Problems Hindering Action of International Nongovernmental Organizations
- / -
Paper presented to a panel on the evaluation and extension of public participation
in international organizations at the 18th Annual Convention of the International
Studies Association (St Louis, USA, March 1977) under the title: Practical
problems of using the potential of INGO networks
as an extended version of
a presentation to the UIA Geneva Symposium published under the title Pseudo-issues
paralyzing transnational association action
28, 1976, 12, pp. 571-573). Published in: The Future of Transnational
Associations from the Standpoint of a New World Order
Brussels, UIA, 1977,
pp. 168-205. Also distributed under the title Practical Options in Using the Potental of International NGO Networks
. [NB: With changing terminology, in
2003 it would be entitled Problems Hindering Action of Global Civil Society
Reprinted in: Transnational Associations
1980, pp. 180-185 [PDF version
]. Also a French version under the title: Les
problèmes entravant l'action
des organisations internationales nongouvernementales (OING)
Debate about INGOs
Problems hindering INGO action
Conclusion concerning problems
Guidelines for remedial action
** 1. Shared facilities in "transnational centres"
** 2. Alternative forms of organization
** 3. Alternative forms of meeting
** 4. Facilitative action by IGO secretariats
** 5. International convention on INGO legal status
** 6. Improvements in INGO information and communication
** 7. Improvements in information and communication about INGOs
** 8. Facilitation of network processes
** 9. Network organizational strategy
** 10. Network vocabulary
The title of this paper contains an ambiguity which usefully reflects the ambiguity
of the subject matter. There are in fact several conceptions of the "practical
problems in using the potential of INGO networks".
1. The practical problems for an external body in making use of the INGO
networks in support of its own programmes and objectives, irrespective of
the programmes and concerns of the INGOs. Typically, and commonly, these are
the problems for the UN system (through its Office of Public Information)
in attempting to mobilize and galvanize the INGO networks in support of UN
programmes (conceived as being the only programmes of satisfactory legitimacy
2. The practical problems of making INGO networks function better, according
to the criteria of an external body recognizing the benefits arising from
the activity of such networks operating their own programmes in the light
of their own objectives and priorities. Typically, although infrequently,
these are the problems for a foundation concerned to increase the general
operational effectiveness of INGOs as the best means (although indirect)
of ensuring the achievement of its own objectives.
3. The practical problems of developing the usefulness of INGO networks for
the INGOs in the networks in the light of their own criteria of how
best this could be achieved.
4. The practical problems for an outside individual or group in attempting
to build (membership, working, information) contacts with different INGO networks'
Typically, these are the problems of the informed general public or a newly
created, and enthusiastic, active group, wishing to relate to similar initiatives
in other countries via the INGO network
The problems identified in this paper have not been ordered in terms of these
different possible perspectives, nor in terms of their implication for: IGOs,
INGOs, national governments, local groups, scholars, individuals, etc.' In fact
each of the problems can usefully be examined for any such possible implications.
The paper also identifies some areas for innovative response to the complex
of problems hindering full use of INGO networks. In fact examination of what
can usefully be done, namely what has not yet been done, serves to highlight
other aspects of such problems.
Debate about INGOs
It is useful to review briefly the current status of discussion concerning
INGO networks and their utility. There are several focal points:
- Academic concern with INGOs has largely been confined to case studies of
individual INGOs or small groups of INGOs. A number of quantitative studies
of the whole universe of INGOs has been made over the past 10 years, in part
to assess the extent to which they reinforce any asymmetry in the international
- A second and more recent focus of academic concern has been that of assessing
the political impact, if any, of INGOs on the inter-state system and
on national policy-making. Related studies have attempted to establish
whether INGOs have any function in relation to the nation-state system.
- Within the IGO system (and mainly the UN system) there has been a concern
since 1970 with how the INGO networks can be mobilized in support of various
priority programmes, often purely as vehicles for UN press releases.
- A second focus within the IGO system (UN, Council of Europe, OAS) is a
concern with the effectiveness of the consultative status arrangement,
partly in terms of the INGO support for IGO programmes, and partly
in terms of the political and administrative problems constituted by INGOs.
Within the INGO system (and mainly within the various conferences of
INGOs), there has been much discussion over the past 25 years concerning
the need to improve such arrangements in the interests of greater effectiveness.
Unfortunately, none of these areas of debate has been able to broaden its
focus to include the problems of INGOs in general. The academic focus has
been primarily concerned with demonstrating either the negative effects of
North-West based INGOs or their lack of impact on the inter-state
system. The IGO focus has been primarily concerned either with exploiting
the resources of the existing INGO networks or manoeuvering to minimize the
number of INGOs it needs to recognize to carry out its own programmes.
