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Higher Orders of Inter-sectoral Consensus (Part #4)

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1. "More of the same ?"

Many have recognized the danger that the Charters and Action Plans emerging from the UNCED process will be characterized by features such as:

  • Pious sentiments and token phrases
  • Marginal adaptations of existing initiatives
  • Empty frameworks, postponing tough decisions
  • Idealistic and inoperable proposals
  • Responses to short-term political constraints
  • Absence of catalytic and multiplier effects
  • Uninspiring sterile detail aggravating information overload
  • Unrepresentative perspectives
  • Inhibition of unforeseen and local initiatives

In a period of increasing cynicism concerning international initiatives like the UNCED process, it is important to look to ways of displacing easy images, such as "circus" and "jamboree", by more challenging metaphors which highlight new opportunities. It is however important to take into account the phenomena which encourage use of such derogatory images in the first place.

2. Conceptual traps of the drafting mind-set

A multitude of declarations, charters, resolutions and action plans have been produced over the past decades. In many cases they have been adequate to the visions of their producers, especially where the concerns were specific, local or well-defined. This leads to the easy assumption that structuring such documents is a relatively minor editorial task -- with which many in the international community are familiar. Concern is focused on the conceptual challenge of the content and not on the framework within which that content is set.

This conceptual trap engenders documents organized into neat series of points and sub-points that are the epitomy of linear, hierarchically-structured, thinking. Whilst appropriate in many circumstances, this structuring principle is widely recognized as quite inadequate to the complexities of the global problematique. However insightful the content, the simplistic structure of such documents encourages the kinds of thinking that reinforce inadequate organization of institutions and information systems -- and the inappropriate decision-making that results.

3. Declaration organization of a higher conceptual order

The challenge appears to be threefold:

  • ensuring higher degrees of order to reflect the many non-linear (and non-hierarchical) relationships between the parts of the document;
  • embedding into the structure the organizing principles which more appropriately reflect the operational challenge;
  • preserving a degree of simplicity to ensure that the document is comprehensible as a whole and as a set of parts.

The first two call upon levels of insight which have been articulated over recent years, and recognized by many disciplines as breakthroughs in understanding. These breakthroughs have occurred in response to the complexity of natural phenomena and through recognition of the inadequacy of the simpler conceptual frameworks in handling them. It would appear vital that such understanding be reflected in documents purporting to organize our response to the future of the planet. The third aspect of the challenge calls for new ways of relating such insights to those of the handling and presentation of information.

4. Simplistic consensus as a dangerous constraint

As with many international programmes, the UNCED process has a very heavy investment in achieving some form of consensus to be enshrined in the form of charters and agendas. This is seen as the key to the organization of appropriate future initiatives. The nongovernmental organizations have also invested heavily in a parallel process. It is important to question the assumptions underlying this concern with consensus -- to the extent that they may be in fact be inadequate to future initiatives, if these are to be more successful than those of the past. There is a danger to belief in consensus "at all cost".

There is a very powerful belief that it is possible, necessary and appropriate to formulate a checklist of value-laden principles on which widespread consensus can be achieved. It is hoped that any such charter or declaration can then become the vital set of guidelines for a coherent plan or agenda which will govern the actions appropriate to sustainable development.

This approach is powerfully supported by many religious traditions, each with their basic set of principles (the 10 Commandments, the Eightfold Way, etc). It has not however proved possible to reconcile them, whether over past centuries or during "dialogues" in recent decades. The approach is also powerfully supported by those concerned with recognition of the set of universal values. Again it has not proved possible to reach universal consensus on what these are. But these initiatives have heavily influenced those advocating the "rule of law" (and even "world government"), and therefore committed to enshrining such principles in declarations and charters. It must be asked whether the Earth Charter would be considered adequate to the current crisis if it was honoured to the same degree as has been the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, since its signature. Whilst breaches of charter principles may be deplored, is it not useful to explore whether more could be achieved by improving the form of such documents? Without intending any disrespect, there is a danger of being trapped in what might be termed a "10 Commandment Syndrome" and the lack of urgency that has implied.

This mode of thinking is also very powerfully reinforced by the policy, planning and management sciences. These call for consensus on principles, on the basis of which strategic objectives may be formulated, thus providing a framework for a coherent plan of action. This is the 3-stage pattern which governs the actions of both multinational corporations and intergovernmental agencies. Given that the condition of the planet is partly the consequence of action (or inaction) based on this mode of thinking, it is appropriate to ask whether some other approach is not more appropriate.

Confronted with the many failures of initiatives emerging from this thinking, the tendency is to assume that the content (principles, strategies or actions) has been inadequately identified or acted upon. This is the case whether from a religious, legal or programme perspective. The contribution of the form of any declaration of principles to such failure is considered of little interest.

5. Beyond simplistic approaches to coherence

There are a number of indications that simplistic approaches to coherence are inadequate when dealing with the complexities of planet-wide policies:

  1. The failure to agree on universal values, notably amongst religions and ethical systems.

  2. The recognition that the checklist or hierarchical formulation of principles emerges from a particular mind-set, namely that of Western culture, which finds such ordering natural. Although this mind-set dominates international debate, it is not natural to other cultures amongst which at least three or four other ordering principles are favoured (see Annex 10).

  3. The reaction against efforts to enshrine any one language as the international or world language (whether English or Esperanto). Political considerations aside, it is recognized that languages carry other modes of thinking and that this variety is vital to cultural pluralism. Differences are also enshrined in various forms of non-verbal language, ignorance of which has jeopardized many international initiatives (cf E T Hall).

  4. The failure of world modelling initiatives, based on the full resources of systems analysis. After more than two decades, these have not been able to converge on a coherent model or even to model the co-existence of competing models. Even on a smaller scale, the systems approach has only been successful in cases where disruptive variety could be designed out or repressed, namely in the qestionable successes of techno-science (eg computerized systems of administration).

  5. The difficulties of "harmonizing" legislation between different countries in the light of agreed principles. This is most clearly seen in the case of the EEC.

  6. The notable failure of negotiation procedures in ensuring timely response to regional tensions (cf Kuwait, Yugoslavia, Middle East, Cambodie, Ethiopia, Sudan, Mozambique, Northern Ireland) in order to avoid tragic loss of life.

  7. The failure of centralized planning, even when fully enforced by totalitarian power structures. The desire of the constituent republics of the USSR to function independently within a less coherent structure is a recognition that the over-arching structures were not adequate to the complexities of the situation.

  8. The reaction in many non-Western cultures against approaches to organization, management and control imported from the West and which have proved remarkably inappropriate to the needs of particular societies. The conviction that the dominant mode was the only appropriate one has effectively limited the further development of modes of organization natural to such cultures.

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