30 January 2005
UIA Survival: Separating Siamese Twins?
a challenge of conflicting cultures
- / -
Unrecognized sibling rivalry: UIA vs. UAI
Dissociation of the statutory UAI Culture from the operational UIA Culture
Survival vs Centennial celebrations?
Surrogate strategic decision-making
Erosion of integrity and ethical sensitivity
On 21-22 January 2005 a meeting of the UIA Bureau was held on the initiative
of members of the Bureau, despite earlier reluctance on the part of the President.
Members of the Bureau were unable to articulate an agenda for the meeting in
advance - other than to 'review' the current situation. A
draft agenda prepared by the Secretariat had been accepted with modifications
by the Bureau and circulated to other Council members for information and to
solicit possible inputs. Numerous documents on the situation were prepared - most
circulated in advance. The prepared agenda was not followed and extensive time
was devoted to points that had not been placed on it. Discussion of urgent
matters was avoided.
Information was provided by the Secretariat concerning the cash flow crisis
that was forecast to re-emerge in June-July 2005, partly as a consequence of
having to repay the loan made by the UIA publisher to survive a similar crisis
in August 2004, if income generating measures already put in place by the Secretariat
are less successful than forecast (subscriptions, etc). This crisis would result
in immediate inability to pay salaries.
The following account is a description of the circumstances that resulted
in the author, as Secretary-General ad interim, renouncing this function
during the course of the meeting. The function had been attributed by the Bureau
meeting of June 2004 in order to take swift remedial measures to ensure the
survival of the UIA through 2004 and 2005 - following the inability (for
family reasons) of the elected Secretary-General, André Onkelinx. Survival
through to June 2005 seems assured.
This account is extremely frank because a principal challenge in UIA decision-making
processes is the marked tendency to hide behind formalities and politeness
to the advantage of some in avoiding unpleasant management challenges and implementing
effective responses to them. Any effort to acknowledge challenges is labelled
as negative and unconstructive - to the point of being perceived as
rude and inappropriate. Use of criteria of politeness ands due process as a
form of procedural manipulation or blackmail is unacceptable - especially
at a time when the survival of a 100-year old institution is threatened. A
high degree of frankness is then called for from those who have invested decades
of effort in ensuring that it thrived.
In engaging in this report, the challenge is to find a form that can help
to reframe the debate rather than to exacerbate its dysfunction characteristics.
This suggests that, although the 'UIA' is an apolitical organizaton,
it is effectively faced with a political struggle to preserve and develop
a particular set of values in the face of forces that would seek to eliminate
Unrecognized sibling rivalry: UIA vs. UAI
The point has been made that the 'UIA' is the expression of two
cultures, which might well be described in terms of schizophrenia as two dangerously
disconnected personalities (cf Secretariat note of 28 May 2002). These can
be usefully labelled by the English and French initials of the Union of International
Associations (UIA and UAI):.
- UAI Culture: This personality is primarily expressed
through the spoken French language, which has
traditionally been the language of 'UIA' statutory meetings
(typically without interpretation), of the Presidency and of the Secretary-General.
It is the language of the founders of the 'UIA' and of their
documents a century ago. Few documents are now produced by the 'UIA' in
this language to articulate the challenges and opportunities faced by the
organization. People of this culture tend to have a dislike of documents
(especially those produced in English), preferring face-to-face communication
and one-stop comprehension. Various rationalizations are presented for
not understanding issues expressed in text form. These may disguise a relatively
low level of comprehension of technical English, but more typically they
reflect the very limited time that busy people have to digest documents
or engage in e-mail exchanges. The voluminous revenue generating products
of the 'UIA' tend to be primarily in English. Understandably
this discourages those of the UAI Culture from exploring them. As has been
noted in many international institutions, there are also strong resentments
associated with the increasing predominance of English and, most recently,
its emergence as the prime language of the web. But given the predominance
of French in 'UIA' statutory meetings, it is within this mindset
that strategic decision-making is undertaken regarding the future activities
of the 'UIA'.
