Encyclopedia of World Problems - Archived Information

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1.7 Intended uses of the Encyclopedia

A project of this kind evokes amongst some the response "Why bother, when we already know what ought to be done?" Who, after all, needs another book parading the range of problems with which the global community is confronted? Key people no longer have time to read more than one page summaries and each international body is acting as best it can to contain the problems to which it is sensitive.

In 1984 the Director of Political Affairs of one major intergovernmental body considered this project both presumptuous and ridiculous. He then went on to argue that problems did not "exist" in a way which allowed them to be identified and described in a book. For his institution they were agenda items which came and went according to the political currents of the moment, ceasing to "exist" once his organization was no longer obliged by political pressures to deal with them.

Others would argue that it is a grave mistake to focus on problems in any way because this "gives them energy", hindering the necessary "positive thinking" from which appropriate social transformation can emerge. There is widespread belief that the action required can be simply defined. Food aid is a topical example, although even major intergovernmental bodies are now acknowledging the counter-productive aspects of such generosity. A modicum of humility would require the recognition that most seemingly positive initiatives have at least minor counter-productive effects - omelettes cannot be made without breaking eggs.

There are however many who point out that international institutions are not containing the problems faced by the global community; rather they are being overwhelmed by them. To function at all, such bodies have to concentrate on very small portions of the pattern of problems, denying the relevance of other portions or even their very existence. This is especially the case when they are constrained to prove the value of their own initiatives even though they may aggravate such other problems. Many claim to know what needs to be focused on, or done, or avoided to resolve the crisis - if only everybody else would subscribe to their particular set of priorities. In such a context it is appropriate to present these many "action vectors" within a single framework, in effect bringing them collectively to consciousness rather them denying or repressing those which do not fall neatly within some favourite paradigm.

This Encyclopedia is therefore intended for those who question whether they are receiving information from a sufficiently broad range of perspectives. It is for those who believe that much might be learnt from the variety of perspectives on what constitute significant problems and significant responses to them. In particular it is for those who recognize the possible dangers and limitations of attempting to filter this variety down to a handful of "essential" problems which can be appropriately contained by a single policy, strategy or blueprint based on a single conceptual framework guided by a single set of values. The decision that any particular class of information in the Encyclopedia is irrelevant can be seen as raising valuable questions as to the nature of the assumptions on which each such judgement is made.

It is expected that the majority of readers will use this book to locate specific items or groups of information. Some users will respond to the challenge of ordering, comprehending and presenting such a range of information in new ways, because of the extent to which it reflects the variety of issues with which people and groups identify and by which they are motivated. It is hoped that some will also be further stimulated to explore the possibility of patterned dynamic relationships between incompatible conceptual languages, encompassing the discontinuity between them, in order to develop a dynamic conceptual foundation appropriate to the global order of the future.

The users of this volume will therefore include:

1. Commercial enterprises and entrepreneurs

Corporations concerned with navigating in a complex and turbulent social environment can detect problems which may affect them, whether directly or indirectly. For them, problems may also be looked upon as potential business opportunities, since some require heavy investment for remedial action.

Seemingly trivial problems, such as acne, may represent an important market. Each problem can be viewed as affecting or concerning a portion of the population. As such there is a potential market associated with each problem. Corporations may respond to this market with remedial products (as in the case of water pollution), with consultancy and other services (as in the case of environmental impact assessment), or with publication and information services (as with registers of pollutants).

2. Education

The information may be used in programmes with students in many fields who need to acquire an overview of the range of global issues, how they may relate to one another, and the difficulties of ordering such information within one conceptual framework. Of special interest is not only the information given here but also its weaknesses and the controversies associated with particular claims or counter-claims. It is an interesting challenge to students to attempt to detect problems which are not present here, especially in the light of their awareness of problems in their own environment. Such explorations can be extended to the international organizations supposedly concerned with the problem area.

3. Integrative studies

University departments (international relations, environment, law, social science) concerned with interdisciplinary issues can use it to stimulate discussion among students. It should be of particular value to departments responsible for designing general studies programmes for students.

4. Policy development

In many ways the Encyclopedia provides a form of checklist for policy-related issues. Ideally in attempting to elaborate a policy framework in a particular domain, the information here could be used to identify related issues which may need to be taken into consideration and which would otherwise be neglected until too late. It is especially valuable for relationships between problems across disciplinary and paradigm boundaries. For, whether concerns are a matter of established fact or deeply held opinion, they may need to be given serious consideration in any policy design.

5. Management sciences

The total set of problems suggests interesting lines of research into the modes of governance in a complex environment. This is especially the case where the issue is how to manage networks of problems using cycles of policies which encompass more than one budgetary or electoral cycle.

