Global Policy Forum

NGOs and the UN System Since the Rio Summit


Tom Bigg

UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service


Over the years since the Rio Summit, enormous changes have occurred in the functioning of UN institutions and processes. Significant reductions in the funding provided by governments have forced the UN secretariat, agencies and programmes to cut back on their activities and staffing. Uncertainties over the intentions of major donors make long-term planning extremely difficult. To add to this gloomy picture, the power of governments to take decisions to address many of the global problems identified in Rio is widely perceived to be on the decline. Multinational companies are growing in influence, and multilateral agreements are reducing the authority of national governments over many areas of policy that are crucial to sustainable development.

On the positive side, the Rio Summit provided a focus for considering the changing role of the UN at the end of the Cold War. International relations would no longer be governed by hostilities between two superpowers, and the Brundtland Commission's timely report provided the rationale for new ways of considering international cooperation and shared objectives and responsibility. The UN system as a whole was able to consider what this new paradigm would mean to its own operations and the ways in which "sustainable development" could give new relevance to the UN for a whole range of non-state actors, as well as governments. The UN has been open to people or groups outside central government in certain contexts, such as the Economic and Social Council, implementation of country programmes, consultation on specific issues such as those addressed by UN conferences and summits etc..

Agenda 21 and the other Rio agreements shifted the emphasis dramatically. Two elements recur throughout Agenda 21 and are crucial to the changing role of NGOs in the UN system:

the importance of local, or grassroots action;
the need for participation by people or groups outside government in every stage of decision-making; and

The involvement of the major groups of society, as defined in Agenda 21, is not an optional extra for sustainable development. Rather, it should be seen as a sine qua non. The concept of "partnership" has been widely used (and abused) in recent years, but it lies at the heart of the agreements reached in Rio. According to chapter 23 of Agenda 21,

"Critical to the effective implementation of the objectives, policies and mechanisms agreed to by governments in all programme areas of Agenda 21 will be the commitment and genuine involvement of all social groups. One of the fundamental prerequisites for the achievement of sustainable development is broad public participation in decision-making. Furthermore the need for new forms of participation has emerged."

More recently other UN summits have elaborated on the role of the major groups of civil society, most notably the 1995 Social Summit in Copenhagen. A consideration of emerging opportunities for non-governmental involvement in the UN system should draw on these, but focus principally on follow-up to Rio and on the ways the principles established have been put into practice. I do not intend to examine national structures for Agenda 21 implementation in detail, or the range of innovative developments in other UN processes except when relevant to a consideration of the changing institutional arrangements for NGO participation in UN follow-up to Rio.

Changes to the Rules for NGO involvement

UN General Assembly Resolution 1296, agreed on in 1968, has been the basis for determining the official criteria for the participation of NGOs in UN processes for the past 28 years. Agencies and programmes of the UN are able to agree on their own procedures for NGO access. The rules governing accreditation to UN conferences and summits have been determined separately, but resolution 1296 is still the most authoritative statement of the role non-governmental organizations can play in UN intergovernmental processes. In 1993 it was agreed that the resolution would need to be reviewed in order to update it to accommodate developments since 1968.

Two of the issues debated in meetings of the Open-Ended Working Group on the Review of Arrangements for Consultations with NGOs are of particular significance when considering Rio follow-up. They are:

- the rights of national organizations to participate in ECOSOC processes; and
- new definitions of the nature and roles of NGOs (these have included use of the "major groups" terminology of Agenda 21 and an emphasis on networks and other innovative structures).

The first of these has been accepted, based not least on the priorities identified in Agenda 21. The second has proved much more problematic, principally because informal structures and an expanded definition of the concept of civil society do not sit easily with the more narrow mandate and objectives of the working group.

Ad Hoc Arrangements in Various Fora

While these changes to the official arrangements for NGO accreditation have been debated, a large number of less formal developments have occurred. These can be understood as pointers for changes, which could be more widely applied in future, or as impromptu occurrences dependent upon a particular set of circumstances that could not necessarily be replicated. Among those frequently cited are:

Habitat II

During the preparatory meetings, NGOs were able to participate in meetings of the informal drafting group preparing the text for the Istanbul Programme of Action. This extended to tabling textual amendments directly.

One proposal currently under consideration for the future of the Commission on Human Settlements after Habitat II is that the commission be reconstituted as a quadripartite body, with representation from governments, NGOs, local authorities and the private sector.


During meetings of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), one day is devoted to open dialogue with NGOs. Extensive changes to the relations with NGOs have occurred since the GEF was first created. Given the role of the World Bank in the GEF, this could constitute an opening for greater involvement of NGOs in meetings of the international financial institutions.


