Saturday, April 03, 2010

Which Models of Decision Making Fit What Situations?

The other night in my UNESCO seminar we discussed some ethical issues raised in the context of that organization. I perceived among the students what might be a common problem -- discussing discussing decision making by an organization using the model of the individual's decision making. There are better ways.

UNESCO's Secretariat is charged with the implementation of some conventions. These multinational treaties are created by a process of negotiation among the foreign ministries of member nations and come into force when ratified by a sufficient number of states parties. The ratification usually requires legislative approval within the member nations. There exist approaches from political science and the study of international affairs which help to understand how agreement is reached in such legislative contexts.

Similarly, UNESCO's governing bodies, the 58 member Executive Board and the 193 member General Conference can be understood as legislative bodies, albeit complicated by the fact that the members of these bodies represent sovereign states, separated by the full spectrum of global cultural diversity.

UNESCO's Secretariat can be understood through the lens of organizational theory, since it is in fact a bureaucratic organization. Thus decisions are taken within the Secretariat by subgroups of the members of the staff, according to formal and informal processes, usually acting with incomplete information and influenced both by the rules set down by the governing bodies and the interests of the individual members of the Organization.

It may seem that UNESCO's program would be likely to present few ethical issues. Who would be opposed to education, science or culture? Indeed, for the vast majority of staff members most of the time will not be faced by any greater ethical issues than were they to be working in a supermarket or a bank.

There are counterexamples. Consider UNESCO's theme of HIV/AIDS education. The Secretariat was instructed by its governing bodies to deal with this issue, including helping member states develop capacities for such education. Since high risk groups for HIV infection include sex workers, homosexuals and young people engaging in sexual activity, educational approaches to high risk groups may be expected to raise ethical issues for some members of the Secretariat, especially when they are working with cultures quite different from their own. Indeed, similar examples could be raised for the science and culture programs.

We have come full circle. For the international civil servant working in the UNESCO Secretariat facing an ethical decision, the entire structure of theory of ethical and personal decision making can be brought to bear.

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