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Consultative Status for NGOs at the UN

This web page contains the text of Chapter 2 of "The Conscience of the World". The Influence of Non-Governmental Organisations in the UN System, by Peter Willetts. The text below may differ slightly from that of the published version. 
1996      This web page is only available for personal use.


In 1945 the first significant success of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in influencing the United Nations system was to obtain two major amendments to the proposed Charter. Article 71 was added to provide for consultation arrangements with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the promotion of human rights was written in as one of the purposes of the UN. But NGOs failed to win any provision for their involvement in the work of the General Assembly or the Security Council; NGOs were seen as being 'non-political'. In practice, economic and social questions could not be separated from any aspect of politics. The ECOSOC arrangements for NGOs were to be greatly influenced by attitudes to fascism in the first years of the UN, the Cold War in the late-1940s and the 1950s, nationalism in developing countries from the 1960s onwards and environmental crises in the 1990s. At the same time NGOs have been able to navigate their way through the storms of these conflicts and establish the value of their knowledge, skills and distinct contributions to political debate. This chapter outlines how the consultative arrangements were established in the early years in ECOSOC; the formal rights of NGOs; their other activities; and how they now influence the political agenda and policy-making throughout the UN system.

Setting up the system in the early years

Although the United Nations came into being in October 1945, it was to take five years before the ECOSOC consultative arrangements were finalised. ECOSOC did not even exist until the first session of the General Assembly elected the members of the Council in January 1946. The Assembly itself quickly took up the question of consultations with NGOs and asked ECOSOC to act 'as soon as possible' to adopt 'suitable arrangements' for the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), the International Co-operative Alliance and other NGOs.1 In the early years, many of the UN's decisions about NGOs revolved around the changing status of the WFTU, which was seen as the largest and most prestigious of the NGOs. The initial expectation of the politicians seems to have been that a small number of high-status, global NGOs would make a significant input to the work of ECOSOC. Events, however, dictated otherwise. Many more NGOs than were expected applied for consultative status and the professional diplomats sought to allow only limited access to high-level decision-making.

    The first session of ECOSOC established a committee to consider the arrangements for NGOs.2 Its report was adopted by the Council in June 1946, thus determining many of the main features of the system as it still operates today. The first question was to define what type of organisation would be accepted into consultative status. The committee recommended that an NGO should be concerned with matters falling within the competence of ECOSOC, its aims should be in conformity with the UN Charter, it should represent a substantial proportion of the people in its field and it should speak for its members through authorised representatives. NGOs based in one country, referred to as 'national organisations', might be accepted if they were not members of an international NGO or had 'special experience' to offer.3 Thus the American Federation of Labour (AFL) was one of the first three recognised NGOs, but it had to withdraw in March 1950 when the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, of which it was a leading member, was given consultative status. Later, it was explicitly re-affirmed that single-country NGOs would only be accepted after consulting the relevant government.4 While single-country NGOs have always been part of the system, until the mid-1990s they were few in number and the emphasis was on large international NGOs.

Three categories of NGOs

It was decided to divide the NGOs into three categories. Category A organisations had 'a basic interest in most of the activities of the Council'; Category B was for those with 'a special competence' in a few of the fields of activity; and Category C organisations were primarily concerned 'with the development of public opinion and with the dissemination of information'.5 The Category C definition showed a failure to anticipate the political controversy surrounding NGOs which adopt a vigorous role as pressure groups. The Category was abolished in 1950 and replaced by a Register of organisations that were supposed to be very specialised and might be consulted on an ad hoc basis.6 In 1968 at the end of a major review of NGO arrangements, the labels were changed to Category I, Category II and the Roster, but the classifications remained essentially the same.

    In principle, the categories are differentiated by objective, non-political criteria. In practice, there is a definite sense of the organisations being ranked by their status. The clearest illustration of this is the way in which the International Planned Parenthood Federation has been treated. The IPPF was formed in 1953 and applied for Category B status in 1955. It was rejected because of bitter opposition by Catholic governments. In August 1964 attitudes to population planning had changed sufficiently for the IPPF to be put on the Register and by 1969 it was promoted to Category II. Finally, in the run-up to the World Population Conference, it achieved Category I status in 1973. While the decisions are not normally so controversial, there has been a steady trickle of NGOs moving up the three ranks. Only half the organisations currently in Category I were accepted directly at that level. The other half first obtained consultative status with a lower rank and were promoted later. There is also a sense of the NGOs being ranked when organisations that fail to provide adequate information in their quadrennial reports are demoted from Category II to the Roster.7