- UIA Culture: This personality is primarily expressed
through English text. It is the language through
which those in the Secretariat must necessarily express themselves whatever
their preferred spoken language. Many of the editors are, for example,
of Flemish mother tongue. It is the language of many of the 'UIA' computer
applications and of the products supplied under contract to the German
publisher - with whom communications take place in English - for
a primarily English-speaking market. Those of the UIA Culture are significantly
influenced by the many recent innovations in the lean and nimble working
style associated with networking, community team work, rapid informal communications,
innovation, 'hands on' continuous learning and general dependence
on the internet. This contrasts with those of the UAI Culture who have
a natural tendency to prefer more traditional, formal, hierarchical
modes of protocol-sensitive face-to-face communication and 'hands
off', directive, authoritarian work organization - an issue
recognized to be of great frustration to those using English as a lingua
franca within European intergovernmental institutions.
Those in the UIA Culture see the challenges and opportunities of international
organization in general (and civil society in particular) in relation to the
technicalities of knowledge management within the information society -- and
visibility on the web. Those of the UAI Culture see the challenges in terms
of communications amongst duly qualified authorities assuring media impact - and
are much frustrated by the lack of visibility of the 'UIA' in those
terms. Whereas the UIA Culture is focused on the longer-term meaning associated
with products and services, the UAI Culture is focused on the immediate meaning
associated with meetings and speeches - the photo opportunities characteristic
of modern politics. The fact that it is from the UIA Culture that revenues
are almost entirely generated is a cause of underlying resentment between the
two cultures. Those of the UIA Culture resent the inability of those of the
UAI Culture to comprehend the challenges and opportunities of ensuring the 'thrival' of
the 'UIA' in the 21st century information society, whether in terms
of knowledge management, outsourcing or partnerships. Given their inability
to generate resources, those of the UAI Culture resent the inability of the
UIA Culture to make available to them more adequate resources to permit more
frequent gatherings, with important speakers on important topics - however
much these may be criticized as merely repetitions of statements made elsewhere
to little detectable effect.
The dysfunctionality of the relationship between the two cultures is much
aggravated by the fact that those of the UIA Culture tend to be either Secretariat 'employees',
non-French-speaking members of UIA statutory bodies (in which their participation
is thereby highly constrained, if not completely marginalized), or regular
consultants. These asymmetries provide a means for dysfunctional power dynamics.
The UAI Culture uses statutory advantage to inhibit initiatives of the UIA
Culture even though . this may inhibit revenue generation. The UIA Culture
is however able to use its technical skills and partnering potential to engage
successfully in revenue-generating activities. The failure of the UIA Culture
to generate income according to the terms of the UAI Culture is then a further
source of resentment.
The UIA Culture values the ability to act innovatively to finance further
innovation - evaluated by those who engaged in it in a manner consistent
with the open source philosophy. The UAI Culture values recognition by external
authority figures and due process irrespective of any subsequent appreciation
of its significance.
For an organization seeking to celebrate its centenary, it would be historically
inaccurate to forget the lengthy dormant phases in war-torn Europe. In addition
however is the not-quite-forgotten bitter inter-war rivalry between Geneva-based
initiatives and Brussels-based initiatives - and how this played out
in terms of coalitions of international organizations. In fact Geneva became
the successful focus for coalitions of international associations -- but with
minimal effective secretariats. Whereas Brussels became the successful focus
for ambitious clearinghouse-secretariats -- with minimal formal mandates from
coalitions of NGOs. The first might be said to correspond to the aspirations
of the UAI Culture; the second to the reality of the UIA Culture. Ironically
the key Bureau members associated with the UAI Culture even now have strong
associations with Geneva.
Few people, if any, in the 'UIA' can be said to move freely move
freely between the two cultures -- however competent they may appear.
All the above dimensions were evident at the meeting of the Bureau in January
- The meeting was conducted in French. The report will naturally be produced
in French and will not be translated for non-French-speaking members
- The great majority of the documents (including the draft agenda) were provided
in English and will not be translated. Preparations had been made through
English e-mail communication by which documents were circulated -- there
were almost no e-mail communications in French.
