Changing relationships between International Non-Governmental Organizations and the United Nations

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Cyril Ritchie
Andrew Rice


Fifty years after the founding of the United Nations, transnational associations --commonly referred to as international non-governmental organizations or INGOs -- have become major players on the international scene. The emergence during the past two decades of these organizations is one of the most striking global phenomena of the late 20th century. Although still inadequately recognised by some scholars of international relations, INGOs have become a significant third force in international systems, paralleling, although not yet equalling, the expanding role of inter-governmental organizations in the political sphere and the rapid globalization of business in the economic sphere. As the UN Secretary-General himself has recently said, "NGOs are an essential part of the legitimacy without which no international activity can be meaningful".

INGOs are the transnational organizational manifestations of what is now increasingly called "civil society" -- which, in the words of UN Under-Secretary-General Nitin Desai, is "the sphere in which social movements organize themselves around objectives, constituencies, and thematic interests". Civil society, thus defined, is itself composed (in the language of Agenda 21 of the UN Conference on Environment and Development) of "major groups" who reflect those various interests.

The new importance of INGOs is derived specifically from several significant changes in human society. These changes include:

1) the enormous expansion of non-governmental organizations at local and national levels, particularly in the countries of the Third World but also in the transtition states of the former Soviet bloc. The gradual process of development and the accelerating process of democratization have steadily liberated human capacities from long-standing economic, political and social constraints. Just as, in the economic sector, private enterprise is becoming increasingly important, so in civil society newly empowered citizens are organising themselves spontaneously and massively to promote their individual and common welfare.

2) At the international level, the United Nations has entered a period of growing importance, fostered, on the one hand, by the end of the Cold War and, on the other, by the growing realization that national governments by themselves can no longer cope with a growing array of global problems such as preserving the integrity of the natural environment, eradicating diseases, controlling narcotics and many other threats to human security and well-being. Step-by step, therefore, the intergovernmental organizations which comprise the UN family are being asked to take on new responsibilities. The concept of "global governance" (although certainly not yet "global government") is now widely accepted.

3) An integral part of these changes has been the impressive breakthroughs in communication technologies in recent years. Immediate and direct contact among individuals and their organizations anywhere in the world is now feasible, and there is every indication that instant accessibility to all kinds of information will continue to spread rapidly.

These three elements - the growth of citizen organizations at all levels of society, the imperative need for global action on global problems, and the remarkable ease of instant communication - have been major building blocks in the expansion of non-governmental organizations at the global level and have led to the increasing relationship between them and the UN family. As Under-Secretary-General Desai has put it, "NGOs... no longer simply have a consumer relationship with the United Nations. They have increasingly assumed the role of promoters of new ideas, they have alerted the world community to emerging issues, and they have developed expertise and talent which... have become vital for the work of the United Nations, both at the policy and operational levels".

This changing relationship is the topic of this paper, which is offered as a contribution by the Union of International Associations to the general reexamination of the global multilateral system now under way upon the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations' creation in 1945. It seems fitting that the UAI (Union des associations internationales) should make such a contribution, since it is the oldest (established in 1910) independent centre of documentation and publication on international NGOs. Both of the study's authors are members of the UAI Executive Council and represent the UAI to the United Nations.

The authors have drawn on the UAI's substantial archives. More importantly, perhaps, they have drawn heavily on the experience of their own personal participation in INGO activities, each over nearly 40 years, as well as on the information and ideas provided by many other individuals who have been involved, in one way or another, in the connections between the international inter-governmental system and the international NGO world. We are grateful to them, and we honour their contribution on a roll deposited with the UAI headquarters.

In examining these issues, the authors have chosen to concentrate on what seem to them the most important. Before 1990, the literature on INGO/UN relations was rather slim; in the years since then it has vastly increased. Readers of this report who seek data on questions only briefly touched on this paper, or who are interested in INGO relationships with members of the UN system other than the UN itself, will therefore find the attached list of h a useful source of additional information.


As a background to the issues discussed in this paper, it may be helpful to offer a very brief sketch of UN/INGO relations as they have developed over the past 50 years.

Article 71 of the UN Charter may be seen as the starting point for INGO involvement with the UN, Its inclusion in the document adopted in San Francisco came about largely, it is generally agreed, because the United States Government, eager to build public support for the new world body, included a substantial number of NGO leaders in the U.S. delegation to the conference. Reflecting their influence, Article 71 provides that the UN Economic and Social Council could establish "suitable arrangements for consultation" with INGOs.

After taking some initial interim steps, ECOSOC did establish such arrangements at its tenth session by Resolution 288B (1950) which created a three-category system of NGO recognition with different privileges of consultation accorded to each category. In 1968 this system was somewhat modified by ECOSOC Resolution 1296, although the essential provision of three categories of consultative status remained unchanged. Resolution 1296 continues in force today as the "charter" of official UN/NGO relationships in the central field of policymaking, although a UN Working Group is currently considering its modification (A companion resolution, 1297, deals with the NGO relationship in the field of dissemination of information about the United Nations).

