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Information Needs and the Consultative Relationship in the Second United Nations Development Decade

The perspective for the exchange of information between the United Nations, Specialised Agencies, other Intergovernmental Organizations, and the International Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs)


1. Governmental bodies would like:

  • to ensure that NGOs are informed of their programmes
  • to know of the existence of NGO programmes in areas of interest related to or affecting their own activities

2. NGOs would like:

  • to ensure that governmental bodies are aware of their own programmes
  • to ensure that they are informed of governmental programmes of interest to them or which affect their own programmes

3. The current consultative status arrangement is highly charged politically and does not necessarily correspond to the information needs of the Specialist Agency.

4. Specialized Agencies can work directly with NGOs without any need for formal recognition or consultative status of any kind

5. Host Specialized Agencies are now investigating methods of processing information by computer


1. The current debate concerns the effectiveness of the consultative relationship and the need to protect it

2. Consultative status may be considered to contain the following elements:

(a) advice given or offered on a particular issue

(b) information supplied in report form

(c) information on the organization operating programmes (members, budget, executive officers, staff, etc.); information on current programmes and future plans (fields of activity, persons responsible, budget allocation, countries of activity, etc.)

(d) recognition of the existence of a private organization by a public organization, thus increasing, in some cases, the status of the private organization; recognition of the representative of the private organization, thus increasing, in some cases, the status of that parson

3. Item 2 (a) and (b) cover the cases where the topic is complex and requires judgement or the support of a lengthy evaluative, and possibly statistical, study. Current procedures can only be improved with difficulty. Due to the need for person to person contact, item (d) is also involved.

4 Item 2(c) represents a totally different problem. This covers what the organization is, what it does, and what it plans to do. Such information should ideally be exchanged between IGOs and NGOs in a highly standardized format. It enables each to assess the value of the other's programmes and their real scope.

5. Confusion between the methods required for (3) and (4) leads to inefficiency in the exchange of information under (4) and to lack of understanding of the modern techniques appropriate to such an exchange.

6. In particular, the efforts to obtain a united NGO front on any issue are concerned with type (3) problems. History indicates a low probability of a significant breakthrough in this area. The conditions under which such unity could be obtained night even be considered harmful to the role which NGOs as a whole, perform for society.

7. The creation may therefore be raised as to whether the desirable features of such 'unity' cannot be better located in a politically neutral form such as a unified collection of information - in a purely technical sense. The juxtaposition of standard information on a variety of organizations does not then imply any link between them. The problem is thus transposed from a political setting to a technical setting - except for the residual political problem of deciding who is to be responsible for maintenance of the file and on what basis it is to be consulted.


1. Factors to be recognized:

(a) It must be recalled that the volume of information involved is too great to permit its exchange to be satisfactory using a printed document. The number of persons requiring all sections of such a hypothetical publication on a regular basis is a vary small percentage of those requiring small sections based on specific queries which may differ slightly from month to month. Such persons cannot be expected to obtain and scan a lengthy and costly document, even if well indexed, to locate the few items relevant to his or her activities
(b) In addition, it is important to recognize that one use of a list of organizat ions, whatever the criteria by which they were selected, is to send something to then. The availability of a printed list does not necessarily mean that the addresses can be conveniently transferred to envelopes for mailing. This is a very real, if mundane, administrative problem. The time and resources required for this operation may be a significant barrier to effective use of the information even if available.
(c) Finally, it is important to recognize that the persons to whom the information can be usefully retransmitted will vary according to the type of information currently on file and will therefore change from week to week. This requirement is not suited to the operation of a document distribution mailing list

2. Suppose that NGOs could channel (directly or indirectly) information on their organization, its current and planned programmes, its members, etc. into a central computer file. This could take the form of one or more magnetic tapes.

3. Copies of this file could be sent regularly to each Specialized Agency,

4. Each Agency with computer facilities could then arrange for the tape to be scanned according to its programme interests; current queries; or fields of interest registered by individual departments in the secretariat or ay individual delegates. Alternatively, the file could be scanned for information on the current activities of those NGOs with which it had a formal consultat tionship. This information would be printed out, or perhaps transferred to some other tape. If the query was for a mailing list (questionnaire, distribution of a report on a particular subject matter, information on a new programme or meeting, etc.), the printout could be made directly onto envelope labels for immediate use.