- Preparatory communications (as opposed to documents circulated) were focused
primarily on questions of form and not of substance or urgency.
- Bureau members provided no proposals for consideration whatsoever, beyond
the formal points made in preparatory communications
- Although many of the documents were only provided for information, it was
clear that there was little awareness of their potential relevance, or of
the content of those of greater importance. Bureau members are busy people
with many other commitments and priorities
- The agenda was effectively ignored as an instrument for ordering the meeting
process and no protests were voiced in this regard.
- The prime focus was placed on celebration of the centenary of the 'UIA' in
the period of 2007-2010 despite the expressed Council views on the matter
- The communications brochure, that had given rise to a frustrating number
of variants over a year previously, became a major focus of the gathering.
The drafts had to be printed out in haste by the Secretariat since the issue
had not been proposed for the agenda.
- Given the lack of awareness of the issues and urgencies, any efforts to
draw attention to these were perceived as negative and unconstructive. Complex
issues relating to recovery capacity, detailed in English documents, were
held to be 'incomprehensible' when explained in French.
Ironically the cultural divide was evident in an exchange of preliminary communications
in which the title of the Summary of Activities of the UIA Secretariat was
deliberately cited using 'UAI' instead of UIA' by a leading
member of the UAI Culture. The primacy of use of 'UAI' in any
English-language reference to the 'UIA' was asserted, despite extensive
statutory evidence to the contrary. [In the documentary tradition of the Secretariat,
editors are reprimanded or fired for such deliberate bibliographic inaccuracies - anathema
to the UIA Culture and destructive of 'UIA' credibility to reference
librarians. It is however highly symptomatic of the identity crisis of the 'UIA'.]
Dissociation of the statutory UAI Culture from the operational UIA Culture
It is noteworthy that in the period July-December 2004, following formal recognition
of the crisis at the Bureau meeting in June and the delegation of functions
to the Secretary-General ad interim:
- The senior Vice-President (present at the January Bureau meeting) was unaware
that the Secretary-General had not resigned at that time
(although this had been confirmed at the Council meeting in October at which
he was present), and therefore had no understanding of the temporary nature
of the delegation of authority (to the SG ad interim) or the statutory responsibilities
that remained with the Secretary-General. He did not accept that state of
affairs, seemingly contrary to his notes of the two previous meetings, until
it had been reaffirmed in the meeting by all concerned at the January Bureau
- Due to the many commitments of the President, the Secretary-General ad
interim was unable to benefit from more than very occasional communications
with the President - despite the statutory provision: 'The
President and the Secretary-General are responsible for the daily administration
of the UIA' (Art. 9).
- Communications from vice-presidents, virtually non-existent prior to November
2004, were almost entirely focused on formal matters, even to the point of
being unable to articulate the purpose of the Bureau meeting they requested.
The senior Vice-President avoided all communication with the SG ad interim - preferring
to address his communications to the 'Secretariat'.
- No initiatives had been undertaken by Full Members of the UAI Culture in
support of the recovery initiatives during that intervening period. Only
those of the UIA Culture had taken any such initiatives. It had been vaguely
claimed by the Bureau that it was necessary to review action by the Secretariat
in response to the financial crisis. It had also been accepted on the draft
agenda that there be a corresponding review of initiatives of Council members,
this controversial issue was deliberately set aside during the meeting.
- Substantive issues raised perceived as key operational challenges by the
UIA were avoided or declared to be incomprehensible.
- From a political perspective, in the much vaunted spirit of participatory
democracy, it is worth distinguishing between:
Survival vs Centennial celebrations?
Although the Council in October 2004 had specifically indicated that resources
should not be allocated to these celebrations until they were available, the
Bureau focused almost exclusively on the possibility of using the 2007-2010
period as a means to raise funds for the survival of the 'UIA' beyond
June-July 2005. The credibility in the eyes of funders of seeking funds in
preparation for a birthday so long before that event was not examined or questioned.
It would be considered undignified, if not pathetic, on the part of an individual - or
relatives of a nonagenarian.
