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Problems of classifying international organizations


Types of international organization: detailed overview (Part #5)


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5.1 Borderline categories

As was noted in a cautionary remark concerning the specific examples cited in the previous sections, the organizations are included there to show that a body could be "international" according to some characteristics. Some of the bodies, however, would tend not to be identified as presenting a sufficient degree of "internationality" at this time - for reasons other than those for which they were cited as examples.

This is a very real problem which has pre-occupied the editors of the Yearbook of International Organizations - a reference book designed to provide descriptive listings of all "international" governmental and non-governmental bodies. Over the years they have developed an empirical set of criteria for deciding whether an organization should be included or not. With the 16th (1977) edition, however, they were obliged to note that:

"With the increase in the number and the variety of bodies called "international", it has become more and more difficult to limit a Yearbook of International Organizations only to those organizations corresponding to the selection criteria used for previous editions, even though those criteria remain valid as a definition of "minimal internationality". Consider the following examples:

(a) The practice of the United Nations Economic and Social Council to give consultative status to an increasing number of "national" non-governmental organizations on the same basis as for international non-governmental organizations. Previously this was only done in exceptional cases. (By agreement with the United Nations, all organizations acquiring consultative status are described in this Yearbook.)

(b) The creation of several hundred non-governmental committees to coordinate commercial and industrial activities within the European Economic Community countries. Such bodies therefore acquire a special "federal" (rather than international) character within the Community.

(c) The creation of a large number of semi-autonomous regional or functional bodies of governmental or non-governmental organizations, making it difficult to determine satisfactorily the degree of autonomy justifying their inclusion as separate entries.

(d) The emergence of a variety of new kinds of organization which raise unresolved questions as to whether such bodies should be considered as "international" or not, although they clearly represent a mutation which it is important to reflect in this Yearbook. In editions prior to the 16th these difficulties have been met either by excluding the body (and merely mentioning it in the entry on the organization to which it had some dependent relationship), giving it a "short entry", or (particularly in the case of inter-governmental bodies) giving it a separate full entry." Many of these problems have been resolved by the approach developed from the 19th edition which results in the classification discussed in Section 3 above.

5.2 Organizational substitutes

Functions performed by conventional international bodies may also be performed by substitutes for such bodies under certain circumstances as was implied in an earlier section.

One example of how a need satisfied by a conventional organization may be satisfied by a functional equivalent is the case of a "subscribership". In one setting it may be necessary to have interaction between members via an "organization", while in another the need for such interaction may be satisfied by a journal to which individuals can subscribe. Another example is the case of an "agreement" which may be considered an hyperformal organization. In one setting a written or even verbal agreement may satisfactorily regulate relations between members, in another an equivalent agreement may have to be administered by a secretariat via an organization. Where formal agreement is not possible, an "organization" may perform the necessary mediating or negotiating functions between its members. A final example is the case of a meeting, and particularly large periodic meetings, in a series. In terms of activity, this may be more significant than a small normally constituted organization.

Of particular interest at this time is the increasing importance of various kinds of international information and data networks (possibly based on telex or real-time computer links), by whatever bodies they may be operated or ultimately controlled, if any. One important variety is associated with the movement of bibliographical information (UNISIST, AGRIS, INIS, DEVSIS, and the like). Another is associated with movement of quantitative scientific data (weather, earthquakes, astronomical phenomena, etc). Yet another is concerned with movement of financial data within networks of major banks, governments and financial institutions. Few of these have received scholarly attention, one recent exception being international (news) wire services. (32) The more sophisticated varieties, with fewer but more powerful users, are available through computer networks. One example is Technotec which is a technology exchange data base service offered by the Control Data Corporation to facilitate worldwide technology transfer through the Cybernet/Kronos timesharing networks. A special problem is associated with such services, for although few constraints are placed upon users, their regular use of such services may effectively bind them into dependence on them, making the users vulnerable to unilateral decisions on the part of the institutions or country in which the processing power or files are located. This may be especially serious where, for example, complex national economic computations of low technology countries can only be switched onto computers based in high technology countries. What organization or country could risk dependence on a United Nations computer system when its files and access could be frozen by a General Assembly majority decision?

One consequence of focusing on conventional organizations only is that functional equivalents, particularly in non-Western cultures, are excluded from the analysis, thus introducing cultural bias and jeopardizing comparative studies. Another consequence is that even within a certain culture an "organizational analysis" will exclude many styles or organization performing functions which mesh with those of the organizations we are trying to isolate for closer scrutiny, thus rendering the analysis incomplete.