In the case of the INGO focus, every effort has been made to ensure that
the debate was restricted to concern with the consultative arrangements with
a particular IGO, avoiding general discussion of the problem for INGOs with
all IGOs, or of the general problems of INGOs whether linked to IGOs or not
It is difficult to avoid the general impression of a series of continuing
sterile debates about "pseudo-issues" effectively (although
not deliberately) structured to avoid converging on conclusions which could
legitimate any recommendations for remedial projects to increase the general
value of INGO networks. Such issues can be termed "pseudo-issues"
because, from a very realistic and practical point of view, there is little
that can be done about any of them individually at this point in time. Such
issues should better be seen as constraints on any action strategy, rather
than the prime policy concern in connection with INGOs, as tends to be the
case in IGO, INGO and academic circles. Hopefully many of these problems will
be overcome at some stage, but it would seem to be unnecessarily short-sighted
to allow them to constitute delays to effective development of the full potential
of the INGO network. The organizational instruments for action may in many
cases be imperfect, but concentrating attention on their imperfections may
simply obscure the fact that they are already quite adequate for many tasks-and
that the specific imperfections are in large part a circumstance of the times
rather than of their nature. Practical approaches to improving their ability
to perform their functions may well be the quickest method of reducing their
It is too easy to lose sight of the fact that the available institutions
are failing to contain the complex of problems on which they purport to focus.
At this point what is required is a series of practical low-cost projects
to revitalize the whole organizational network and not defensive debates which:
evaluate INGO effectiveness in terms of impact on a nation-state system
which is increasingly recognized as an inadequate conceptualization.
- in focusing on IGO-INGO relationships, take attention off the question
of whether either class of organization is able to focus adequately on the
problems with which they claim to be genuinely concerned in the best interests
- in focusing on whether INGOs can be used for a particular imposed end,
take attention off whether INGOs are adequate to the multiplicity of tasks
which they consider appropriate.
The point is well illustrated by the words of Bradford Morse, UN Under-Secretary-General
for Political and General Assembly Affairs to the ECOSOC Committee on NGOs
"The complexity of the problems and needs we face today, however,
and the vast growth in previously non-existent transnational preoccupations
have created the necessity for more active and creative co-operation.
None of us alone-as individuals, governments or organizations-can
hope to meet the demands and challenges which confront the global community.
To enhance the prospects for success, we must all join forces to the fullest
extent possible. For only by sharing our ideas, our knowledge and our needs,
and by working together will we be able effectively to make use of our limited
resources and receive the full benefit of our mutual efforts. Further steps
must be made to rationalize the existing relationship between the United Nations
system and the non-governmental community." (See also Appendix
(It is part of the current malaise that the sincerity of the above statement,
in contrast to that of a long-series of similarly-worded publicity
releases by a variety of UN officials, is only established by knowledge of
the behind-the-scenes scuffling associated with it and the manner
in which action on it has been avoided.)
Problems hindering INGO action
In Challenges to
International Nongovernmental Organizations, 34 problems are identified.
It should be noted that the identification of the problems does not imply
any judgment that a particular problem "really exists" but only
that it is believed by some to exist and gives rise to concern and debate,
even if ill-informed. It should be emphasized that a linear presentation
of this type completely obscures the interconnections between problems, by
which one aggravates another. This is best seen in Appendix 1, which identifies
a set of interlinked problems. This helps to show the limited value of focusing
remedial action on a particular problem embedded in a network of problems
which ensure its re-emergence.
Conclusion concerning problems
As pointed out in introducing the series of problems, they are best perceived
as a mutually reinforcing network (see Appendix 1). Depending on the choice
of focus and context, most of the problems may be defined as "key"
A particularly unfortunate pattern of reinforcements leads to the following:
concentration of attention on a single organization or small group of
bodies, thus facilitating and justifying ignorance of relationships to other
bodies, inhibiting exchange and collaboration between them; leading to:
general ignorance about the range and role of national and international
NGOs in all their variety, and consequent denial of their value
This in turn provokes the problems (which contribute to those identified
in Challenges to International
Nongovernmental Organizations) via various intermediary problems:
reduction in ability of an individual to establish links with a national
or international NGO, or to conceive of the possibility of doing so, or
to obtain the means to do so, or of recognizing the value of doing so.
general frustration with organizations and their method of operating.
