Global Policy Forum

Relations between NGOs and the UN

Given the diverse nature and large number of NGOs, relations between NGOs and the UN have at times been stormy. NGOs face a constant battle to be heard at the UN, and often must compete with businesses and other private sector organizations toward which the UN is increasingly friendly. While some NGOs enjoy excellent access to meetings and good relations with UN officials and delegations, governments sometimes react negatively to NGO advocacy and seek to restrict NGO opportunities. This section analyzes NGO relations with the UN in terms of role, contributions and the substance of participation.

Reports | Articles


Response to Advisors' Report to the President of the 60th General Assembly on the Relationship between Member States and NGOs (September 1, 2006)

In this statement, a group of NGOs, including Global Policy Forum, responds to the recommendations of Ambassadors Johan Lovald of Norway and Rezlan Jenie of Indonesia for boosting NGO participation at the General Assembly (GA). The text reflects on past NGO contributions to the work of the UN, reiterates calls for regular status with the GA and also conveys reservations about the use of the Cardoso report as a "basis for policy." The NGOs request a formal and open process, instead of just hearings, to foster sustained dialogue between Member States and NGOs.

Paper on NGO Participation at the United Nations (March 28, 2006)

A group of NGOs, including Global Policy Forum, has submitted a letter to the General Assembly President calling for improved NGO access and participation at the UN. The list of ten recommendations includes access to the new Human Rights Council, Peacebuilding Commission and the General Assembly, as well as better support for NGLS and the appointment of a high-level person on NGO affairs in the Executive Office of the Secretary General. "The United Nations must strengthen and deepen its relations with NGOs in order to create a stronger, more effective and more legitimate organization."

UN System Engagement with NGOs, Civil Society, the Private Sector and Other Actors (October 2005)

This document illustrates how NGOs participate and work together with United Nations Offices, Agencies, Programmes, Funds, and Specialized Agencies as well as UN Treaty Bodies. It also provides information on how NGOs can get involved in the work of the UN at different levels. (UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service)

"NGOs and the United Nations" by Global Policy Forum (June 17, 1999)

A comprehensive and critical report that reviews recent progress and problems of NGOs at the UN. Prepared as input to the second report of the Secretary General. Includes comments on GPF's report.


2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008


Civil Society Wants Bigger Role in Green Climate Fund Planning (March 12, 2013)

Civil society groups are bothered by their limited level of access and participation during discussions concerning the Green Climate Fund (GCF). Created in 2010 under the UNFCCC framework, the GCF has received pledges of $30 billion from developed countries that will be used for aiding developing countries in their adaptation and mitigation efforts against climate change. However, just $7 billion have been contributed to date, partly because of the current economic situation, and discussions are now centered on the potential role of the private sector in donor contributions. Several fear that limiting the role of civil society groups in discussions surrounding matters with a large impact on communities will significantly impact the success of the GCF. Janet Redman from the Institute for Policy Studies suggests that when considering private sector financing it is important to source from local companies that will help build the economy rather than multinationals looking to profit from vulnerable populations. However, the difficulty in channeling private financing to those most in need is a strong case for public funding for the GCF. (IPS)

Give Grassroot Groups a Real Say on What Comes Next in Development (February 22, 2013)

The upcoming Sustainability Development Goals due to replace the MDGs in 2015 are expected to have a “people-centered agenda”. However, civil society organizations (CSOs) have little voice in international decision-making, nor are there any mechanisms created to change that process for the SDGs. Moreover, grassroots CSOs in the global south in particular are often unable to participate, unlike larger northern NGOs that are well connected, have better funding and are ideally situated to lobby at international conferences. As a result, addressing root causes of poverty, inequality and environmental destruction, predominantly seen in the global south, are unlikely to have the desired impact without the input of local CSOs, which have a real understanding of these issues. For the SDGs to achieve greater success there is a need to enhance CSO involvement as stakeholders rather than background voices. (Guardian)


The Growing Role of NGOs at the UN (January 26, 2012)

This article discusses NGO involvement at the UN.  The optimistic tone is unwarranted however, as the author misses’ key areas where NGOs are excluded or their influence minimized. NGO’s have been most intensively involved in social and environmental issues, although their role in actual policy formulation is often less than they would like to believe. In addition, the UN is slowly constricting the operational space NGOs work within and obstructing effective advocacy. (FoR)


The Role of NGOs in Global Governance (September 27, 2011)

This World Politics Review report analyzes the growing importance of NGOs in global politics, particularly their ability to mediate between international institutions and individuals. While some NGOs enjoy excellent access to meetings and have good relations with UN officials and delegations, governments sometimes react negatively to NGO advocacy and seek to restrict NGO opportunities.