Over the past two years, a day at each Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) session has been devoted to presentations by major groups of their activities to implement Agenda 21. The first of these focused on local authorities; the second focused on the workplace, with input from employers and trade unions.

The CSD was also innovative because NGOs accredited to attend the Rio Summit were automatically given the right to accreditation to the UN Commission responsible for follow-up to the summit. This precedent has been applied to subsequent world conferences and forms an important element in the draft proposals (please explain and update language in light of decision) from the Open-Ended Working Group on NGO Accreditation.

Changing Responsibilities for NGOs

"NGOs are often seen as critics," according to Peter Padbury of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation. "Many NGOs working on the sustainability agenda have shifted from seeing themselves as critics to seeing themselves as "co-creators" who bring analysis, expertise and solutions to the policy dialogue. They can link local action with the global dialogue."

Despite the importance placed on decisions and actions at the local level, it is extremely difficult to establish direct links between them and the UN. NGOs operating at the international level have a key role in building such links. At present, these responsibilities are not clearly spelt out - indeed, the disparate nature of NGOs would make it difficult to be prescriptive in this respect. Nevertheless, an enhanced role for civil society in the functions of the UN will require NGOs to pay serious attention to the degree to which they can claim to be the legitimate representatives of others. According to the Report on the Seminar on the Involvement of Civil Society in Follow-up to the Social Summit held in Mohonk, New York in 1995,

"These issues of legitimacy and representativity will become more and more relevant as organizations of civil society gain more of a role in the process of governance. Questions such as the capacity of these organizations to express the aspirations of people, while providing information and education, will become increasingly relevant. "

Opportunities in 1997

In 1997 the UN will undertake a special five-year review of the effectiveness of national, regional and international implementation of Agenda 21 and other Earth Summit-related agreements and initiatives. This Special Session of the General Assembly will take place in June 1997 and is intended as a heads of state meeting to give some real impetus to national and international efforts to work towards sustainable development. This will in turn offer a major opportunity to NGOs to highlight their concerns and priorities and strengthen awareness of Rio follow-up at all levels.

There are two elements to this review that are central to the approaches NGOs will take in preparing for the special session next year. One is to raise the profile and therefore the stakes of the event as much as possible. This will entail working nationally and internationally to make sure that the five-year review is used as the occasion to consider widespread experiences since Rio, and address key issues for the future. The other element is for NGOs working at the UN level to consider where critical decisions are taken, and whether those areas in which they are given extensive rights are merely a playground for those working on "soft" issues, while the real decisions on key questions of trade and finance are taken in intergovernmental fora well beyond their reach. According to Jens Martens and Peter Mucke at the German NGO Forum 1996,

"NGOs must consider the fundamental question of whether their work in the UN process should be intensified with an eye to achieving better results or whether they are simply participating in marginal activity, while the important decisions are being taken by bodies beyond their influence, such as the G-7, World Trade Organization or the Bretton Woods institutions."

These two approaches are complementary: the special session offers the opportunity for governments to acknowledge that progress towards sustainable development will require far greater coordination of different international activities. The institutions established to further the objectives of sustainable development should not be peripheral, but should be enabled to call to account other bodies as appropriate. Similarly, the extent to which this rationale has been applied to regional, national and local decision- making processes should be the focus for non-governmental organizations in preparing for the special session.

A More Effective UN System

Many NGOs and some governments are using the 1997 review as an opportunity to open up a wider debate on ways to make instruments designed to further sustainable development work better. In particular, the lack of ownership of decisions taken in UN intergovernmental fora has been cited as a real stumbling block. Also of concern is the inadequacy of the consensus building process, which governs UN processes as a means to initiate dynamic and decisive action. A range of practical steps that could be taken have been put forward as potential solutions to these shortcomings.


Non-governmental organizations have had to adapt to rapidly changing patterns for interaction with the various parts of the UN system dealing with Rio follow-up. In many instances they have been able to take advantage of the evolving nature of current arrangements for NGO participation in different fora to push for steadily increasing access and influence in UN intergovernmental negotiations. The rapidity of change has frequently made advances easier; yet, it carries with it the danger that such developments could easily be reversed.

It is not viable to separate this consideration of ways to ensure greater UN level representation of NGOs from wider questions about their legitimacy and mandate from a wider community. Just as the link between the UN and national decision making needs to be strengthened, so NGOs working at the international level also have the responsibility to promote public interest and involvement in the process of working towards sustainability.

More on the Relations between NGOs at the UN


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