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June 1977

Organization Terminology and Organization Types


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Published in Transnational Associations 29, 1977, 6, pp. 260-283. [PDF version]
Extract from: International Organizations: diversity, borderline cases, functional substitutes and possible alternatives.

Many attempts have been made to group and categorize international organizations. Few of them reflect the rich variety of organizations and fewer still are of any immediate, practical use. This article explores the significance of the descriptor in the title of an organization as an aid to categorizing organizations. It is extracted from International organisations; diversity, borderline cases, functional substitutes and possible alternatives, which will be published as chapter 2 of International organisations : a conceptual approachedited by Paul Taylor and A.J.R. Groom, (inpress).

International organizations, whether governmental or nongovernmental, use any of an extensive range of terms in their official titles: union, association, office, alliance, centre, etc. There is a great deaf of confusion in the meanings attached to these terms in practice so that it is not usual to attempt to order them in any way (A " centre "can resemble most " associations "and an " association "can be more like a " centre "). The following breakdown of the terms used does however help to clarify the current situation. This is achieved by relating the organizations to meetings by which they were established or through which they work. The numbering system in parenthesis following the term links it, where appropriate, to Diagram. The numbers in parenthesis following each named organization in the text refer to the reference number of that organization as described in Section A or Section B of the 16th edition of the Yearbook of International Organizations 1977.

0. General

The greatest confusion lies in the use of terms such as

In each case this may mean an organization of individuals, an organization of national organizations, or any possible variation on these. Intergovernmental bodies only use those terms without an asterisk. Examples of use of these terms include :

An important variant in the case of some intergovernmental bodies stresses the domain for which the body is responsible.

Other interesting variants are illustrated by the following :

1. Treaty-related

Intergovernmental organizations are, by definition, centred on an international treaty or agreement. In some cases the name of the treaty may be embodied into the name of the organization.

Another group intimately linked to international legal questions is that of courts and tribunals (I.B.)

A final group, specially governed by treaty provisions, is that of military and control authorities (I.C.) :

2. Conference (2.1)

There are many bodies which take their names from the principal (statutory) meeting in which their members participate.

A fully representative and sovereign body may thus meet periodically and take decisions defining the policy of the organization which binds its subsidiary organs. The procedure and composition of such a meeting may be defined by the constitution of the body or the original treaty.

Conference Commissions (2.1.1)

Such general conferences when they occur may give rise to commissions of the conference which meet in the intervening months or years between sessions of the conference and possibly during it. In practice such commissions are either given or acquire a fair degree of autonomy. It may therefore happen that although the (periodic) conference does not constitute an organization in its own right, the commission may take on a more or less permanent organizational form. The number of members is generally limited and their selection is made according to rules established by the conference (or body) by which it was created and to which it reports. In some cases the commission may be created by a conference which is not held again.

Conference Committees (2.1.1)

A general conference may establish working bodies charged with examination of certain points on the agenda during sessions. Such ad hoc bodies, by definition, would not constitute permanent organizations. The confusion of terminology may be such that " committee "may replace " commission "in the previous case.

Joint Bodies (2.1.1)

A general conference may establish a joint body with some external body.

Each of the above types of body may also be created regionally, or in terms of some special concern, by the general conference or as a specialized regional body by a regional conference.

3. Council (3.1)

A general conference may elect or appoint a

This is a body which tends to be large (relative to the executive body) because it is fairly representative of the general conference and is able to exercise certain of its powers. Again the conference itself may or may not be held periodically or constitute a permanent organization.

In complex organizations, the council may create its own commissions, committees and joint bodies with external organizations. This may also occur regionally, or in terms of some special concern of the council (see Diagram for breakdown). There is confusion between use of " council "and " commission "or " committee "as defined in the previous and following sections.

4. Executive Committee (4.1)

A conference may elect an executive body of comparatively restricted membership (or it may be appointed by the council) with such names as

Even though the conference may not constitute an organization in its own right, such bodies may take on permanent organizational form.

Again, as the last example indicates, regional, specialized and joint bodies may be created at this level.

5. Secretariat (5.1)

The permanent body may take on a name derived from an operational rather than a policy-making or decision-making unit.

Again, regional; specialized and joint bodies may be created.

6. Department (6.1)

Departments of an organization do not, by definition, constitute autonomous organizations in the sense of interest here, although some bodies of this type may acquire special significance as international actors.

A section of a large organization may, however, participate in interdepartmental bodies involving several agencies.

Such bodies are however difficult to distinguish from those of the following section.

7. Activities

A (periodic) conference, or even a conventional organization, may establish one or more activities which themselves take on permanent autonomous organizational form, whatever the continuing status of the body by which they were established. The emphasis given to a particular mode of action may even be reflected in the actual name of the organization, thus distinguishing it from conventional organizations (possibly to the point of raising the question as to whether it really should be considered as an organization). Three groups may be usefully distinguished : meeting-type events, programmes /projects, and organizations.

Meeting-type events (7.1.7)

A single meeting held under the auspices of an international body, tends (if it is especially large) to take on the form of an organization. Since the duration of such " organizations "is never more than 1 to 5 years, depending on the preparatory and follow-up period required, it is not usual to consider such bodies as organizations in their own right, although from a social, political, budgetary and legal point of view this could well be argued. Even a meeting of (rather than " under the auspices of ") an organization can be considered an independent organization.

" Certain people do not agree that a Congress is an independent entity existing only for the duration of the Congress. They consider that a Congress is more often an organ or an activity of a permanent international organization. Nevertheless, it is necessary to bear in mind the legal question -- the problem of the responsibility of the pomoters of the congress in case of accident, fire and liability for damages. In order to clearly define the limits of responsibility as regards the meeting-place, the time and those in charge, both locally and internationally, it seems, necessary to consider a congress as an independent legal entity which exists for a determined length of time ", (G.P. Speeckaert. The Various Types of International Meetings... Brussels, U.I.A., 1967, p. 8).

Events of this type include :

Examples worth considering are :

Programmes/projects (7.1.8)

There are many examples of organizations which can be considered as programme bound in some way possibly because of special political or funding problems. These can be grouped as follows :

Organizations (7.1.9)

A large organization may create bodies to undertake specific activities. The political, legal, and financial circumstances under which such bodies are established may render them relatively autonomous even though links to the parent body are maintained. Typical activities include :

Other bodies, with the same level of preoccupation, may be created under a variety of circumstances such that the relation to the creating body or bodies becomes tenuous or of   limited   significance.   Such   organizations,   particularly when active at one physical location only, differ somewhat (especially in terms of the status of membership) from conventional international bodies.

Use of a generalized meeting/organization framework to classify organization types (and to map their structural components)

(Portions of several such diagrams could be shaded as appropriate to facilitate comparison of complex structures.)

Information :      

Research :

Education :        

Configuration of organization types
Configuration of organization types
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