Summary of Hearings with Civil Society (July 12, 2010)

The President of the UN General Assembly issued a summary of hearings held on June 14-15 with civil society organizations as input into the upcoming High-Level Plenary Meeting on the Millennium Development Goals. Civil society leaders raised many questions about the MDGs and urged UN member states to produce a strong document. They said that civil society organizations should have strong participation in accountability and oversight to achieve the MDGs. (NGLS)

Review: "The United Nations and Civil Society"

Nora McKeon's book titled 'The United Nations and Civil Society: Legitimating Global Governance - Whose Voice?' analyzes the interaction between civil society organizations (CSOs) and the UN over the past two decades. Much of the focus is devoted to food and agricultural issues and McKeon examines the World Food Summits of 1996 and 2002 to identify a growing trend of "partnership culture" between the FAO and CSOs. Although she calls attention to the obstacles faced by CSOs, she does believe that the UN can serve as a forum for meaningful CSO engagement.(Foreign Policy in Focus)


Civil Society and Fighting Terrorism Through the UN (December 16, 2009)

The UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy includes a role for civil society in UN counterterrorism in Afghanistan. The co-director of the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation, Alistair Miller, believes that the UN's cooperation with civil society in Afghanistan has increased on matters of education and human rights, but is still underdeveloped on security-related issues. He explains that this is due to member states' reluctance to share military and law enforcement responsibilities with non-state actors. (UNAUSA)

UN Experience with Small Farmer Organizations and Indigenous People (October 2009)

The UN has neglected to build strong relationships with civil society at the country and regional level, particularly with small farmers, indigenous people and rural women. These groups represent the people living in poverty who are most affected by UN policies. Therefore, the UN needs these groups to address climate change, food security and hunger. Some argue that the UN has the responsibility to ensure that the voices of people’s movements are heard. (NGLS)

Review of the Engagement of NGOs with the Humanitarian Reform Process (October 2009)

NGOs argue that the issue of global humanitarian reform is underrepresented in UN reform talks. In this report, a group of NGOs analyses the humanitarian work in five developing countries. Based on these findings, they provide recommendations for future reform. Areas that need improvement are funding, coordination, leadership and partnership. NGOs criticize the UN for appointing people in humanitarian crises who do not understand the importance of strong partnerships with NGOs.(International Council of Voluntary Agencies)

Second Thoughts About NGOs as Representing Civil Society (2009)

Large international organizations such as the UN ask for NGO's mandate before granting them representation and influence. Due to NGOs' fierce competition for visibility, influence and clients, Professor Hans Holmen and Magnus Jirström argue that NGOs often do not give a voice to the poor. According to Holmen and Jirström, the UN should adopt a stricter attitude towards NGOs and their mandates to build a more representative and strong civil society. (Journal of Asian and African Studies)


Ahead of the Curve (April 22, 2008)

This article claims that the growing importance of transnational actors, such as NGOs and businesses, threatens to undermine the founding UN principle of "division of nation-states." The author advises the UN to cooperate more closely with these organizations, in order maintain its moral and intellectual leadership. Otherwise, new actors, including governments, companies or NGOs may step in to fill the role the UN currently holds. (Harvard Political Review)

Three Generations of UN-Civil Society Relations: A Quick Sketch (April 2004)

Since its creation in 1945, the UN has shifted from an inter-governmental organization, to one that joins governments, the corporate sector and civil society. Three generations of UN-Civil Society relations have emerged as a component of this process, amplifying decision-making possibilities for the next generation. (United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Service)

Geneva Hosts Revolutionary Summit (December 5, 2003)

The UN permits NGO participation at the World Summit on the Information Society. Yet NGO involvement is on a consultative basis and many criticize the insufficient role of NGOs in the UN initiative. (Swissinfo)

UN System and Civil Society - an Inventory and Analysis of Practices (May 2003)

This Background Paper looks at the history of civil society's engagement with the UN, exploring the ways in which the High Level Panel on UN-Civil Society can improve UN-civil society relations.

Watchdog Organization Struggles to Decrease UN Bureaucracy (October 29, 2002)

The Digital Freedom Network looks at how UN bureaucracy makes it difficult for NGOs to work with the UN. Dr. Tan of the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), a watchdog organization of the UN, claims that the UN is aware of the plight of NGOs and plans to tackle these problems.

UN Civil Society Outreach Symposium (June 1, 2001)

This paper emphasizes the need to allow greater NGO participation in UN policy development. It addresses issues such as extending NGO consultative status to the General Assembly and increasing the ability of Southern NGOs operating at a grass-roots level to be heard at the UN. (Stanley Foundation)

Creating Global Governance: The Role of NGOs in the UN (2000)

Using the Millennium Forum of May 2000 as a background, this study finds that difficulties arise as increasing numbers of NGOs participate in UN discussions. The author asserts the urgent need for coalition building if NGOs want to translate their grassroots achievements to the global level. (UNA Finland)

The United Nations and Civil Society: The Role of NGOs (February 19-21, 1999)

This conference paper reports participants' discussion on ways to work towards a "sustainable partnership" between the UN and NGOs. The paper also presents the main proposals in regards to NGO accreditation procedures and other NGO access issues. (Stanley Foundation)

Another Role for an NGO: Financing a WHO Program (January 1997)

The financial contribution of the Rotary Club to a WHO Program highlights another side of the relationship between Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs) and NGOs. (Transnational Associations)

NGOs and the UN System Since the Rio Summit (1997)

The Rio Summit is often seen as a turning point in the relations between NGOs and the UN. While important improvements have occurred, as described in this paper, NGOs remain marginal actors in important decisions. (NGLS)

Relationships Between International NGOs and the UN: A Research and Policy Paper (1995)

This paper, written in 1995, provides an interesting perspective on the earlier optimism surrounding the potential for expanded NGO role and participation in the UN System.

A Selection of Speeches

about the role of NGOs at the UN.

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