Guidelines for remedial action
The following points must be borne in mind in identifying practical changes
for future organizational action
Major restructuring of existing intra-organizational relations
will apparently not be feasible until catalyzed by the next major social
crisis (so proposals for change should concentrate on relations between
organizations and not on changes to organizations).
- Concentration of organizational resources is desirable but cannot be achieved
by centralized coordination of organizations (unless the alienation of many
potential collaborators is accept
- Informational links should be substituted wherever possible for organizational
links (since the latter tend to become clogged by personality, procedural,
prestige and political problems).
- Participative involvement in programme formulation should replace mobilized
support for programme execution
- Organizational flexibility should replace organizational rigidity (to permit
more rapid response to new action opportunities and to permit new organizational
configurations to emerge quickly wherever required).
- Social realities should be considered more important than legal and administration
fictions (to permit greater response to action-oriented commitment as
opposed to status-oriented procedures).
- Meetings of NGO representatives should not be structured to favour consensus
formation in plenary, since it is only very rarely that delegates come with
a mandate to commit the NGO to any course of action (and most of the other
reasons for voting are purely symbolic and a waste of meeting time).
In addition to these negative constraints there is an urgent need for some
positive vision of social change and the organizational base to support it.
It is vital to switch from the current narcissistic focus to a new context
for debate on INGO-related matters, thus establishing a conceptual environment
conducive to the generation of positive recommendations.
If none of the above problems is likely to be resolved, what is to be done
in the short term? Some will feel free to ignore INGOs. The INGOs will however
continue to exist in one form or another. The key question is how to by-pass
these issues and to find some way of ensuring that all possible organizational
resources are brought to bear on the many problems to which the world appears
to be exposed.
Not only is it of limited value to focus on the 700 NGOs with consultative
status, rather than on the 2700-5000 international organizations
(Yearbook of International
Organizations. Brussels, Union of International Associations, 1977, 16th
edition, 806 p), but equally it is of limited value to focus on the latter
rather than on the whole universe of organizations including those at the
national and sub-national level.
There are an as yet uncounted number of such organizations- possibly
several million through which people associate, work and express themselves,
and by which their views are molded. And yet these uncounted organizations
constitute one of the last unexplored resources of society with which to respond
to the problems with which we are faced. Whilst the governmental and business
organizations are now well accepted, the associational world is poorly understood-despite
its well-documented contribution to all aspects of human affairs. The
denial of the importance of the continuing role of these associations now
leads governments to believe that they can create a new international economic
order alone, ignoring the social dimension which is the special concern of
these bodies. Others continue to place their hopes in some form of world government
or world federalism, ignoring the increasingly visible weaknesses of national
governments whether federal or not.
How can we facilitate the action of this immense network of organizations
given constraints such as those noted above? How can we facilitate whatever
action is possible, whenever it is possible between whatever
coalition of organizations is possible, with whatever degree of
coordination is possible? How can a network organizational strategy emerge?
One vision which recognizes the role of INGOs is that of Alvin Toffler,
as expressed in testimony to the Committee on Foreign Relations of the US
Senate in 1975 (see Appendix 2). An attempt at formulating the kinds of principles
which could usefully guide a new style of transnational action has also been
of transnational action. an attempt at a set of guidelines. In: The Open
Society. report of a seminar to reflect on the network of international associations.
Brussels, UIA, 1973, pp. 104-114).
As mentioned earlier, identifying suitable projects to develop the potential
of INGO networks also serves to highlight, through their consequences, the
kinds of problems which need to be overcome. In conformity with the above
guidelines, the following projects are all essentially non-directive,
requiring limited resources, but contributing directly to the release of considerable
resources, currently blocked by the consequences of directive and stateoriented
policies. Suggestions for research in support of such action have been given
association networks; selected list of research topics on international non-governmental
organizations. International Associations, 24, October 1972, pp.
481-485.) as have suggestions for more appropriate organizations, meetings
and information systems (Complexity; its constraints on social innovation.
Transnational Associations, 29, 4, 1977, pp. 120-125; 29, 5,
1. Shared facilities in "transnational centres"
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 and membership
is infrequent. Organizations are often poorly housed and equipped. In major 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. Such centres help to ensure that:
there is a concentration of internationally oriented expertise in
major cities-a "critical mass" of people whose interaction
generates new programme concepts and acts as a magnet for uncommitted resources.
As in the case of multi-meetings, no formal relationship is imposed
on organizations sharing office facilities. Informal contact is however maximized
so that fruitful working relationships can emerge as and when appropriate.