A further complicating feature is that a conventional organization may, for example, perform functions for a "membership" but at the same time produce a periodical which serves as a focal point for a "subscribership" which is neither identical nor coterminous with the membership. A further complicating feature derives from the dynamic of a social system in that the growth or decay of a particular organization form may be accompanied by transference of functions to another organization form, for instance due to change in technology. The ability to accomplish this transference may be hindered by inertial features, such as vested interests identified with particular patterns of organization. Because we are trapped within our categorical straitjackets we are unable to appreciate fully the complex and subtle ways in which the various forms of organization share and switch the burden of particular social functions between them. Proposals for social change therefore tend to be based on a rather myopic vision of the functions currently performed by a limited number of conventional organizations, rather than on a panoramic view of the rich and complex organizational ecosystem in which many species flourish and interact.

5.3 Alternative categories

In addition to the organizational substitutes discussed above, it is appropriate to draw attention to what may be called alternative styles of organization.

It is a frequent complaint of those dissatisfied with international NGOs (and IGOs to much lesser extent) that most of these bodies are based on a Western model or concept of organization. As such it is claimed that they do not reflect the style, practice or tradition of organization in non-Western societies. This said, however, the regional organizations in such societies tend to differ very little organizationally from the Western model, except perhaps in the degree of direct or indirect government influence on their activities. The only non-Western bodies which the author has been able to locate which could be said to represent the beginning of an alternative approach to organization at the international level are the Waqf in the Arab culture and associations between widely dispersed Chinese populations based on the family name or the ancestral province. Whether organizational forms currently emerging from the Chinese social experiment could be employed at the international level is a matter for attention (particularly regarding the manner of participation of nation states), but there seems to be no evidence of any use of such a distinct form, except in the trend towards consensus decision-making (as advocated by Unesco).

As was mentioned earlier, deliberate efforts have been made in some cases to create minimally structured organizations which blur into informal networks of individuals, groups or institutions. Where these bear a recognized name, they may presumably be considered as semi-formal bodies. Others are purely informal (eg the commune network).

The pattern of links between organizations across national boundaries may be such that the resultant network effectively constitutes an organization in its own right but at a different level. Such "organizations" emerge without being deliberately designed and created. (It would be useful to know this process could be facilitated.)

The relations between members in an organization are conventionally governed by statutory and procedural provisions detailed in appropriate documents. With the advent of computer data networks linking widely dispersed terminals, a new form of organization is emerging. The rules governing the interaction between the members are precisely embodied in the computer software by which the member users interact through the data network. This technique, known as computer conferencing, has given rise to what are being called "on-line intellectual networks". (33) Some of these already cross national boundaries, linking many institutions. Clearly the rules governing the participation of member-users can be modified to include most of those which are essential to the functioning of a normal organization.

The increased use of the technique noted in the above paragraph could also be accompanied by sophisticated modifications to control procedures in organizations. The current range of organizations is limited because of the need for simple voting and control procedures and easily understandable membership groups. The calculating and display power of the computer permits the use of complex weighted voting techniques to allow for a considerable variety of possible distinctions and means of safeguarding against abuse. For example, one member might be allocated 10 votes on one issue range and 70 on another, with the total votes from particular voting blocs weighted in terms of a complex index, itself governed by a weight changing at an agreed rate over the life of the organization. This would permit a much more subtle make-up of organization membership, reflecting more closely the relative interests, capabilities and qualifications of members. The variety of organizational structures would therefore increase. Organizations could be successfully created from combinations of members which would currently be considered improbable or unstable.

The above techniques make possible the existence of organizations which only "cohere" and "exist" on particular issues, or which might have a wide voting membership on one issue, but a very limited voting membership on another. This takes us to a point where the concept of an organization as a distinct and well-defined structure (other than in computer terms) is replaced by an emphasis on the potential components of a structural pattern at any one time and the stimulus necessary to call each of them into play. This formalization of organization dynamics is foreign to conventional thinking about formal organization but is close to the normal intuitive understanding of the operation of small groups, informal organizations and pressure groups.

Clearly the above trends would encourage the emergence of issue-oriented organizations, presenting all the characteristics of a permanent formal organization except that they would be designed to terminate after a period of days, weeks or months. Such bodies might even be rapidly "created" by computer from a pool of members who have registered interest in participating in any such bodies activated by a sufficient number of requests in response to an urgent issue. The whole procedure of informing members, registering statutes, obtaining funds and initiating action would be handled through data networks. A situation might emerge in which considerably more temporary organizations of this kind existed that those of a more permanent conventional nature. This would have many implications (34).

5.4 Quantitative data The growth and development of international organizations has been analyzed quantitatively by many authors (2,4,35). Many of these analyses have been based on the bodies identified in successive editions of the Yearbook of International Organizations and its predecessors.

A summary of the growth of international organizations by type is given in the accompanying statistics. Geographical data on membership and secretariat countries is given in Volume 2: International Organization Participation. An analysis by subject and region is given in Volume 3: Global Action Networks.


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