The NGO Committee gains a permanent role

The NGO Committee was initially established on a temporary basis, but once the consultative system was in place it was made a permanent standing committee of the Council.8 The NGO Committee is responsible for administering the system. Until 1978 it met annually to consider new applications for consultative status and requests for reclassification to a higher status. Since 1978 the Committee has met every two years and hence there has been dissatisfaction when some NGOs have had to wait two, or even four, years before their applications were considered. The Committee is also responsible for the first consideration of any general policy questions about the UN's relationship with NGOs. All its decisions are subject to the endorsement of the full Council.

The number of NGOs taking up consultative status

Only four organisations were accepted, all as Category A, in the first year. Initially, the NGO Committee took time to consider each application and many were controversial. Later the award of consultative status became a more routine bureaucratic process for most NGOs. Equally, when an NGO is inactive and fails to submit its quadrennial report, being struck off the list has become a routine matter. Decisions on what category an NGO should be in or whether an NGO can be moved to a higher category cause more debate. In the last two decades new applications for recognition have averaged more than twenty per year, while applications for promotion have averaged five per year.

Early controversy about relations with Spain

When the UN was formed, Spain, as a fascist country, was excluded from UN membership even though it had not fought with the Axis powers. This policy spilt over into differences in attitudes to NGOs having relations with Spain. In October 1946 ECOSOC granted Category A status to the International Chamber of Commerce, even though it had a Spanish branch and one of its vice-presidents was Spanish.9 This led to a general decision in March 1947 that NGOs with Spanish members could be accepted if the individual members were not organised into a Spanish branch, if the branch was independent of the Franco government or if the branch was inactive.10 Some international NGOs complied and expelled their Spanish branches, but the International Bar Association and a few others lost their Category B status because they failed to do so.11 When the General Assembly lifted its diplomatic boycott of Spain in November 1950, ECOSOC followed suit and in March 1951 lifted the ban on NGOs with branches in Spain.12

The impact of the Cold War on NGO relations with ECOSOC

At the height of the Cold War, several international NGOs came to be more sympathetic to the communists than Western opinion could tolerate. As a result Western groups split from the world organisations and formed their own, rival international NGOs. Thus the rump organisations came more firmly under communist control. In ECOSOC the West used its voting majority against these 'communist-front' NGOs. In July 1950, when the Soviet Union was boycotting ECOSOC over the question of Chinese representation in the UN, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL) and the International Organisation of Journalists lost their consultative status, while the World Federation of Democratic Youth was demoted from Category B to the Register.13 At the following ECOSOC session in March 1951, the Soviet Union had resumed its seat and tried to get these three NGOs reinstated in Category B.14 Not only did they fail, but the rival, pro-Western, International Union of Socialist Youth was put in Category B and the International Federation of Free Journalists was put on the Register.15 In April 1954 the Women's International Democratic Federation (WIDF) also lost its Category B status.16

    There had been a similar split in the World Federation of Trade Unions, with the United States and British unions taking the lead in forming the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. The WFTU remained strong enough to retain its place in Category A, even though the ICFTU was also admitted to Category A in March 1950.17 The position of the communists improved after the NGO Committee was expanded in 1966 to allow for African and Asian representation. In June 1967 the IADL and WIDF regained their Category B status.18

    This complex history of East-West rivalry in the NGO world shows how neither intergovernmental politics nor the specific interests of NGOs in their own activities can automatically be dominant. The two interact with each other in a balance that varies from case to case. Of the six communist-front organisations that have been mentioned, two were quickly expelled from the UN-NGO system, one was demoted, one was expelled after a delay and one had sufficient strength at the grass-roots to maintain its status.

Attempts to limit the numbers

There soon arose a feeling that too many NGOs were obtaining consultative status. Organisations that were seen as having overlapping interests were asked to have joint representation.19 This was applied by ECOSOC to several pairs of organisations for some years, but ceased in the mid-1950s. Similarly, in a curious compromise, 13 women's organisations were grouped in a Liaison Committee to act as the consultative body when they had the same views, but they were also allowed to operate separately when their views differed.20 The Liaison Committee was eventually dropped from Category B in 1963. At current UN meetings and conferences, committees of NGOs quite often submit joint documents or make joint oral statements, but this is decided by the NGOs themselves, when they feel it is politically useful to form a broad coalition.

