given that it is in the process of mobilization that the people's freedom of action is bent to that of this leaders associated with the government apparatus, once the process of mobilization is completed, a war machine is in being and individual will can no longer be taken into account. It is the psychology of the various stages in this process which form one topic of peace research.

The question raised here is therefore whether in a free society, and under what conditions, public will can or should be mobilized by government. In addition there is the nature, and the rights of man, in the supposition that his will can be bent to suit the government strategy, however benign its intentions. Is the will which can be so induced or manipulated to be considered no different in quality, desirability and durability from self-generated will ? These are old questions.

The space devoted to these issues in the Report does not correspond to the number of problems raised by some of their implications. There is a radical difference, as is intended, between informing those members of the public who desire information, and scientifically designing a campaign to influence individuals via the leaders whom they respect. This is very similar to the problem posed by corporations trading in their own shares to control artificially their value in the market. How democratic is the selection of the cause for which people should be mobilized ?

There is a total lack, of awareness that will should be formed by mature reflection on the part of the individual and not by artificially manipulating his environment. In a democratic society each organized group has the right to attempt to influence the individual. It is from his interaction with these groups - his total social environment - his own experiences, that his freely chosen course of action - his will - germinates. The UN, according to the Report, should intervene in these processes without, as might be considered its responsibility, revealing any understanding of the complexity of the processes involved.

An Analysis

Now the question is who within the UN system is responsible for the over-use of this pattern of generalizations ? How predictable was the "closing of the gates ? Why has the "political will" been further eroded ? (W. Gibson Parker, Director, CESI/UN at expert meeting on Mobilization of Public Opinion. (Geneva,December 1972). In our 1970 critique of the CESI approach we attempted to draw attention to its defects (see extract in insert). The outof-date mentality which characterizes U.N. thinking on these matters can be illustrated by a modified version of the classic World War 1 mobilization * poster (p. 410). It can be usefully, if ironically and regretfully, contrasted with the current U.S. Army conscription poster whose new mentality theme and style illustrated by the theme: "The Army Wants to Join You Now" (The first represents "Approach 1"and the second, "Approach 3" as defined in Fig. 1.). Analysis and evidence is of course available in support of the need for this changed approach, and what else would convince U.S. Army generals to change their traditional "tough" stance to such an extent.

Figure 1
Approach 1: Marketing Approach 2: Command Approach 3: Participative
Alternative approaches to leadership

And yet no equivalent analysis penetrates through to the UN Public Information sections. The most succinct version of this analysis that we have encountered may be given in diagrammatic form in Fig. 1 (Reproduced from an article on marketing in the computer business by J. Malcolm Rigby. Tempering the revolution. New Scientist. 4 June 1970, p. 4 (The commentary is an adaptation of that in the article).).

Under the heading "Avoiding disillusionment", the author notes that "Approach 1", which is the standard UN/ OPl approach, may lead to a favourable reaction by the * target > body (e.g. man-in-the-street, NGO, or a national government agency) receiving the "message", but often this reaction is incorrect due to the tendency, admitted by many producing the messages, to over-sell their product (in this case the UN development programme) to give the impression that it will solve every problem about which the target body is concerned. This approach often leads to disillusionment when recommendations become realities, and the target body realizes that the UN programmes do not cure problems but may even bring additional problems in their wake. This discovery tends to lead to conflict and alienation from the UN programmes and by association, from the programme objectives.

A second option "Approach 2", often taken when the previous approach does not work, may be described as the "command" approach. This involves arranging for a directive from a body (possibly a United Nations Association or a Unesco National Commission) on which the target body is dependent or which he or it respects, announcing that a positive response is required to the message (e.g. the UN programme). If the body has little independence then, as shown in Approach 2 (lefthand side), resentment of the approach will result in action but with alienation of those involved and a hostile attitude toward future messages. If the body is more powerful, it may be able to implement it in a counter-productive manner or ensure that it is ignored (Approach 2, right-hand side). Approach 2 probably occurs in all national government bureacracies which have to respond to the frequent and seemingly frenetic calls for UN Days, Years, and other symbolic programmes and questionnaires.

The United Nations has still to learn how to implement "Approach 3", which is a minimum response to its resource problem and the achievement of its objectives. Approach 3 is much less authoritarian. The responsible body (in this case the appropriate unit of the U.N. system) approaches the external contact (the "target body"in OPI /CESI parlance) with an offer of help, pointing out what might be achieved by the external contact's information programme in a collaborative and participative enterprise and asking for ideas and assistance from that body. This approach helps the external contact (e.g. an NGO or a national government agency) to gain a correct impression of the proposed programme and to participate in its elaboration (see feedback loop). The programme finally implemented has much greater chance of motivating the external contact and of ensuring its involvement and cooperation.