5. The Agencies without computer facilities could arrange for this to be done for them, either commercially, or by another agency in the same geographical area.

6. An additional possibility is that the Specialized Agencies should feed onto the file, as it was being scanned, new information about their own programmes, for the benefit of NGOs (and perhaps other IGOs). Such new information would then be used to update the central file when the tape was returned.

7. NGOs, U.N. Agencies and other intergovernmental organization would then be in a position to obtain a systematic picture of current programmes (and the organization responsible) in those areas which were of interest. This could be done without the need for formal contact between the different organization -- except for the purely administrative problem of transferring the file copy


1. The main advantage is clearly that each organization needs only to be concerned with getting its programme information into the central file and extracting whatever is currently considered to be of interest. It does not have to consider whether it recognizes the organization interested in that information or providing the information extracted.

2. This approach could avoid some interdepartmental jurisdictional problems. Since the department filing the information (or registering interest in a particular category of information which may at some stage appear on the file) is not 'in contact' with any particular outside organization for any purpose, no grounds for friction with other departments are involved. (The technique is in effect ideal for the circulation of internal information across jurisdictional boundaries. Each department is sent via the computer any information filed by a dejurisdictional boundaries. Each department is sent via the computer any information filed by a department in another part of the organization. The only link, which results in the transfer, is the common interest in a particular subject.) By ensuring that the computer automatically redirects or addresses information on a particular subject to the persons who have registered an interest in that subject within the agency, the effectiveness of retransmission of information is considerably increased.

3. This approach avoids the communication blockages which arise because a particular organization is assumed to have programmes in a particular area only. Some subsections of an organization may have programmes which touch on an entirely different sector (e.g. FAO programmes touching on health (WHO) or education (USESCO), etc.). Rigid classification of 'FAO' would prevent health NGOs from detecting the FAO programmes in question. The same is true of Specialized Agencies which soy be faced with the problem of keeping informed of new programmes of NGOs which, from the stated aims or past programmes of the NGO, would not be expected to have programmes of interest or even be considered to merit consultative relationship with that particular agency. This is particularly important in the case of interdisciplinary environmental problems or broad areas of interest such as 'development' which may cover many specialised programmes.

4. Specialized Agencies are better able to judge whether by informing the international WOO they are effectively informing its members via its international periodical, or whether the NGO cannot effectively retransmit information. This knowledge should enable Specialized Agencies to design their public relations and information campaigns with greater skill. As an example, it might prove more economic to allocate funds to extend the free circulation of an existing NGO periodical, rather than attempt to adapt the contents of the agency fact sheet and send this to each of the national members.


1. The major problem is clearly that of deciding who should be responsible for updating the central file and coordinating the arrangement. In the initial stages this would not be important and one organization could be responsible, perhaps in association with others. At a later stage, it would perhaps be an advantage to have several regional or specialist files which could be the responsibility of committees of NGOs in each area. These files could then be used to update copies of the central file. Once sufficient organi sations were actively involved in the updating process, the question of ultimate responsibility should not arise. Each updating point would add to the file copies in circulation. It should not be necessary to have a single organization in overall control. This would probably be undesirable since such an organization would tend to exclude particular types of data of interest to others.

2. The second problem is how the file would be built up and updated in the initial stage when only a few NGOs could participate actively because of lack of understanding of the techniques required. Clearly it is impossible to expect individual NGOs to provide the information, coded and formatted in a manner suitable for computer input. This could however be done for them using the sort of procedure employed by the Union of International Associations to produce and update the Yearbook of International Organization and the annual International Congress Calendar.

These problems should become unimportant within the next ten years as remote terminals become widely available. Then it should be possible for many users to update the file and consulted from many points. The file would then be split up between regional or agency computer centers linked whenever a particular query necessitated it.

It the near future (2-3 years), for example, it should be possible for each Specialized Agency to instal a remote computer terminal in the "NGO Room" of its headquarters. This could be used by each NGO to:

  • update the sections of the file on which its own programmes were located (many security features can be incorporated);
  • locate Specialized Agency (or NGO) programmes in which it might be interested (and perhaps the appropriate document call numbers)

and by the Specialized Agency to transmit programme and meeting information to NGOs and thus avoid the delays inherent in document production and distribution. This could prove a most important technique for improving the effectiveness of consultative relations.