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Back | Programme Area: Civil Society and Social Movements

UN World Summits and Civil Society Engagement (Research and Policy Brief)



UN summits and related processes can have highly positive—but not always sustainable—impacts on civil society structure, networking and advocacy in countries that have hosted such events, according to UNRISD research.

While the United Nations (UN) remains an intergovernmental organization, an increase in the number of influential civil society actors has placed new pressures on the organization to accommodate popular voices and further enhance collaboration. The link with civil society actors has been growing since the early 1990s in particular, in the context of UN summits and conferences, and related processes. Civil society organizations (CSOs) have amplified their demands on the UN with regard to information, access and participation in these global events. And the UN has recognized the importance of accommodating the demands of CSOs for a greater voice and role in development processes.

UN summits and the resulting action plans offer opportunities for CSOs to lobby delegates and the media in support of their ideas and projects, and to adapt a summit theme as an integral part of their own work. There is also scope for civil society actors to advance proposals, and to help implement and monitor summit agendas.

But what do such opportunities for civil society engagement really mean? Given that CSOs tend to differ in their perceptions of and approaches to international institutions—depending, for example, on ideologies, philosophies or strategies adopted to bring about social transformation—what have been the effects on the structure of civil society at the national level? While many CSOs seem to have chosen to take such opportunities to work within the system for change by directly participating, other more radical groups refuse engagement. Yet even they may find the UN summits a useful platform for advocating their points of view before a wide audience.

Contrary to modernist predictions that religion would retreat into a private zone of worship and practice, recent decades have seen religion become increasingly salient on the political stage worldwide. Does this matter? From the point of view of women’s rights and gender equality, much is at stake. UNRISD research shows that politicized religion impinges on women’s rights in problematic ways. The challenge to gender equality comes not just from fundamentalist agendas, but also from those who instrumentalize women’s rights for political ends.

This Research and Policy Brief explores how religion, as a political force, shapes and deflects the struggle for gender equality in contexts marked by different (i) histories of nationbuilding and challenges of ethnic/religious diversity; (ii) state-society relations (from the more authoritarian to the more democratic); and (iii) relations between state power and religion.
It is now widely recognized that the agrarian reforms implemented from the 1950s through the 1970s were gender blind. These reforms were often based on the assumption that assets allocated to the head of household - typically male - would benefit all household members equitably. Not only did these reforms ignore the well-being of women and their dependents in the event of household dissolution (upon separation, divorce or widowhood), they were also blind to the ways in which gender-based inequalities in access to land exacerbated married women’s (unpaid) workloads, economic insecurity, and bargaining power within households.

These reforms took place at a time when gender equality was marginal to the policy agenda and when women’s organizations lacked their current visibility. In the 1990s the reform of land tenure institutions once again emerged as a prominent issue for international development agencies. But was this new wave of reforms any more gender sensitive than those of the past?

A main focus of the more recent reforms was land titling, designed to promote security of tenure and stimulate land markets. The reforms were often driven by domestic and external neoliberal coalitions, with funding from global and regional organizations subscribing to the position that private property rights are essential for a dynamic agricultural sector. Yet it would be too simplistic to view the diverse national experiences of land tenure reform as top-down neoliberal undertakings. Democratic transitions, though often fragile, have opened up new possibilities for agrarian reform, placing inequalities in land distribution back on national agendas. The involvement of social movements, including women’s movements, and their domestic and international allies has been the other hallmark of recent policy debates on land. The extent to which women’s interests are reflected in the new generation of reforms is the key question examined in this Research and Policy Brief.

UNRISD Research and Policy Briefs aim to improve the quality of development dialogue. They situate the Institute’s research within wider social development debates, synthesize its findings and draw out issues for consideration in decision-making processes. They provide this information in a concise format that should be of use to policy makers, scholars, activists, journalists and others.

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  • Pub. Date: 25 Jan 2007
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1811-0142
    From: UNRISD