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Back | Programme Area: Civil Society and Social Movements (2000 - 2009)

UN World Summits and Civil Society: The State of the Art



The United Nations (UN) world summits have had a pervasive impact on the international community. From the pioneering initiatives of the 1970s, to the intense activity of the 1990s, to the follow-up events and new challenges of the present, UN world summits have addressed global issues, engaged national governments, and opened up a complex and important relationship with civil society organizations (CSOs). Investigating the link between UN world summits and civil society is the objective of this state-of-the-art paper by Mario Pianta, which addresses the concepts and history of, as well as qualitative and quantitative evidence on, the co-evolution of UN world summits and civil society activities on global issues.

After setting the scene in section one, in the second section Pianta discusses definitions, concepts and typologies. In order to clarify the great complexity of the activities undertaken within global civil society, in particular in relation to UN world summits, an effort is made to identify the main aspects that differentiate global civil society actors.

The third section summarizes the history of interactions between UN world summits and civil society, from the experimental efforts of the 1970s and 1980s, to the mass participation in UN conferences in the 1990s, to the self-organization of global civil society in the new century. What emerges is a special relationship between institutional and social dynamics on global issues. While this is not without precedent, the novelty of the 1990s was the large-scale involvement of CSOs from all over the world, and the acceleration and intensification of links at the global level. In other words, UN summits have expanded the reach and activities of civil society. They have provided challenges and opportunities for the emergence of global identities and initiatives within civil society, and have stimulated a wide range of developments within national civil societies.

Some evidence on civil society organizations active in global events is provided in the fourth section. Pianta reviews the results of a number of surveys, presenting in more detail the results of a recent survey of 147 CSOs involved in global events, half of which participated in at least one UN world summit. The survey shows that an attitude of active dialogue with UN world summits is dominant, followed by policy criticism from the outside, and efforts at integration in official summits. Pianta also discusses a range of alternative policy proposals, with an emphasis on those receiving higher priority from CSOs.

In the fifth section, Pianta combines the findings of previous sections in order to provide a framework for assessing the impact of UN world summits on civil society. He discusses the variety of interactions that have emerged and the effects of involvement in UN world summits on several aspects and experiences of civil society development. He then proposes a tentative typology in order to organize the complex and fragmented evidence on the issue and assesses the impacts of UN summits on civil society.

Given the experiences of civil society involvement in UN world summits, what are the lessons to be learned for implementing change? The conclusion, in section six, points out strengths and weaknesses of four types of strategies of global civil society and global social movements: the protest model, the pressure model (with lobbying for reforms), the proposal model (developing policy alternatives and demands for radical change), and the model of alternative practices (with the self-organization of civil society outside the state and market systems).
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 16 Aug 2005
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8178
    From: UNRISD