    Attempts were also made to exclude organisations whose field of activity was the same as that of a UN specialised agency.21 This continued until 1950, when the Register was explicitly opened to NGOs that had consultative status with an agency. However, the Register itself was designed as means of cutting back NGO access. In 1946 the three categories of NGOs had all been seen as having consultative status. The abolition of Category C and its replacement by the Register was defined as taking away consultative status and depriving these NGOs of the right to put forward their views on their own initiative. The Register was constituted as a list of NGOs that ECOSOC might approach when it felt the need for their help.22 As time has passed, efficient NGOs on the Register (now the Roster) have found they can in practice have as much impact as those in Category B.

Governmental opposition to particular NGOs

From 1950 until 1993 the official definition of the three categories of NGOs and the general practice in recognising NGOs was unchanged, but that did not mean the absence of controversy. Continual problems arose, and still do arise, with NGOs that criticise specific governments. This usually occurs in the field of human rights. The governments being criticised tend to respond by denying the right of any outsiders to interfere in their internal affairs and then by generalising their hostility to the activities of all NGOs in the UN system. While the conflict has been repeated over the years, the governments involved have changed. In the 1970s the Soviet Union and Argentina were the leading anti-NGO governments. In the 1990s it has been the Chinese and the Cubans. Even though objections are made to human-rights NGOs and there may be delays, with persistence it is usually possible to find a majority of votes on the NGO Committee to accept them.

    The Committee has been surprisingly liberal in according consultative status. There are many obscure NGOs (such as the International Federation of International Furniture Removers) or ones that may be important, but seem remote from the UN's work (such as the International Advertising Association). In addition some groups have been accepted when one might not have expected them to be. In a year when the 19 members of the Committee could be classified as including eight strongly Catholic countries, four Orthodox countries, four Islamic countries and three others, the Islamic countries took the lead in expressing 'strong opposition to the ethical and moral values' represented by the International Lesbian and Gay Association. From a Committee of this composition, one would not have predicted a majority to grant Roster status to the Association by nine votes in favour to four against, with three abstentions.23 Although the full Council endorsed the Committee's decision in July 1993, an intense reaction followed a year later, when it was suggested that the Association promoted or condoned paedophilia. In September 1994 the Council took the highly unusual step of holding a special session. This suspended the Association from the Roster and convened a special meeting of its NGO Committee to investigate the allegations.

    It has already been mentioned that the IPPF was rejected in the 1950s as being too controversial, but it was accepted in 1964, at a point when Catholic and Muslim countries between them held a majority of the votes in the UN. Now the pendulum has swung so far on this issue that Human Life International, an anti-abortion group, has had its application rejected.24

Expansion of the NGO community

Despite the continual attempts by governments to limit the number of NGOs participating in the UN's work, they have grown in several ways. First, international NGOs that already existed when the UN was formed, or NGOs that were established in its early years, often only had branches in some Western countries. They have gradually expanded to become truly global, gained more resources and increased in legitimacy. Thus some are now in Category I or Category II, when initially it would not have been reasonable to give them so high a status. Secondly, groups that previously saw no reason to work with the UN, or were suspicious that their independence might be compromised, have seen how the system works and decided that they could benefit by obtaining consultative status. Thirdly, many new NGOs are being formed, as new areas of economic activity develop or new issues move onto the global agenda. Fourthly, as existing groups gain greater resources, experience and skills, they may expand the scope of their activities. Thus NGOs may move from having no concern with UN activities or involvement with a single agency or programme to a wider concern that leads them to seek consultative status.

    As a result of these four factors, the numbers of NGOs with consultative status grew steadily, to the point that in the early 1990s ECOSOC was dealing with nearly a thousand NGOs. The growth in numbers is depicted in Figure One.

Graph for Figure One belongs here. 

The formal rights of participation in ECOSOC

When the NGO Committee recommended in June 1946 that NGOs should be divided into three categories, it also recommended what rights of participation they should have. The Committee's starting point was that NGOs must have fewer rights in the Council than the observer delegations from specialised agencies or governments that were not Council members. All NGOs would be able to attend ECOSOC meetings. Category A NGOs could circulate written statements to the Council members. The other NGOs would have the titles of their statements put on a list, but the statements would only be circulated in full on the request of a member of the Council. Category A NGOs could expect to address a Council committee or even the full Council if the NGO Committee so recommended. NGOs in Categories B and C could only expect to make oral presentations indirectly via the NGO Committee, which would then report their views to the full Council.25