Various conventional fund-raising approaches were optimistically envisaged - without
questioning the probability with which they can be usefully associated.
Many had already been extensively explored -- notably by André Onkelinx
with respect to those in Belgium. Many offer only faint hope of success - at
least in the short-term. Despite this, no due consideration was given to the
need for alternative (or more radical) scenarios possibly involving liquidation,
partnerships, restructuring, buy-outs, takeovers, etc - or the constraints
on their fruitful outcome. Any such considerations were viewed as unconstructive
and negative. The very real potential impact on livelihood of staff was ignored
with the strong assertion that Belgian government social funds would provide
any necessary support - which is in fact only the case for commercial
enterprises and not non-profit bodies. It was also firmly asserted that
banks would provide a covering loan, despite the opinion of the auditor to
As representatives of the UAI Culture, enthusiasm was expressed for holding
small gatherings (financed by others) in the expectation that, directly or
indirectly, these would engender sufficient income to survive the immediate
One group held the view that the 'UIA' could invite key speakers
on civil society to such a gathering. The 'UIA' would select the
topics and speakers. How these might relate to the debates involving those
same speakers (in events sponsored by other bodies) was not addressed -- nor
how this was to be organized with current Secretariat resources. The focus
was on the form, not the substance. Curiously these initiatives had
not been proposed or undertaken by the UAI Culture in response to the previous
crisis period in 2004.
Another favoured approach was for the 'UIA' to present an 'interesting
project' to potential funders. It was assumed that the Secretariat would
articulate this project - as it has done with some success in seeking
funds on many occasions in the past. The fact that projects proposed as credible
by the UIA Culture of the Secretariat tend to be meaningless to those of the
UAI Culture was viewed as an inability to respond appropriately to the priorities
of the UAI Culture. The fact that the dysfunctionality of the clash between
the UIA Culture and the UAI Culture had already severely eroded the capacity
of the Secretariat to propose and implement projects with any enthusiasm was
dismissed as irrelevant or 'incomprehensible' - despite
extensive documentation provided to that effect.
Surrogate strategic decision-making
Since the year 2000, the UAI Culture has accepted the placement of 'UIA
strategy' clarification and elaboration on the agenda of its statutory
bodies. Many documents have been elaborated from a UIA Culture perspective
to help clarify these issues - notably the question of the 'identity' of
the 'UIA', and the 'business it is in', or should be
in. The agenda point has always been avoided in practice. Current initiatives
point to ways in which strategy is effectively now being non-democratically
and surreptitiously defined through proxies and surrogates:
- Election of a new Secretary-General: It is recognized
that a new Secretary-General should be elected on the occasion of the next
General Assembly in 2005. Depending on the tight sequence of events relating
to the timing of such an event, it is important to engage in defining this
process at an early stage. The Secretariat articulated discussion points
and a draft list of criteria from the perspective of the UIA Culture in preparation
for the Bureau meeting. Views of Council members were solicited - with
almost no comments. As had been suggested, the Secretariat also surveyed
staff members to determine their preferences and priorities regarding such
criteria. The Bureau avoided discussion of this issue and in particular avoided
any discussion of the characteristics of a new Secretary-General, or the
role that person should perform. Given the lack of debate on strategy, it
would appear that it is hoped by the UAI Culture that the strategic debate
can be avoided by selecting (rather than 'electing') a Secretary-General
who will somehow embody whatever strategic program cannot be effectively
- Centenary celebrations: There is little challenge to the
strategic task of celebrating an institutional birthday - except the
vexatious issue of choice of date between 2007 and 2010 and the problem of
trying to stretch its significance back to 2005 in the hope that a nonagenarian
organization can make it through to the century. The birthday can indeed
be acclaimed as a celebration, in the case of the 'UIA', of 100-years
of activity. What exactly is to be celebrated however? For an organization
endeavouring to enter the knowledge society of the 21st century, and well-placed
to do so according to independent observers, its potential partners and funders
are future-oriented in the extreme. What exactly is to be achieved in a strategy
over the period 2005-2010 that is focused on the past? Will such celebrations
not acquire the image of celebrating ancient monuments - like its worthy
sister organization the Mundaneum? Given that the UAI Culture has little
appreciation or understanding of what the UIA Culture has achieved, and is
capable of achieving, is there to be any substantive content to centenary
projects other than events in which 'civil society' is
acclaimed ad nauseam? Will this pattern of meetings and self-congratulation
constitute the sum of the dynamic 21st century strategy of the 'UIA' - or
a worthy funeral ceremony?