6. Foresight and futures research

Because the data included covers both currently fashionable and seemingly marginal or improbable concerns, it provides a much more appropriate source for use in anticipating new kinds of issues which may emerge to greater prominence than can currently be imagined. Many problems registered reflect the concerns of groups sensitive to issues that conventional bodies are unable to recognize.

7. Government

The information here may be used by government departments designing programmes which need to be sensitive to problems and possibilities in other sectors. Of special interest is the possibility of using the identified problems as a checklist to determine which government department, if any, is concerned with each problem, and thus evoking discussion about issues which are not the explicit responsibility of any department.

8. Briefings

The Encyclopedia is an interesting background document for briefings of diplomats or members of delegations, whether for ministries of foreign affairs or for other bodies. As such it may also be used in training programmes. It provides a corrective to easy assumptions about mono-problem situations, based on single-factor explanations, leading to simplistic solutions.

9. Law and treaty preparation

Legal instruments are designed in part to regulate or contain problems. The range of problems included highlights the question of the degree of match between existing laws and the problems recognized in society. Does the existence of certain problems suggest the need for new laws, whether immediately or in a more distant future ?

10. International organizations

Governmental and nongovernmental bodies concerned with the potential range of problems should find it useful to explore this Encyclopedia when considering the design of new programmes. It could provoke useful discussion in the effort to locate counter-part organizations, focusing on related problems, with a view to collaboration or the exchange of information.

11. Information sciences

The Encyclopedia is basically an experiment in information collection and presentation. In order to handle the variety of fuzzily defined forms of data with which the Encyclopedia is concerned, methods have been used which raise interesting questions for further research in the information sciences, whether for classification theory or for the use of computers in database management, or in the graphic presentation and analysis of networks of concepts. The data may be used to test methods for handling such difficulties.

12. Expert systems

The data on the network of perceived problems continues to provide an interesting challenge to those working on expert systems and artificial intelligence because it is of a higher order of complexity than artificially constructed databases or those usually available. It should prove of even greater interest on CD-ROM and the Web.

13. Values and ethics research

Researchers grappling with the ill-defined fields of values, human development and states of consciousness, especially in their relationship to global problem-solving, will find an extensive range of information which is otherwise difficult to locate and assemble.

14. International relations

The Encyclopedia presents a much broader range than is usually available of information of potential interest to any research on international relations, especially that touching on international organizations. It raises many questions concerning the capacity of the network of international organizations to respond to the network of problems.

15. Security

For those bodies concerned with potential (and low probability) threats to national and international security, and with facts leading to the destabilization of societies, the information collected suggests leads for further investigation. Of special interest are the ways in which several minor threats may combine or interact so as to constitute a major threat.

16. Challenge to creativity

There are bodies and individuals who are specifically interested in having their perspectives and priorities challenged as one way of learning how to learn. The range of information, and the manner of its organization, highlights new linkages and evokes new levels of thinking. It reinforces recognition of the need for a paradigm shift. The information is a direct challenge to fixed patterns of thinking.

17. Foundations and funding agencies

A factor contributing to the difficulty in launching new initiatives is that funding agencies tend themselves to be locked into particular, and often outdated, patterns of priorities. The information collected here offers alternative perspectives which may suggest more fruitful approaches. It is also valuable in providing a sense of context for specific initiatives.

18. Media

The information gathered here constitutes a rich guide to possibilities for new investigatory reports and documentaries. It also offers perspectives from which established positions can be fruitfully challenged in any interview.

19. Human development programme design

The range of information on human development and modes of awareness provides a rich and unique source of insight into new possibilities for research in this area. It serves to demonstrate the scope of human development, as seen from many cultural perspectives. It provides reminders that there are many unexplored opportunities for human development whose existence has not been widely recognized. It is a direct challenge to the simplistic understanding of human development evident in official policies.

20. Imaginative responses to intractable problems

The information gathered here, and especially in Volume 2 (Section TZ), suggests the possibility of new ways of thinking about the intractable problems (such as unemployment, substance abuse, poverty, violence, and the like). Much of that volume points to existing disciplines, and other possibilities, for using the imagination to reconfigure or reframe such problems into a more tractable form -- whilst simultaneously re-imagining the self that is exposed to such problems. It raises the possibility that problems such as drug abuse may, at least in part, be a consequence of imaginal deficiency reinforced by authoritative repression of imagination.

21. Interactive access: CD-ROM and World Wide Web

The information in this Encyclopedia is also available on CD-ROM. As described in a following note (1.9), this will offer powerful new ways to explore and understand the problematique and approaches to it. Plans are also being made to make the information available on Internet in some form.