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The Growing Role of NGOs at the UN

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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.

by Rene Wadlow

January 26 2012

There is growing interest in the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) within the United Nations system in the making and the implementation of policies at the international level. This interest is reflected in a number of path-making studies, such as: P. Willets (ed.), The Consciences of the World: The Influence of Non-Governmental Organizations in the UNSystem (London: Hurst, 1996); T. Princen and M. Finger (eds.),Environmental NGOs in World Politics: Linking the Global and the Local (London: Routledge, 1994); M.Rech and K. Sikkink,Activists Without Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), Bas Arts, Math Noortmann and Rob Reinalda (eds.),Non-State Actors in International Relations (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001); and William De Mars, NGOs and Transnational Networks (London: Pluto Press, 2005).

There has always been something of a problem in defining institutions in a negative way. NGOs are not governments and are not usually directly created by governments. The term “transnational advocacy network” would be a better analytical term, but NGO is likely to be widely used. As William De Mars points out “Currently, the NGO bloom has three dimensions. First, NGOs are proliferating quantitatively in establishing issue-areas, including human rights, grassroots development, humanitarian relief, environmental protection, feminism, population control, conflict resolution and prevention, and democratization. Second, the increase in NGO numbers is a global phenomenon affecting all regions, even Asia and the Middle East where governments have maintained relatively tight control over civil society for decades. Third, NGO are also proliferating qualitatively, by taking the initiative to create new issues where hitherto they have excerted limited influence. The NGO bloom, in all its dimensions, constitutes a problem for government policymakers everywhere, because the very presence of NGOs alters the context for government policy.”

It is a matter of historical record that had it not been for the lobbying of NGOs in San Francisco in June 1945, the Commission on Human Rights would never have been established.  At the San Francisco Conference drafting the U.N. Charter, representatives from 42 NGOs pressed for the inclusion of human rights provisions in the Charter and for the establishment of a commission on human rights. From the beginning, the NGOs have been the life-blood of the Commission.

As one of the failings of the League of Nations had been the lack of public support and understanding of the functioning of the League, some of the U.N. Charter drafters felt that a role should be given to NGOs. At the start, both governments and UN Secretariat saw NGOs as an information avenue — telling NGOmembers what the governments and the UN was doing and building support for their actions. However, once NGOs had a foot in the door, the NGOs worked to have a two-way avenue — also telling governments and the Secretariat what NGO members thought and what policies should be carried out at the U.N.Governments were none too happy with this two-way avenue idea and tried to limit the U.N. bodies with which NGOs could “consult.” There was no direct relationship with the General Assembly or the Security Council. The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), which has potentially an important role to play but in practice has never been the center of economic or social policy, was the body to which “consultative-status NGOs” were related.

However, what in practice gives NGOs their influence is not what an individual NGO can do alone but what they can do collectively. “Networking” and especially transnational networking is the key method of progress. NGOs make networks which facilitate the transnational movement of norms, resources, political responsibility, and information. NGO networks tend to be informal, non-binding, temporary, and highly personalized.

The role of NGO representatives is to influence policies through participation in the entire policy-making process. What distinguishes the NGO representative’s role at the U.N. from lobbying at the national level is that the representative may appeal to and discuss with the diplomats of many different governments. While some diplomats may be unwilling to consider ideas from anyone other than the mandate they receive from their Foreign Ministry, others are more open to ideas coming from NGO representatives. Out of the 193 Member States, the NGO representative will always find some diplomats who are “on the same wave length” or who are looking for additional information on which to take a decision, especially on issues on which a government position is not yet set.

As with all diplomacy in multilateral forums such as the U.N., much depends upon the skill and knowledge of the NGO representative and on the close working relations which they are able to develop with some government representatives and some members of the UN Secretariat. Many Secretariat members share the values of the NGO representatives but can not try to influence government delegates directly. The Secretariat members can, however, give to the NGO representatives some information, indicate countries that may be open to acting on an issue and help with the style of presentation of a document.

NGO representatives have little political power — that is, a permanent ability to influence policy outcomes, but on specific issues where they have expert knowledge, they can have a real impact — though impact is always difficult to measure objectively since only government delegates can vote.

It is probably in the environmental field — sustainable development that there has been the most impact. Each environmental convention or treaty such as those on biological diversity or drought was negotiated separately, but with many of the same NGO representatives present. It is more difficult to measure the NGOrole in disarmament and security questions. It is certain that NGO mobilization for an end to nuclear testing and for a ban on landmines and cluster weapons played a role in the conventions which were steps forward for humanity. However, on other arms issues, NGO input is more difficult to analyse.

“Transnational advocacy networks” which work across frontiers are of increasing importance as seen in the efforts against landmines, for the International Criminal Court and for increased protection from violence toward women and children. The groups working on these issues are found in many different countries but have learned to work transnationally both through face-to-face meetings and through the internet web. The groups in any particular campaign share certain values and ideas in common but may differ on other issues. Thus, they come together on an ad hoc basis around a project or a small number of related issues. Yet their effectiveness is based on their being able to function over a relatively long period of time in rather complex networks even when direct success is limited.

These campaigns are based on networks which combine different actors at various levels of government: local, regional, national, and U.N.(or European Parliament, OSCE etc.). The campaigns are waged by alliances among different types of organizations — membership groups, academic institutions, religious bodies, and ad hoc local groupings.  Some groups may be well known, though most are not.

It is difficult for new actors to enter the U.N. field or to be an item on the agenda of a U.N. body. Therefore, it is necessary for a campaign to work with NGO representatives who are already known in the U.N. milieu and who are trusted by government diplomats and the U.N. Secretariat. Such NGO representatives can serve as mediators between the new advocacy coalitions and policy makers.

There is a need to work at the local, the national, and the U.N. levels at the same time. Advocacy movements need to be able to contact key decision-makers in national parliaments, government administrations and intergovernmental secretariats. Such mobilization is difficult, and for each “success story” there are many failed efforts. The rise of U.N. consultative-status NGOs has been continual since the early 1970s. Some government diplomats are increasingly aware of this growing influence, and a few have tried to counter this impact by raising complaints against NGOs within the U.N. Committee on NGOs (which has only government members). However, NGOs and government diplomats at the U.N. are working ever more closely together to deal with the world challenges which face us all.


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