Large scale problems exist throughout the world. A few words can readily bring some to mind: famine, diseases, polluted water and air, drought, climate change, deforestation, resource depletion, species extinctions, soil loss, wars, genocide, corruption, social and economic disparities—once begun the list may run for pages. Lumped all together they are immensely depressing. Many seem irresolvable—how can we even hope to improve such situations?
It’s not that efforts haven’t been made. We have addressed these issues as nations by setting up international organizations. The United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, G8, UNESCO, NATO, OECD, and numerous other international bodies, are all intended to support, improve and preserve what the concerned influential regard as important.
Consider just one institution, the United Nations. Its website (http://www.un.org) illustrates the scope of its activities. At the time of writing, the UN site linked to the following sub-sites: Peace and Security (which stated that there were over 750,000 military and civilian personnel participating in some seventeen peace-keeping operations); Economic and Social Development (which linked to Environment, Population, Trade and Sustainable Development); Human Rights; and Humanitarian Affairs. From just one of these sub-sites (Environment) there were links to Climate Change, Ozone Depletion, Acid Rain, Hazardous Wastes and Chemicals, Biological Diversity, Fish and Marine Resources, Marine Pollution, Desertification, Forests, and Fresh Water. Within another (Population), data were presented that traces the world’s population from 300 million two millennia ago, doubling to 600 million three centuries ago, increasing tenfold to six billion today, and predicting a fifty percent increase—to hit nine billion—within the next two generations.
Where will all these people live? Not in my backyard, you say? It is easy to view others outside of our immediate community as potential poachers, likely to take what we do not actively defend. We exhibit this kind of thought pattern when we erect trade barriers, restrict immigration, perpetuate or tolerate racial hatred, amass excessive wealth, or mouth obscenities in road-rage. As the world’s population increases, we can expect this behaviour to increase in frequency and degree, because life acts in this manner when its survival is threatened. If such behaviour is already happening, it is not too hard to predict how another two or three billion people will affect the quality of life for all, no matter where this increased number of people live.</ref>
We have also tackled these matters on a somewhat less formal scale. There are hundreds of Not-For-Profit and Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs), staffed by paid and voluntary workers. The World Health Organization alone, for instance, lists close to two hundred NGOs whose activities are related to health. There are countless others to be located via the web. Their sites typically outline their concerns, what has been accomplished, and what remains to be achieved.
And we have also sought solutions as concerned communities. There must be thousands of small groups: churches, schools, colleges, clubs, associations and modest organizations, all striving to address issues of importance to them. Yet, even with all of this work being carried out, the overall number and magnitude of major world problems never seems to diminish.
Some problems are quickly solved, of course. Small groups, particularly, often make an immediate difference. Eyeglasses are delivered and fitted, a school is built, a well dug, water pipes laid, land irrigated, wind generators erected, hospitals staffed and supplied. Many beneficial results have been achieved.
Mid-sized organizations may not be able to act as promptly as smaller ones; however, money, tents, equipment, medical aid and food supplies usually do reach those in need, once the frequent obstacles (of a political, financial, religious and, all-too-often, military nature) are overcome.
It is the large scale institutions and interventions that seem so often to be ineffectual—neutered during conception, continually delayed, and acting too late. (The United Nations actually apologized not long ago, acknowledging that its lack of swift action had permitted the slaughter of over half a million people in Rwanda.)
There is something to be learned from a comparison of these results.
Large international governmental organizations become unable to carry out their mandate whenever national interests are allowed to overrule collective good. Representatives of different nations all too often seek results that favour national, rather than global, interests, and this then obstructs unreserved agreement upon a common objective. Speeches are used to obfuscate, delay or prevent, rather than as means to consolidate, collaborate and obtain action. When something is achieved, it is, too frequently, too little and too late. This is irresponsible behaviour on the part of the organization’s members. Loyalty to their own national interests causes them to act irresponsibly with respect to the aims of the global organization, and to their own purported reason for participating in that organization.
Smaller organizations, associations and groups generally succeed perhaps because they are able to work more effectively than more expansive ones. More compact groups are not too large to consult local authorities, to collaborate and jointly build a vision of some desirable outcome, and to use the know-how and skills of both giving and receiving groups to solve problems and so obtain success. They use, perhaps unwittingly, techniques that every successful enterprise, small or large, uses. They try to involve as many stakeholders as possible in their attempts to improve the situation, and they collectively find ways to overcome or neutralize subsidiary purposes that might distract or confuse by focusing upon achieving their mutual, overriding, purpose. This is responsible behaviour: responsible to those who support and fund their efforts, to the jointly built ideal, and to those who will ultimately benefit from their actions. Collectively building, holding and valuing a clear vision of the desired result, in my opinion, accounts for much of the success achieved by participants in small-scale endeavours.
Of course, visions of an improved future can also be effective on broader scales, and have been used to unite international interests in the past. When England and her allies were battling the Nazis and Fascism in World War II, indecision and bickering between and among the various leaders likely occurred on numerous occasions and at many levels, but these distractions must have been surmounted. The Allies’ conviction that they were fighting to maintain a civilized society provided a common vision, which would have given all involved the same purpose. It was the common goal that united, providing an integrative reason to ignore parochial differences.
One last point on the topic of obtaining success in large and small organizations. There are many instances of leaders turning dying organizations into successes. A common factor in all such turnarounds is that the leaders were attempting to achieve some sort of vision—their vision of how the organization might be improved. The vision, of course, was used to define one or more practical statements of purpose, which were then used to determine intermediate goals, plan activities, motivate, measure successes, etc. Accomplishments such as these suggest that organizations (of any size, international as well as local) benefit from being guided by a consolidating vision.
- Many organizations make efforts to educate the world’s public and influence opinions and activities. The World Resources Institute, for example, “provides information, ideas, and solutions to global environmental problems.” Its program advocates “knowledge to catalyze public and private action.” Its goals centre upon the Earth’s climate, its ecosystems, the environment, and use of materials. (See the WRI website, http://www.wri.org.) The Worldwatch Institute has similar concerns that can also be read on the web (see its website, http://www.worldwatch.org.)
- Paul Hawken et al, in Natural Capitalism (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1999) estimates tens of thousands of groups.
- It is even worse than this, if we are to believe statements made by some of the activist groups who routinely gather to protest at meetings of organizations such as the G8, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, to name a few. The use of large sums of money to bring about global change is said to be doing more harm than good. Furthermore, these and other large multinational organizations, they claim, are making the decisions that local and national governments should be making.
- Although the organization’s structure and machinery also have a bearing on this inaction.
- This purpose guided decision making, and, it might be argued, victory was achieved because everyone, from the war-room to the trenches, kept the overall goal firmly in mind. (Perhaps too, the Axis were defeated in part because not everyone fully shared Hitler’s vision.) This was responsible behaviour, and the goal-directed actions of everyone during those WWII years paid for the freedoms many of us now enjoy.