- Promotional brochure: Over the years the Secretariat
has produced and distributed many different kinds of promotional brochure.
The cost of printing and production favoured an emphasis on promotion via
the web. In 2003 the Council called for a handout brochure. Variants were
produced by the Secretariat for discussion. Some Council members reworked
alternatives. All these have been subject to Council processes through 2004.
At the January meeting, bypassing other tentatively agreed agenda items,
extensive time was invested by the Bureau in providing further inputs to
the Secretariat for new variants and a future working meeting of Council
members was envisaged to that end. Despite professional advice that the 'UIA' needs
to go through its 'identity crisis', the contents of the brochure - and
the predominating perspectives of the UAI Culture -- will presumably constitute
the only effective debate on the future strategy of the 'UIA' in
engaging with the knowledge society of the 21st century.
Erosion of integrity and ethical sensitivity
Loss of integrity can quickly spread throughout an organization. In the case
of the UIA Culture in the Secretariat it would have an immediate effect on
the quality of work for which its products are admired.
Although the 'UIA' is supposedly an apolitical body, it could
be usefully argued that there are in fact several hidden power agendas in play:
- Primacy of the role of the Bureau: Secretary-Generals
of the 'UIA' have always questioned the merit of distinct Bureau
meetings, except those immediately preceding Council meetings. From a statutory
perspective the Bureau is not seen as having an extension policy-making or
decision-making role. The senior Vice-President however contests this view
and seeks to multiply the number of such meetings, independently of the Council
meeting. He has declared the Bureau to be primarily responsible for strategic
and management decisions.
- Denial of responsibility: Whilst agreeing to meet under
a vague mandate, empowering itself to review the current situation and the
actions taken by the Secretary-General ad interim, the Bureau refused
to engage in any form of formal acknowledgement of the fulfilment of this
mandate. The argument made was that the vague verbal approval would appear
in the report of the Bureau meeting, although this is not itself a statutory
document and can only be a draft and no provision was made for its formal
approval. This effectively left the Secretary-General ad interim in
legal limbo in a context of mutual recrimination.
- Usurping the role of the Council: Given that the Bureau
has traditionally not dealt with the substantive issues it orders for consideration
by the Council, the processes of the Bureau overlapped those of the Council.
However, although many 'recommendations' were made, it
was not evident whether these were 'decisions' on which
the Secretariat was expected to act, or whether these were made in anticipation
of being converted into decisions following debate by the Council. Given
that further Bureau meetings were planned prior to any council meeting, it
could be argued that these are now seen as a means of avoiding decision-making
through the Council (which could be interpreted as contrary to statutory
- Non-democratic decision-making: Past Council meetings
have provided for non-Council Full Members and interested members of the
Secretariat to be present as observers at meetings. In preparation for the
Bureau meeting, a request had been made by the senior Vice-President to ensure
the absence of any 'Friends of the Secretariat' - suggesting
the comic alternative that only the 'Enemies of the Secretariat' were
then gathered together. Suggestions were made that any discussion of the
process of electing a Secretary-General should be done in closed meeting.
However, two Vice-Presidents made repeated references to the process of 'recruiting' a
Secretary-General, or even to 'designating' one - whereas
the Statutes provide for an 'election' by Council members. This
seems to suggest a tendency within the UAI Culture to shift towards a secretive
decision-making process that is in total contradiction with the Statutes - has
the new Secretary-General already been effectively 'recruited'?
Is the Bureau effectively choosing the next Secretary-General to be presented
to the Council, or are candidates to be solicited so that a choice can be
made as is claimed to be a characteristic of democracy? Secretive decision-making
can only evoke suspicion? Who has what to hide?