Another important moment in the history of NGO/UN relationships was the creation in 1948 of the Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council, commonly known as CONGO. For nearly 50 years this coordinating body has served as a watchdog of NGO interests in the consultative system and as a framework for NGO cooperation in a number of fields of common interest.

In 1972, NGO interaction with the UN system was markedly intensified with the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. NGOs were attracted to this event in large numbers, many of them without previous connection to the world body. Two important NGO initiatives at Stockholm were the NGO Forum held parallel to the official conference and the NGO daily newspaper which provided immediate (and often critical) coverage of negotiations which otherwise would have been much less open to public scrutiny, The Stockholm pattern was repeated, and expanded, at all the subsequent UN conferences of the 70s and 80sþon population, food, women, habitat, science and technology, etc.

Of particular significance was the Second World Women's Conference held in 1985 in Nairobi, where some thousands of NGOs -- mostly women's organizations, but by no means exclusively so -- came to manifest their determination that the UN Conference would lead to meaningful and lasting progress in establishing women's rightful roles and responsibilities. This display of woman power was not lost on the governmental delegations.

With the 1990s, the NGO connection with the UN moved even more dramatically into the limelight. The precipitating event was the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) -- a conference at which, to a degree far higher than ever before, the involvement of NGOs was actively sought by the UN organizers of the official conference. The traditional boundaries of the established consultative system -- including its screening processes and criteria -- were essentially ignored, and hundreds of organizations not previously associated with the UN were encouraged to make their voices heard. In turn, the NGO role in implementing the objectives of the conference was given important emphasis in the agenda adopted at Rio.

The subsequent world conferences of the 90s have to a large extent followed the UNCED model, and it would now be inconceivable for the UN to plan any global event without the active involvement of the non-governmental sector. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali, addressing NGO representatives at the UN in September 1994, made this very clear when he said:

"I want you to consider this your home. Until recently, these words might have caused astonishment. The United Nations was considered to be a forum for sovereign states alone. Within the space of a few short years, this attitude has changed. Non-governmental organizations are now considered full participants in international life".

The underlying reasons for this profound change have been suggested earlier. But transformation of the UN/INGO relationship has not come easily. Disputed issues have emerged during the past five years and some remain unresolved today.

Before examining these issues, however, it is important to recall the variety of relationships which have developed over the years and the benefits -- to both the UN and the NGOs -- that the experience of earlier decades has made indisputable. From the UN point of view,

1) NGOs can provide expert knowledge and advice, both to the decision-making bodies of the UN and to the Secretariat which implements UN decisions;

2) NGOs can present the views of important constituencies whose voices may not be adequately represented by national delegations but whose views are important to informed decision-making;

3) NGOs can be major channels for dissemination of information to their members, thus helping to fill the knowledge gap left by the inadequate coverage given by the media to UN developments;

4) NGOs can build support for UN programs by carrying out educational activities directed at the wider public (the promotion of various "days" proclaimed by UN agencies e.g., World Food Day - is one example) or by raising funds (e.g., for UNICEF);

5) In some cases close cooperation with NGOs is indispensable to UN agencies in carrying out their missions; the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, for example, contracts and cooperates extensively with NGOs in the majority of refugee situations. And the UNDP has designated certain NGOs as executing agencies for projects which it funds.

Of course the INGO/UN relationship has not been a one-way street; non-governmental organizations serve their own purposes when they urge UN action or educate the public about UN activities. And the UN framework has also proved of value as a mechanism around which to build cooperation among themselves.

The Consultative Relationship

Despite the many ways in which the non-governmental world interacts with the intergovernmental world, the consultative relationship has remained at the heart of the interaction. And with the early 90s, and especially following UNCED, the existing pattern of this relationship came under increasing scrutiny. In 1993, therefore, ECOSOC created a special Working Group to re-examine the relationship, and its report is expected in 1996.

A central issue, of course, is which organizations shall be accorded status at the UN. On this question, the starting point is the criteria set out in Resolution 1296 which provides, inter alia:

"The organization shall be concerned with matters falling within the competence of the Economic and Social Council... The aims and purposes of the organization shall be in conformity with the spirit, purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations... The organization shall undertake to support the work of the United Nations and to promote knowledge of its principles and activities... The organization shall be of representative character and of recognized international standing... The organization shall have an established headquarters, with an executive officer. It shall have a democratically adopted constitution... which shall provide for determination of policy... by a representative body... The basic resources of the organization shall be derived in the main part from contributions of the national affiliates... or from individual members."

Resolution 1296, as previously noted, also includes provisions for classifying organizations into three categories. Category I organizations are large, representative bodies with interest and competence in a broad range of topics; Category II comprises those with competence in only some of the ECOSOC issues; while organizations listed on the Roster are those who can make occasional useful contributions to the work of the Council. Each category has different rights, with the ability to intervene much greater at the top than at the bottom.

The established practice, for an organization seeking accreditation in accordance with these standards has been for it to submit an application to ECOSOC's Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations. Once approved by the Committee, ECOSOC's subsequent approval has, in most cases, been pro forma (The same procedure has been followed with respect to the quadrennial reports which each accredited organization is required to submit. On the basis of these reports, or lack of them, the Committee can recommend to ECOSOC the removal of organizations not meeting the criteria).