- the same centre could also usefully house such currently scattered bodies
as the: UN and UN Agency Information Offices, and in developing countries,
the UN Agency Representative responsible for coordinating country-level
international activity; national commissions of UNESCO and other Agencies;
national NGOs with international activities; national inter-NGO organizations;
foundations interested in international activity; national institutes of international
relations; international press agencies; temporary offices for committees
to galvanize activity in relation to official international years (e.g. human
rights, population, mental health, etc.) and days; the focal point within
the city for town twinning (sister-city) arrangements with towns in
other countries; temporary offices and facilities required to focus effort
in time of disaster in the country, or to mobilize such resources for assistance
in time of disaster in another country; national and city United Nations Associations,
Unesco Cubs and similar bodies.
- the concentration of activity would facilitate the creation of bodies not
present in a particular country (e.g. the creation of United Nations Information
Offices in developing countries) where without such a supportive environment
it would be difficult to maintain them.
- a wide variety of office and professional services could be shared under
many possible formulas, some of which would benefit organizations not requiring
full-time permanent office accommodation.
- some of the services could be run under the well-developed "cooperative"
formula; a number of such cooperatives could be the basis for other services:
sharing of some staff over holiday periods; group insurance and pension schemes
for secretarial and other staff who might otherwise be tempted to seek employment
where there is greater long-term security; mobility of organization
secretariats and the establishment of regional or subsidiary offices; staff
mobility and professional advancement without loss of financial benefits;
operational contacts (e.g. telex links) to facilitate coordination of activities
initiated at different centres (e.g. New York and Geneva) or between international
centres and their national equivalents.
- interaction and programme coordination between bodies in developing
countries concerned with focusing international aid for that country.
- there is a visible symbol to the general public of the reality
of international action. As such, permanent exhibitions, films shows and
internationally oriented periodical libraries open to the public could usefully
stimulate public interest in both the developing and the developed countries.
2. Alternative forms of organization
Attention should be given to alternative forms of organization, possibly
more appropriate to a response to some features of the highly turbulent problem
of environment. Existing experiments by some INGOs in this direction should
be encouraged, as well as attempts to form organizations specifically adapted
to function in an evolving network of collaborating organizations in which
advantage lies in the ability to associate with any emergent configuration
of organizations rather than to protect an old configuration (Complexity;
its constraints on social innovation. Transnational Associations, 29,
4, 1977, pp. 120-125; 29, 5, pp. 178-189; also 1977, 10.) .
3. Alternative forms of meeting
Attention should be given to the various possibilities for using the meeting
environment to establish communication patterns within and between organizations
which are currently obstructed. Of particular interest at a time of scarce
travel funds is the use of "multi-meetings" namely the scheduling
of a number of meetings on related topics during the same period at the same
4. Facilitative action by IGO secretariats
The current emphasis in the debates on the restructuring of the UN system
and on the new international economic order render it improbable that attention
will be given to the following which are therefore listed "pour memoire",
although each point has been expanded in detail elsewhere (Inter-organizational
relations. in search of a new style. In: The Open Society; report of a
seminar to reflect on the network of international associations. Brussels,
UIA, 1973, pp. 115-132.).
facilitation of INGO action;
programme information exchange;
facilitation of inter-INGO contacts;
public relations activities on behalf of INGOs;
support of studies to improve INGO action;
liaison with national governments to facilitate INGO actions;
liaison with IGOs to facilitate INGO actions.
5. International convention on INGO legal status
Further attention could be given to this matter, bearing in mind the previous
initiatives noted (page 204). Such a convention might cover the following
points (all of which, excepting the first two having been identified by the
International Labour Conference, Committee on Trade Unions Rights, 1970):
international legal status (whether "recognized" by UN Agencies
or not) and special status in the countries in which it has its offices;
right to be informed of programmes, problems and organizations affecting
its area of subject, programme or problem competence;
right to exercise activities in other countries;
right to negotiate and be represented at governmental meetings In Its
special field of competence;
right of participation in the formulation of programmes for social problems
which are its special field of competence;
right of its national member bodies to participate fully in international
right to inviolability of offices as well as correspondence and telephone
right to protection of funds and assets against intervention by public
right of access to media of mass communications;
right to protection against any discrimination in matters of affiliation
right of access to voluntary conciliation and arbitration procedures:
right of members to further education and training.
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 text in: "Guide
pratique a l'usage des organisations internationales etablies en Belgique".
