Historical Misrepresentation of a “Union of International Associations”?

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 29 Apr 2019

Anthony Judge | Laetus in Praesens – TRANSCEND Media Service

Scholastic “Demeaning” of Global Civil Society in a Period of Widespread Crisis

Review of International Organizations and Global Civil Society: histories of the Union of International Associations (2019).

A full description of this book is given in the Reviews section of TMS.

Summary of arguments and counter-arguments

In their Acknowledgements, the editors of the study reviewed explicitly indicate with respect to their topic that: rather than producing a celebratory volume, we were aiming for a scholarly book that gives due attention to various problems and shortcomings. In that spirit, rather than celebrate the historical achievement of the volume, the intention of this review is similarly to give due attention to various problems and shortcomings of that study — from a critical perspective. Hopefully this will enable the debate over any controversial issues to move forward.

The focus of the commentary is therefore framed by the emerging sense of urgency in relation to the challenges of global governance for a world in crisis. The founders of the Union of International Associations (UIA) envisaged it as having a role in that regard. Any failure by a study in that respect — from the perspective of the untroubled realms of academia — can be seen as a lost opportunity, as are its insights for the UIA itself.

The question highlighted by the study is whether such a study exemplifies a particular mode of conceptual entrapment — both for those contributing to it from the social sciences and for those working within the framework of any such “union of international associations”. The question is given a particular focus from a policy science perspective by Geoffrey Vickers:

A trap is a function of the nature of the trapped (Freedom in a Rocking Boat: changing values in an unstable society, 1972)

Arguments: The book can be understood as making a case that the UIA is at fault:

  • for failing to fulfill the coordinative vision of Paul Otlet and Henri Lafontaine at the time of its origins in 1907-1910 — irrespective of evolving understanding as to what that might imply and the inherent resistance of most bodies to any form of “coordination” as conventionally understood
  • for failing to ensure a verified degree of data accuracy desired by the social science disciplines, and most notably that of international relations — irrespective of the assumptions made by those disciplines regarding the irrelevance of many of the entities profiled, and the challenge of obtaining the resources to do so
  • for failing to maintain a greater degree of consistency in its categorization of the entities profiled, especially those meriting recognition as “international” — irrespective of evolving understanding of the relevance of existing entities and the emergence of new ones
  • for failing to take timely account of the emergence of corresponding entities of international significance in the Third World (Global South) and the East (during the Cold War) — despite being valued for its coverage of the latter in a period in which such capacity was considered highly suspicious
  • for failing to be transparent with regard to its sales and operations — irrespective of the challenge of operating in a competitive environment in which a degree of confidentiality is typically required for survival
  • for adopting strategies to fund its efforts which call into question the quality of the data gathered, notably by engaging inappropriately in desperate quests for funding — readily deprecated as “begging”, and suggesting the possibility of compromises undermining its role
  • for failing to make information more widely available in a more accessible manner, whether with respect to price or in the light of open source methodologies
  • for failing to render its information more relevant to the bodies profiled, as would be considered consistent with any coordinative vision — and despite the characteristic indifference of most bodies to matters beyond their mandate
  • for failing to manifest a greater degree of dissociation from the many possible indications of inequality in an emerging global society — whilst failing to indicate how any body might do that and remain viable
  • for exhibiting a questionable degree of bias in favour of an agenda labelled “internationalist” — in contrast to agendas labelled “transnationalist” or “global”

Such assessments are notably made by contributors in the light of a critical analysis of UIA operations in 1968, which one contributor labelled the “Judge Report” (Preliminary Investigation of the Possibility of Using Computer Data Processing Methods by the Union of International Associations, 1968), most notably referring to a section on Analysis of Union of International Associations. This was necessarily prior to progressive implementation over decades of a variety of reforms to remedy those deficiencies within operational constraints.

Counter-arguments: Complementing the above assessment, the book could be considered to be at a fault for:

  • failing to indicate in any manner how the UIA, or any other such body, could (or should) better reflect the original vision and declared intention of Paul Otlet and Henri Lafontaine, as reflected in various documents constituting the UIA in 1907-1910.
  • failing to consider how a global data gathering initiative could (or should) be funded — in the real world variously constrained by resources and their unpredictability over historical periods
  • failing to detail the inadequacies of the social sciences in considering the data gathered and ordered by the UIA — over historical periods in which the understandings and priorities of those disciplines have naturally evolved, to some degree as a consequence of the challenge of the data gathered by the UIA
  • failing to consider what other disciplines could have complemented the focus on the “historical” perspective in the light of the judgments so confidently formulated — and how this might have contributed to its assessments
  • failing to consider how a data gathering initiative could (or should) adapt its methods over decades to reconcile consistency with the emerging insights into the variety of entities of relevance, whether existing or emergent
  • failing to consider the systemic functions, purportedly of global significance to any process of coordination, necessarily implied by a very wide variety of entities and their interconnectivity (as systematically documented by the UIA) — a failure consistent with the asystemic analysis of datasets by the social science disciplines
  • failing to distinguish between editorial commitments of the UIA and the marketing claims (notably by its various publishers) — irrespective of any questionable distinction which could now be be made from “fake news”, and the disclaimers included as “warnings” in various editions

It is unclear whether the study has been undertaken in support of some hidden agenda. It is however clear that some contributors have framed their critical review of the data supplied in the Yearbook of International Organizations over many decades such to conclude that that process has been faulty — minimizing the uncritical use of that data by scholars (acknowledged by the study). This emphasis is effectively a case of “shooting the messenger“, namely blaming the UIA for the failure of scholars in their consideration of international organization.

Partially funded as the contributors to the study have been by the international research network “The Transnational Dynamics of Social Reform“, the critical approach to data gathering and institutional reform could be considered naive in the light of experience in other domains. Most notable in this respect has been the approach over many decades to Reform of the United Nations to better reflect the vision embodied in its Charter. This dates from the report by Robert Jackson (A Study of the Capacity of the United Nations Development System, 1969). Long forgotten, it was variously reviewed at the time (Johan Kaufmann, The Capacity of the United Nations Development Program: The Jackson Report, International Organization, 1971).

Ironically, this reviewer considered its implications for the bodies profiled by the UIA (Study of the Capacity of the UN Development System, 1970) as part of a UIA study of International Organizations and the Generation of the Will to Change (1970). Given the labelling of the author proposed in the current study, it is somewhat ironic to note the labelling of the “Jackson Report” favoured at that time. Since the report chooses to make that point with respect to the author of the 1968 study of the UIA, Jackson was also an Australian — as with a key contributor to the volume reviewed here.

Is there a case for recognizing that academics in conceptual glass houses should be careful about throwing stones? Of considerable relevance, the metaphor has been employed by Shirley Hazzard in a highly controversial summary of insights following a decade of employment within the United Nations (People in Glass Houses, 1967). Being also an Australian, is this a further indication of cultural bias?

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