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Alternation between Variable Geometries

A brokership style for the United Nations as a guarantee of its requisite variety

Presentation to a Workshop on the Adapation of Structures and Methods at the United Nations (The Hague, November 1985) organized by the Hague Academy of International Law and the United Nations University. Published in Daniel Bardonnet (Ed): The Adapation of Structures and Methods at the United Nations. Martinus Nijhoff, 1986, pp 243-247

The number and range of contributions to reflection on criticism and possible reform of the United Nations is large. Rather than add to them, it is perhaps useful to consider the following points :

1. The United Nations system is indeed the reflection of struc- tures and procedures common in national systems. But it is also the reflection of the ways of conceiving such procedures, namely of the "language of organization" which has come to prevail in the international community.

2. There is recognition that in order for the United Nations to perform the functions required of such a system at this time, it needs to be sufficiently complex if it is even to attempt to contain the complexity to which it is expected to respond. The question is whether the necessary complexity of the structure must necessarily be of a kind that becomes counter-productive, as is arguably the case at present.

3. In attempting to identify what could be "reformed" and how to go about it, it is therefore worth questioning whether the organizational language with which such reforms tend to be discussed, and the procedures through which such discussions take place, do not themselves contain obstacles to the emergence of structures of appropriate complexity. Such hidden obstacles would therefore function as "blindspots" in the organizational language and the procedures used. Such blindspots would be reflected in the kinds of structures proposed.

4. It could be argued that the difficulty in facilitating human and social development lies in the exclusive nature of current approaches. They fail to internalize the discontinuity, incompatibility and disagreement which their existence engenders, in a way such as to "contain" the development process, whether conceptually or organizationally.

It could also be argued that no single organizational language or set of procedures could by itself define the form of the reformed organization which it is hoped will emerge.

5. In this light current efforts to identify and define "the" magical alternative can be usefully questioned. In a turbulent social environment, any one such alternative can only be of short-term value. The longer-term calls for a flexible structure with a geometry capable of varying over time in response to changing priorities. It can be argued that it is the dynamics of this alternation between structural configurations which provides a form of organization appropriate to the emergence of a desired new order. Such a new order is thus engendered by the fluctuation in practice between organizational and policy extremes (e.g., centralization/decentralization) — the very fluctuation which the proponents of each such policy make every effort to prevent, at the expense of appropriate long-term organizational development.

6. Part of the present difficulty lies in the massive loss of credibility of classical organizational forms. For those who have not relapsed into a spirit of cynical compromise, such forms appear much less appropriate than the new forms whose outlines are implicit in the modes of action still capable of motivating people, especially the young. The tragedy of the present structure is perhaps that it has not been designed to continually restructure itself as a result of cycles of collective learning. Its many persisting fragments therefore tend to emerge as "frozen" portions of the developmental cycles which would otherwise serve to integrate them and ensure the timing of their dissolution.

7. While it is relatively easy to make the above point using logical arguments, such logical arguments lack credibility. Within an international community of discourse committed to the elaboration and defence of static positions, standpoints and viewpoints, any form of alternation can only appear to resemble vacillation rather than a self-organizing oscillation between viable alternatives. Understanding the policy relevance of alternation may therefore only be possible through metaphors illustrating the dynamics of the relationship between alternatives. Since each such policy is a "language" or mindset whereby a world-view is organized, no adequate "logical" framework can exist or the transition between alternatives. Many familiar metaphors of alternation exist, however, through which the characteristics of such shifts may be understood. People are quite capable of comprehending sophisticated metaphors. The adequacy of any reformation of the United Nations could well be judged by the richness of the metaphor required to communicate the dynamics on which it is based. The sterility of the metaphors used to describe the present forms are a reflection of the condition of the United Nations.

