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Civil Society and Social Movements Programme Paper 17: Civil Society in United Nations Conferences: A Literature Review

28 Oct 2005

In this paper, Constanza Tabbush reviews the current literature on the role of civil society at UN conferences, discusses 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 in order to (i) discuss the theory of civil society; (ii) evaluate the engagement of civil society at global conferences; and (iii) 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.

Yet Tabbush has found that empirical studies analysing 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 generally analyse the influence of civil society on the outcome of conferences but, although there are some indicators, 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.

At the time of writing in 2004, Constanza Tabbush was a Research Assistant at UNRISD, working on the themes of civil society and social movements, and gender and development. This paper was initially prepared as a background document for the UNRISD research project on UN World Summits and Civil Society Engagement.

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