The WFTU wins the right to put items on ECOSOC's agenda

The first use of the procedure came in October 1946, when the WFTU consulted the NGO Committee on the nature of the consultation arrangements.26 The WFTU was clearly dissatisfied. As it had its headquarters in Paris, and as France had a left-wing coalition government, the French delegation in the following month put forward WFTU demands in the General Assembly. The Soviet delegation took up the demands and formally tabled a resolution to recommend ECOSOC to grant the WFTU the right to submit items for inclusion on the Council's agenda and the right to submit written and oral communications directly to the full Council on all agenda items. The first proposal was passed by the Assembly, the second was defeated.27 The United States delegation, which had originally opposed granting any direct rights of participation to the WFTU, then changed its approach and tabled a resolution, which was passed, asserting the principle that all organisations in Category A should receive equal treatment.28

    ECOSOC responded in March 1947 by setting up an Agenda Committee to act as a buffer between NGOs and the Council in deciding whether an NGO item should be accepted for its agenda. The WFTU came back in July with a letter to the Secretary-General asking the Assembly to endorse the WFTU having rights to convene special sessions of the Council, to participate in the Council when a decision is being taken on whether its suggested items should be on the agenda and to take part in Council debates on the substance of the items it has proposed. This time the Council pre-empted the Assembly and decided in August to reject any right for NGOs to convene ECOSOC, but accepted that all Category A NGOs could introduce their own agenda items in the full Council and make a reply to the subsequent debate.29

Two decades of stability in the consultation procedures

In 1949 the UN Secretary-General was asked to prepare a report on how the consultative arrangements had been used and the NGO Committee was asked to review whether any improvements could be made. The Committee recommended unanimously in February 1950 that the right to submit items for the agenda should be withdrawn. The United States delegate argued that the right had been abused for propaganda purposes.30 It is difficult to see that there had been serious problems. In the period 1947-49 only eight items had been placed on the Council's agenda by NGOs.31 However, the US delegate also proposed an amendment to the report, retaining the right of NGOs to submit items, because all the Category A NGOs had defended the right so strongly. Presumably it was also a factor that in an election year the Democrats would not wish to take away from the American Federation of Labour a right which they were actively using. The compromise outcome was to give the NGO Committee the decision on whether a proposal for an agenda item should be accepted and to make the Committee's decision final.32

    The review process led to ECOSOC Resolution 288B(X) of 27 February 1950, which amended and consolidated all the previous decisions on the consultative arrangements. There were several significant changes. Increased emphasis was placed on consultations with ECOSOC commissions and committees rather than the full Council. The Secretariat was given a stronger role to try to make NGO activities more acceptable and the right to ask NGOs for help in producing studies or reports. As we have seen, Category C status was downgraded to listing on a Register, with reduced rights of participation. Finally, restrictions were put on the volume of documentation coming from NGOs. Previously all documents from Category A NGOs were circulated in full, while summaries of documents from Category B groups were circulated. The changes put a limit of 2000 words for Category A and 500 words for Category B NGOs in statements to the Council and a limit of 2000 words for both categories submitting statements to commissions.33 For the next 18 years, Resolution 288B(X) remained the definitive statute, specifying the nature of the arrangements for consultative status.

    NGOs made no further gains in their rights of participation in ECOSOC. The provisions for attendance, circulation of documents, hearings and proposing agenda items, though changed in some details, remain fundamentally the same to the present day.34 Despite the fact that the WFTU was denied its more ambitious aims and that Category II and Roster NGOs do not have full rights, in all its decision-making on economic and social questions the UN remains more open to pressure groups than do most governments. The major parliaments of the world do not allow NGOs to place items on their agendas or to make speeches from the floor of the house.

Turmoil and the 1968 review of the consultation system

In the early 1960s most committees within the UN system were restructured to allow for representation of the new African and Asian members that had joined the UN from 1955 onwards. Generally this restructuring was achieved by increasing the size of the committee and specifying a division of the seats between the Afro-Asians, the Latin Americans, the Eastern Europeans (that is the communist countries) and the Western countries. This resulted in a substantial shift in the political balance of the UN, away from the long period of Western dominance. Because it required an amendment of the Charter, the composition of ECOSOC was not changed until September 1965. The next session of the Council expanded the NGO Committee from seven to 13 members.35 The Soviet Union also made a determined effort to reinstate the Women's International Democratic Federation (WIDF) and the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL). With the more radical of the Afro-Asians supporting the argument that Western Cold War prejudices had distorted the universality of the UN, ECOSOC in June 1967 placed WIDF and IADL in Category B.36

