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Conference News: The Role of Civil Society in Policy Formulation and Service Provision

1 Mar 2000



As part of its work for Geneva 2000, the five-year review of progress in implementing the Social Summit commitments, UNRISD held this seminar to bring some of the main messages from its current research on civil society and social movements at local, national and international levels to delegates, NGOs and agencies at the second Preparatory Committee meeting.

The World Summit for Social Development put a fair amount of the responsibility for making the world a better place on the shoulders of civil society. The first session of the seminar centred on discussion of the changing role of civil society organizations (CSOs) in social service provision.

The second session highlighted the importance of collaboration between trade unions and NGOs: trade unions today cannot advance their agenda without NGOs, and NGOs need unions as well.

In session three, four key elements—existence, knowledge, access and influence—that crucially affect the role of CSOs in making and implementing policy at national and local levels were discussed. Existence depends on legal, political and financial environments, which can all be restrictive to setting up and running CSOs. Two kinds of knowledge are crucial: knowledge of what is happening and needed on the ground, and knowledge of the policy process. Access, the third element, refers to the most influential people—often the economic ministers—and the public, through the media. Both groups must be persuaded of the validity of CSO strategies and goals if CSOs are to have an impact. The fourth element is influence, or making a difference, through intellectual persuasion, political strength and financial power.

The final session of the seminar dealt with reform of international institutions. Participants agreed that as long as CSOs remain sidelined from key decisions over trade, investment, finance and global economic governance, the environment would not be conducive to social development. The chief challenge for global civil society, they felt, is to develop a framework that will hold multilateral economic institutions accountable.

The report of the seminar, which took place on 31 March 2000 in New York, is available from UNRISD free of charge.