Encyclopedia of World Problems - Archived Information

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2.6 Problem importance

No effort has been made to determine the relative importance of problems for which entries have been included. In this preliminary exercise, effort has been limited to locating problem descriptions and relationships between problems, which would then permit further attention to be given to the question of the relative importance of the problems.

1. Varying importance attached to the same problem

Different minority groups and interest groups approach the universe of problems from different perspectives and with different value preferences. Such differences are reflected in the very wide variety of international organizations representing such views. The resulting differences in the weighting of the relative importance of problems leads to different: priorities for action; time-scales within which action must take place; relative amounts of resources to be allocated; and hence to different perceived critical paths through the problem network. The evaluation of the relative importance of problems is itself a major task beyond the scope or immediate intentions of this section, particularly since a large number of reputable authors and organizations have devoted effort to isolating the 5 to 10 key problems which merit immediate attention. It is the fact that these authors and organizations are not in agreement which is of interest here.

2. Varying importance over time

The importance attached to particular problems varies greatly over time, especially over extended periods of time. As an example, for a three year period, The New York Times/CBS News Poll polled Americans in January 1985 and September 1989 concerning what they perceived to be the most important problems. In January 1985, 23 percent noted war, nuclear war and defence, in contrast with only 1 percent in September 1989. In the case of unemployment it was 16 percent and 4 percent, whereas in the case of drugs it was 1 percent and 54 percent.

3. Objective importance vs. Subjective importance

In deciding what is a valid problem for inclusion, the "objective importance" according to experienced analysts was considered not so significant as the "subjective importance" to those who perceive a particular problem as of major importance from their place in the social system. The social response to eclipses is interesting in this respect. Thus a relatively "trivial" or "irrelevant" problem (according to some "objective" analysis) which looms large in the daily preoccupations of an individual or an organization may from that perspective appear to be of much greater importance than some "major" problem. Whether a "major" problem is held to be major because of the results of some specialized, up-to-the-minute method of analysis, or because it looms large in the daily preoccupations of some other segment of society, is immaterial.

3. Importance and resource allocation

Any segment of society may legitimately attempt to convince other segments of the importance of those problems to which it is sensitive. Whether or not it succeeds, if it is free to do so, it will allocate resources to remedy those problems which it considers to be of relatively greater importance, in the light of its own standards of objectivity, social justice, etc. Such resources are not then available to allocate to the solution of other problems, judged by other segments of society to be the major problem.

The question raised is where the line should be drawn. Does the allocation of hundreds of million dollars annually to the reduction of personal facial and physical defects (to take an extreme example) justify the inclusion of "unmentionable" but widespread conditions such as ugliness, halitosis, obesity, excess body hair, and the like, as world problems? The point being that such funds are currently not available for the better legitimated problems such as underdevelopment.

4. Determining the relative importance of problems

The relative importance of problems is therefore not clear. Any attempt to clarify the matter could proceed in one of two ways:

(a) Exclusion of "irrelevant" problems

In order to isolate those of "major" importance which merit further analysis, the "irrelevant" problems may be excluded by some set of criteria. This immediately alienates all those individuals and groups whose problems are not admitted as being of major importance by the body responsible for the selection procedure. Being alienated and excluded, and perceived as misinformed or motivated by self-interest, they will continue to allocate the resources over which they have control to the problems which they perceive to be of importance. This is one reality behind the current shortage of funds for "worthy" problem areas.

(b) Clarifying the problem context

By first collecting information on as comprehensive a range of problems as is feasible, there is a basis for clarifying the debate as to the relative merit of the problems. This alternative opens up the possibility of demonstrating the interrelationships between the problems (including the direct or indirect relationships between the problems perceived by the different groups to be either of "major" or of "trivial" importance). A clearer understanding of the merit of the opposing viewpoints may then be achieved by all concerned. The consequence is that the psychosocial needs acknowledged by policy-makers may then become more subtle. The value of allocating resources to less popular problems may then be recognized.

5. Dangerous depersonalization of problems

Major problems are in danger of acquiring the same status in people's minds as governmental agencies. They are perceived as being too vast and impersonal to be related to in any meaningful way. But even though a problem may only be a symptom (according to some method of analysis), if a significant group believes it to be a problem, and relates to it as such, then it should be registered as a problem. The same people may not identify with or understand the nature of the underlying or causative problem which is more important in the eyes of experts. The relationship between the symptomatic problem and the underlying problem can be identified and registered as a particular kind of relationship appropriately labelled.

It is important to include problems with which people identify.