Of course UN officials regularly ask for "assistance and ideas" in such arenas as NGO briefing sessions. On closer inspection however, this is either a completely ritual gesture, or is interpreted to mean publicizing the UN programme to a wider audience. No participation or feedback is involved. Nor could it be "received"by the secretariat in many cases - there is no procedural provision for such feedback messages.

Whilst Approach 3 would represent a major step forward if meaningfully implemented, it is nevertheless excessively directive, if maximum support is to be obtained for "programmes on world problems". [An analysis of the weakness of this directive approach is given in Donald Schon. Beyond the Stable State : public and private learning in a changing society. Temple Smith, 1971 (reviewed in: Wanted; new types of social organization. International Associations. 1971, 3].The rewording is deliberate here.

The UN seeks maximum support for action in terms of "UN programme objectives" These programme objectives however presumably represent the desires of "we the peoples...". They do not belong in some mysterious, exclusive and copyrighted manner to the United Nations system as a set of institutions, as the wording would seem to imply. The UN system therefore loses nothing, and gains much, by encouraging and facilitating external bodies in the pursuit of their own programme objectives. It is really a question of whether the UN system is interested solely in its own programmes as symbols of departmental and institutional glory, or rather in the accomplishment of their objectives, by whatever channels are available. Unfortunately it usually seems to be the former, even when (as is often the case) the "programme" has only sufficient resources for one staff member plus shared secretary.

An "Approach 4" could therefore be conceived which goes beyond marketing, even of the subtlest "stimulusresponse" type as ably analyzed above by Rigby. In Approach 4 the "stimulus" would not come from only one group of bodies, namely the UN Agencies, implying that only they have seen "the truth". And the stimulus would not only be received by external bodies, implying that they are all and always "retarded" in their thinking, compared to that of the U.N. system. In Approach 4 the stimuli" would come from any active and concerned body and the "responses" would come from as many bodies as perceived the stimuli to be valid options for their own programmes. This network-oriented approach is the basis for a synergistic multiplication of resources directed toward world problems. The challenge to the U.N. system is to help give operational reality to such an approach. Studies are required to clarify it. They could well be combined in a sort of "mini-Jackson Report" to provide the missing component in the thinking of the original Jackson Report. (United Nations. Capacity Study of the United Nations Development System. New York, United Nations, 1969, 2 vols, (reviewed in International Associations, 1970, under the title Planning for the 1960s in the 1970s.)

Current governmental approach to world crisis: a World War I approach
World War I approach  to world crisis:

The NGO Role

Let us see how the U.N. is meeting this challenge and moving toward a more up-to-date approach to mobilizing public opinion by involving NGO's. In December 1972 in Geneva, ECOSOC convened a Meeting of experts on the particular role of the nongovernmental organizations on the mobilizing of public opinion and political will". Some versions of the title add "in support of the International Development Strategy", The experts were mainly from key NGO's with some participants from key national development information programmes. The meeting was chaired by Mrs Helvi Sipila; UN Assistant Secretary-General for Social and Humanitarian Matters, in the presence of Curtis Roosevelt, Chief of the ECOSOC NGO Section and W. Gibson Parker, Director of CESI/UN.

The experts came forth with exciting references to a "new style of relationship", for which a Canadian example was given, in which a much less directive approach was used. This involved going beyond existing NGO's, shifting emphasis to the participation of people and communities rather than building up membership of particular organizational empires. "Mobilization"was even condemned in favour of involving people where they can participate and where they can learn in "learning centres" - a "people approach" rather than an "institutional approach". The counter-current however was to stress the letter by letter interpretation of the UN's International Development Strategy and only to examine NGO's possible relevance to it. Opinions were divided in a somewhat similar manner over whether "NGO" should only mean the select few which have passed all their political examinations by one means or another and achieved consultative status, or whether it should also mean non-recognized or non-international bodies. (It really is quite extraordinary that in this time of increasing social crisis there should still be this U.N. impulse to say "that body is not good enough to help"). Some experts stressed the consequent increasing isolation of the U.N. and its seeming irrelevance to international conditions and issues. The Chairman agreed that the U.N. had lost contact with the people to whom (not with whom ?) it should be talking. There were frequent references to the impression that NGO's were "used" by the U.N. rather than being in partnership with it.