8. These points, and their organizational implications, have been developed at much greater length in separate documents (Anthony Judge, Policy Alternation for Development, Brussels, Union of International Associations, 1985; Patterning alternation between complementary policy conditions, 1984.). With respect to the United Nations, one specific focus can be stressed, namely its role as a broker. The procedures and psychology of the United Nations have long been dominated by an implicit tendency to ensure that it is the principal in any relationship. It is only reluctantly, or in the absence of any other means of acting, that it chooses to function as an intermediary. If, however, the brokership function were to be perceived as one of the primary roles of the United Nations, its involvement in a wide and changing variety of organizational configurations would reflect the need to base it on a continually varying geometry (as suggested above). This would call for extremely interesting innovations (for which operational models already exist) in fields such as the following :

  • flexible contracts (to encourage involvement and minimize the negative effects of bureaucratic empire-building) ;
  • dynamic budgeting (to respond to rapidly evolving policies, opportunities, and emergencies) ;
  • data network support of the brokership role (as modelled by the international networks employed by financial institutions to facilitate the emergence of productive partnerships and coalitions, however temporary).

As a broker the United Nations could draw on resources and enthusiasm to a degree totally impossible to a body which is obsessively attached to its role as a principal. The brokership metaphor is well-understood in every culture.

Three-level Coding System
(applied to the patterns in the table below)



Positive image

Negative image

Significance by Level Signifies: Consensus, unity, order, agreement, integration, co-ordination, solidarity, harmony, centralization

Signifies: Excessive order, conformity, rigidity, monopoly, dogmatism, eSignifies: Excessive order, conformity, rigidity, monopoly, dogmatism, exclusiveness, intolerance, etc.

Signifies: Diversity, creative variety, coexistence, cross-fertilization, mutual tolerance, exploration of alternatives, decentralization, etc.

Signifies: Disagreement, fragmentation, chaos, dissent, revolt, duplication, dissipation of effort, etc.

Inner: Objectives Principles Worldviews, etc.

Integrated objectives or world views Rigidly unified objectives or world views
Complementary world views or objectives Mutually incompatible world views or objectives
Middle: Policies Programmes Procedures Methodologies Models, etc. Integrated policies or programmes Rigidly integrated policies or programmes
Complementary policies or programmes Mutually incompatible policies or programmes
Outer: Concrete actions Institutions Field level, etc. Co-ordinated actions or institutional structures Rigidly co-ordinated actions (intolerant of alternatives)
Coexistence of alternative forms of action and organizational structures Fragmentation and duplication of uncoordinated action and institutional structures


Towards a codification of variable institutional geometry
(with an indication of their positive and negative public images)
* Creative diversity of actions derived from common policies and objectives
*  Inability to co-ordinate actions due to rigid policies and objectives
*  Integrated objectives and policies implemented through an ordered framework of actions (world order)

* Rigidly dictated pattern of objectives, policies and actions

*  Co-ordinated policies and actions creatively based on fundamental differences in object.
*  Superficially co-ordinated policies and actions undermined by fundamental differences in object.
* Creative use of alternative models to interrelate common objectives and actions

*  Disagreement on policies undermining implementation of shared objectives

*  Common policies inter-relating diverse objectives and actions

*   Consensus on policy concealing implications of fundamental differences in objectives and action.

*  Diversity of policies and actions imbued by fundamental agreement on objectives
* Inability to co-ordinate policies and actions despite fundamental agreement on objectives

*  Decentralized institutional network with a variety of complementary objectives, policies and actions

* Unco-ordinated, anarchic fragmentation and duplication
* Cross-fertilization of objectives and policies resulting in harmonious action
* Minimal co-ordinated action resulting from fundamental differences in objectives and policies

Each of the eight institutional configurations is identified by a unique pattern of lines. An indication of the significance of the elements making up each pattern :

  • continuous or broken lines
  • outer, middle or inner position of a line in the pattern is given in the table above.

The arrows indicate transformation between patterns that involve the modification of one element of a pattern only, namely those changes which are probably more easy to bring about.

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