- Micro-management: In contrast with the past, there were
indications that the Bureau was seeking a much higher degree of oversight
on Secretariat operations than is envisaged in the Statutes. Questions were
raised whether the Secretariat's report of its activities should be
subject to prior review by the Bureau before distribution to the council
or Full Members. The possibility that the Bureau might approve complex pricing
arrangements was also envisaged. The extraordinary aspect of this, as well
demonstrated, is that the UAI Culture is not characterized by rapid decision-making
and in the case of Council members and the Bureau are clearly overburdened
by other commitments and priorities to the point of being only rarely physically
available and somewhat challenged in their 'electronic availability'.
It is curious therefore that efforts should be made to render decision-making
processes even less effective - especially when over committed people
have little time to absorb the relevant dimensions of any issue.
- Trivializing achievements of the 'UIA': None
of the proposals articulated by the UAI Culture verbally (for none have been
articulated in writing) do more than point to the achievements of the 'UIA' with
regard to knowledge of civil society. Given the quantities of such information
now freely available on the web, the question is how to highlight what is
original and appreciated as unique about the activities of the 'UIA' - in
contrast with the many other bodies that may lay a measure of claim to that
which the UAI Culture seeks to highlight as the unique achievements of the 'UIA'.
In effect the UAI Culture effectively trivializes and marginalizes the original
activities of the 'UIA', whether deliberately or through failure
to comprehend the challenging information issues of the 21st century.
- Disempowering the Secretariat: It is understandable that,
from the perspective of the UAI Culture, the preoccupation of the UIA Culture
with information products and services is merely an unfortunate, and hopefully
temporary, irritant. For the UAI culture, if the focus of the 'UIA' could
be successfully shifted to the organization of meetings at which Full Members
could speak with authority, in the company of important people concerned
with civil society, then the dependence on those information activities could
be avoided. The databases and personnel concerned with them, and the competence
with respect to technicalities of computer systems and the web, could all
be rendered unnecessary. The only irritant would then be the challenge of
how to claim to speak with authority -- other than by reference to a pattern
of gatherings. Other than this, it is clear that the 'financial crisis' can
actually be welcomed by the UAI Culture as a way of forcing the 'UIA' out
of the information business - and eliminating the UIA Culture. This
could be then be framed as 'saving the UIA'. Ethical issues relating
to loss of livelihood, and the failure to fulfil contracts, can be ignored
as a form of 'collateral damage'. The problem with this approach
is that there are many environments in which 'civil society' dialogues
take place very successfully - some in which Full Members, including
the Vice-Presidents, are key participants. But few such gatherings have more
than marginal appreciation of what the 'UIA' might contribute - despite
the repeated efforts of Full Members. The 'UIA' has little basis
to claim originality in comparison with these other environments - other
than through the initiatives of the UIA Culture. But questions needs to be
asked why those in the UAI Culture who favour this approach do not seek to
save other endangered civil society organizations with a strong meeting focus
-- rather than destabilize the most healthy and sustainable part of the operations
- Critical timing: The 'UIA' is faced with a
multiple timing challenge in 2005 - one that was curiously ignored
by the Bureau despite having been documented in detail. This is exemplified
by the decision to organize a General Assembly in November 2005 during a
year when modifications to the Statutes (due to new Belgian legislation)
require the process of registration to be completed by 31 December 2005.
Professional advice from the person with most insight into the process, recommended
that holding such an assembly in September 2005 would be too late. He recommended
prior to the summer holidays or earlier. However when the point was made
to the Bureau, it was asserted without confirmation that there would be no
problem - without having taken account of the expertise already sought.
Is it hoped that the financial crisis will be solved by then (so that a generously
salaried Secretary-General can be appointed), or is it hoped that a General
Assembly that becomes responsible for liquidation will allocate
the assets, without the encumbrances of the Secretariat, to some other body - perhaps
even one already envisaged?
- SG salary
Just what is who seeking to achieve? Whose cause is served by this?
Separate the cultures