Bruxelles, Federation des associations internationales etablies en Belgique
(FAIB), 1968, 3rd edition). Provision of status in international law for transnational
associations would considerably facilitate their activities and increase their
effectiveness. Such recognition should however avoid the imposition of artificial
constraints upon the network of organizations to give rise to a select class
of isolated unchanging entities which would obscure the presence of excluded
bodies and interrelationships of social significance.
6. Improvements in INGO information and communication
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:
geographical distance, which could be effectively reduced by the introduction
of subsidized travel, postal and telephone rates;
right of access to information systems initiated by IGOs (e.g. the Information
Referral Service of the UN Environment Programme is restricted to governments
although the main inputs are from NGOs);
location of key contacts and assistance in maintaining contacts through
facilitative use of mailing systems.
7. Improvements in information and communication about
Basically INGOs are in urgent need of a standard public relations campaign
to accomplish the following:
establish their existence and identity in the eyes of the general public,
and their relation to national NGOs to which the public relates;
improve their own identity as a group of bodies with common concerns
and with related functions in society;
improve their image in the eyes of government officials and representatives,
in order to ensure facilitative decisions for INGO action.
The success of any such campaign of course requires a move away from
"INGO" to some positive term like "transnational associations
8. Facilitation of network processes
It is clear that intra- and inter-organizational networks are
growing, multiplying and evolving in response to perceived social problems
and possibilities for action. These changes are in large part unplanned (and
unfinanced) from any central point and appear to be self-correcting
in that "excessive" development is compensated by the emergence
of counteracting networks. Little attention is given to facilitating this
growth so that in some cases it may be considered dangerously spastic. Despite
this the network of organizations (international, national, and local) of
every kind and with every pre-occupation, represents a major unexplored
resource. The (synergistic) potential of this network, if its processes were
facilitated. is unknown.
Possibilities for facilitating these processes include:
facilitative (as opposed to obstructive) legislation;
subsidized postal and telephone communications;
creation of facilitative environments where organizations and people
can meet and interact informally to catalyze, wherever possible, the emergence
of action programmes or formal collaboration;
creation of information systems and devices to facilitate the development
of new contacts in response to new issues (e.g. social action yellow pages,
network maps, on-line intellectual communities, community interaction
software packages, etc.);
examination of the significance of the number and reticulation of organizations
in a society as a social indicator, both in terms of development and quality
9. Network organizational strategy
The elements of the strategic problem at this time include:
a vast and largely uncomprehended network of perceived problems and
problem systems, on which no single body has (or possibly could have) adequate
a vast and fragmented network of conceptual tools and knowledge resources
which is not (and possibly could not be) comprehended by any single body;
a vast and largely uncomprehended network of agencies, organizations,
groups and active individuals spanning every conceivable human interest
on which no body has (or possibly could or should have) adequate information.
These networks, and others, are not static structures. They are changing
rapidly in response to pressures and opportunities perceived in very different
parts of the social system. As such they, and component sub-networks,
are not controlled or controllable by any single body, if only because the
complexity cannot be handled by any single body or group of bodies.
The strategic problem therefore is how to ensure that the appropriate organizational
resources emerge, and are adequately supported, in response to emerging pressures
and opportunities. But in would seem that this must be achieved without
organizing and planning such organized response-for to the extent
that any part of the network is so organized, other parts will develop (and
probably should develop) which will favour and implement alternative (and
partially conflicting) approaches.
The challenge is therefore to develop the meaning and constraints
of what may be termed a network strategy. This is an approach which facilitates
or catalyzes (rather than organizes) the emergence, growth, development, adaptation
and galvanization of organizational networks in response to problem networks,
in the light of the values perceived at each particular part of the social
10. Network vocabulary
Whether amongst academics, policy-makers, administrators, or other
practitioners, the frequency with which "network" is now used is
not matched by any increasing facility in distinguishing between types of
network. Because clear and simple concepts are lacking, together with the
appropriate terms, discussion of such social complexity can only be accomplished,
if at all, by the use of extremely cumbersome and lengthy phrases which tend
to create more confusion than they eliminate. A vocabulary is required which
is adapted to complexity. In the absence of such a vocabulary, debate tends
to avoid discussion of issues which emerge from such complexity and concentrates
on issues which can be adequately expressed via the existing vocabulary. This
creates the illusion that the issues which can be discussed are the most important
because of the visibility accorded them by the vocabulary at hand.
There is therefore a real challenge to the social sciences to identify concepts
associated with complexity and to locate adequate terms with which to label
them in their relation to systems.
The development of such a network vocabulary would provide a powerful
means for objectifying and de-mystifying the complexity of the organization
problem and conceptual networks by which we are surrounded and within which
most of our activity is embedded.