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Political Space for Non-Governmental Organizations in United Nations World Summit Processes

21 Feb 2007

The world conferences and summits held under the auspices of the United Nations have provided a new political space for involvement of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). This paper links this observation with broader developments in the relationship between the United Nations (UN) and civil society actors.

The paper begins with a discussion of NGOs as civil society actors, and then goes on to review the specific mechanisms for NGO participation in UN events. Next it traces how the summits served as meeting points for growing numbers of NGO representatives from across the world, with wide-ranging backgrounds, interests and experiences. In 2003, to better assess the emerging relationship between the UN and NGOs, the UN Secretary-General appointed a Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations–Civil Society Relations. The fourth part of the paper discusses some of the key findings of the panel’s report.

Section 5 looks at the five-year follow-up to the Millennium Summit, convened in 2005. NGO participation at this event (and at the Millennium Summit in 2000) was different from other UN summits. NGOs were no longer a group of actors on the sidelines of the main events. Instead, there was an unofficial hearing organized especially for them at UN headquarters in New York several months before the actual summit. At one level NGOs are becoming an integral part of the summits, often cited by official diplomats and UN staff, while at another level they are kept at a distance from the policy deliberations.

Section 6 discusses these trends in relations between NGOs and the UN. The 1990s showed that cooperation with NGOs and other civil society actors is necessary in order to elaborate viable proposals, the successful implementation of which depends widespread support. Yet UN decisions with regard to NGO involvement are dominated by ideas of efficacy and efficiency. This kind of “cost-benefit analysis” seems to neglect to some extent the political character of (some) NGOs. The paper calls for a moderating and mediating approach toward these actors in UN international policy-making events.

Britta Sadoun is a political scientist and social anthropologist. A research assistant at UNRISD from March 2004 until December 2005, she worked mainly on civil society and social movements, and UN reform and development.

Order PP CSSM 29 from UNRISD, 37 pages, 2006; US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students.