After an exciting start the meeting decayed considerably. A quite incredible procedure was adopted of asking participants to hastily note down on scraps of paper their recommendations which were then typed up in a report examined word by word in plenary. No working documents were prepared beforehand to improve the quality of the final result. The report resulting from this lengthy process was fortunately not circulated; instead; a completely different version was later produced (as an internal document only). This is excellent in many ways. It seems to have been based on an inspired interpretation of the sense of the meeting rather than on the abortive procedure mentioned. The introduction is reproduced here (on page 413).

Now the report itself contains some very exciting paragraphs. A rough analysis groups them, according to the "approaches" above, as follows : Approach 1, no paragraphs; Approach 2, 5 paragraphs; Approach 3, 8 paragraphs; Approach 4, 6 paragraphs; unclassified, 5 paragraphs.

The Current Reality

The above report was produced on 24 January 1973. The Secretary-General's Review (cited above) appeared on 21 May 1973. It does not mention the meeting or the report. Its recommendations (none of which suggest any new departures at this critical time) contain only one reference to NGO's : "It would undoubtedly be helpful to the nongovernmental organizations in enlisting public support for United Nations development objectives" (para. 26). In practice this sort of statement works out to Approach 1 again. It would seem that the meeting was one more ritualistic session to contain criticism.

To be meaningful and credible, "partnership" talk on the part of the U.N. system should extend visibly into the documents of CESI and the Office of Public Information. In the vast mountain of U.N. system reports, documents and brochures, why has only ILO produced a brochure on the NGO role? Why are there no imaginative reports and suggestions ? Why has the Unesco Courier never had an issue on NGO action ? Why is no mention made of NGO's in the basic literature on the U.N. system which is available to the thousands of visitors to secretariat buildings, information centres and regional offices, and which is the basic ammunition of the national and local United Nations Associations? Why is the "partnership"role not stressed in the standard secretariat guided-tour speech ? Why not tell the people of the channels via which they can work in partnership with the U.N, system ? By stressing the "mighty institutional" image, people have no means of responding to the U.N. other than by purchasing pretty postcards and stamps, or selling the U.N. line in their home community. The latter is the traditional Approach 1 which has lead to the alienation which is now all too evident, often because of the stultifying effect of the local U.N.A.'s UNcentred programmes (Approach 2).

The Critical Choice

The public information material of the U.N. must show nongovernmental action, voluntary action, people's movements, etc., are related to, facilitated and reinforced by, U.N. action, and how both contribute in partnership to common objectives. ("Nongovernmental" is an extremely unhelpful and negative term of U.N. origin. It is as conducive to positive effective partnership on the part of voluntary bodies, as calling the United Nations the "Non National Organization"would be facilitate of nation state collaboration.)

Objectives which are those of "We the peoples..." and not of an anxious system of institutions trying to monopolize every iota of credit. This is not to say that the United Nations should stress the importance of the existing NGO's, which in quite a number of cases may be as institutionally distant from the people as is the United Nations (partly for similar reasons and partly in imitation of sterile, statusboosting UN procedures). Rather the stress should be placed on the ability of (and need for) people to act in the light of their own understanding through their own styles of organization, whether they exist as traditional NGO's or need to be created using new formulae in their own communities. It is the importance of this complementary creative mode of action which should be stressed, for at the moment NGO's constitute the underdeveloped "third world" of the organizational system.

This "third world" parallel is very suggestive. NGO action potential is underdeveloped, it does have equivalent critical Internal problems (lack of needed facilities, skills, financial resources. infra-structures, information), it does have a poor relationship to the other components, the expanding growth of its frustrate expectations does represent a critical problem for the future - but there are a lot of people and groups out there who could organize themselves further against world problems. And, as opposed to the socio-economic counterpart, the process could be seIfgenerating if it could be appropriately catalyzed.

It is only by achieving this form of "self-mobilization", catalyzed (not organized) in part by United Nations efforts, that the progressive alienation of people from all forms of organized action can be retarded. The United Nations must trust that a massive growth in this "people action > would result in a very worthwhile percentage of it being directly of value to the specific U.N. concerns (although even the remainder constitutes a valuable, but unrecognized, component of social development). That this is likely to be the case is fairly evident from the amount of independent grass-roots concern with peace, environment, racial discrimination and other such issues. "Catalysis" is the key to the needed United Nations public information effort, not "mobilization". Catalysis leads to participation, mobilization leads to alienation.

Realities visible to the United Nations
Realities visible to the United Nations

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