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Back | Programme Area: Civil Society and Social Movements

Civil Society in United Nations Conferences: A literature Review



This literature review is part of a broader United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) project exploring the interactions between civil society and the international system of governance. More specifically, the project seeks to evaluate the impact of various United Nations (UN) summits on civil society at local, national and global levels. Under this project, UNRISD has commissioned research in several countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

In this paper, Constanza Tabbush reviews the current literature on the role of civil society at UN conferences, provides a first attempt under the UNRISD project to discuss the key concepts involved, assesses the scope of the literature on civil society engagement, and identifies some of the gaps that might usefully be addressed by further analysis. Tabbush takes three different sets of literature into account (i) to discuss the theory of civil society; (ii) to evaluate the engagement of civil society at global conferences; and (iii) to consider the role of civil society in global governance.

The 1990s saw the development of unprecedented links between global civil society and international conferences. As the conferences became an important feature in global governance, international activists came increasingly to see them as an opportunity to influence the global policy agenda. In turn, civil society was viewed by many international organizations as a valuable partner that would increase the latter’s legitimacy and constituency; thus the UN system itself further encouraged the participation of civil society in global conferences.

Empirical studies that analyse the engagement of civil society with global conferences tend to overlook the transformations and new developments that civil society undergoes as it enters the world of international policy making. Studies are generally based on a unidirectional model that analyses the influence of civil society on the outcome of conferences but, although some indicators can be found, in general such studies do not consider the effects this participation can have on civil society itself. In this paper, therefore, Tabbush outlines some of the results of civil society involvement in global governance for developments within civil society. She proposes that future research be based on a model centred on the interaction or reciprocal effects of civil society and UN conferences.

This review also highlights the need for a systematic inclusion of theoretical considerations in empirical studies of this field. This could provide more solid grounding for the study of the consequences of civil society participation in UN conferences. The range of meanings of the term civil society should be recognized in order to challenge the assumption that participation is always beneficial. Tabbush considers different ways of conceptualizing state and non-state actors, as well as some key debates on civil society theory, and looks into the policy implications and empirical effects these can have on the ways civil society participates in global conferences.
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  • Pub. Date: 15 Aug 2005
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8178
    From: UNRISD