    In February 1967, just before the new enlarged NGO Committee started to consider whether to recommend the reinstatement of WIDF and IADL, a bombshell was thrown into the debate. The New York Times ran a series of stories on how the US Central Intelligence Agency had secretly financed several anti-communist NGOs, including the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions from ECOSOC Category A, and the International Commission of Jurists, Pax Romana and the World Assembly of Youth from Category B. This turned the consideration of the status of WIDF and IADL into a general debate about claims of Western domination of the ECOSOC-NGO system.37

    The Tanzanian delegate led an onslaught in the Council. He successfully demanded a review of the criteria for admission to consultative status, redefinition of the precise requirements to distinguish between the three categories and review of NGO rights to participate in UN activities. Once the general principles had been reconsidered, the NGO Committee was then 'to review the nature and activities of each NGO'.38 The general atmosphere of suspicion towards NGOs can be measured by the amount of support given at the end of the year to Afro-Asian attacks on NGOs in the General Assembly's debate on preparations for the International Conference on Human Rights. The Assembly's decision to invite ECOSOC NGOs to send observers to the conference was sustained by just one vote.39

Resolution 1296 and the re-emergence of consensus

After another year, including some acrimonious debate, consensus was finally achieved in the NGO Committee. A new resolution defining the consultation procedures was recommended to ECOSOC and adopted by the Council in May 1968. (The text of Resolution 1296(XLIV) is given in Appendix Two.) Despite all the contention, no fundamental changes were made. Categories A and B and the Register were relabelled Categories I and II and the Roster, but their definitions did not change, except to add 'scientific and technological' matters to the list of potential subject areas. It is interesting to note that in 1968 the environment was still not considered to be a subject requiring international attention and it was not mentioned in Resolution 1296. Only slight amendments were made to the participation rights.

    The main changes concerned finance, the global coverage of NGOs, the introduction of regular NGO reports and provisions to withdraw consultative status. NGOs should be financed predominantly by their membership and should make public any contributions from governments. Several amendments were aimed at bringing NGOs from developing countries into the system. International NGOs were encouraged to cover 'the different regions of the world' and single-country NGOs would be more welcome if they 'help achieve a balanced and effective representation ... of all regions'. All NGOs now have to submit reports on their activities every four years. Failure to declare government financing, engaging in 'politically motivated acts' against UN members or failure to make any effective contribution to the UN's work became the three grounds on which an NGO could lose its consultative status. In practice the third provision has been interpreted as failing to submit a quadrennial report and it has been the only ground on which NGOs have been struck off.

    After Resolution 1296 had been passed, the review of individual NGOs caused emotional and divisive debate in both the NGO Committee and the full Council for a further year. Votes were forced on human rights NGOs and on Jewish and Catholic groups, on the grounds that they were 'politically motivated' against particular governments. However, while some NGOs had their category changed, none lost consultative status altogether.40 It is a measure of the political strength of the NGOs collectively that, despite being tarred with the brush of CIA financing during a period of radical nationalism in the Third World, they emerged from the whole review process virtually unscathed. Indeed, the Tanzanian delegate who had initiated the process ended up apologising to the Council and became supportive of NGOs.41

The political behaviour of NGOs

There are three aspects of the formal arrangements which have a most important and direct effect on an NGO's political behaviour. First, NGOs have access to all UN documents, once these have been officially circulated. There may occasionally be a few documents classified as 'Restricted', which they are not supposed to receive, but in practice they may be able to obtain copies of these. Along with being able to attend the meetings and observe the proceedings, this means that the NGOs can gain high levels of information about the political process. They will not have perfect information, because there are always private meetings of caucus groups and private conversations between delegates, in which important decisions on tactics may be taken. In not being privy to these unofficial interactions, they are in the same position as most of the other diplomats who were not present.

    Secondly, NGOs have security passes giving them access to all the buildings, including the lounges, bars and restaurants used by the diplomats. They therefore have access to the delegates. More information can be obtained by talking about the proceedings informally, including asking about what has been happening at the private meetings. Thirdly, being awarded consultative status gives the NGO a legitimate place within the political system. This means that the NGO activist is seen as having a right to be involved in the process. As a result, in the informal contacts with delegates, it is possible to express views about the issues on the agenda and to lobby for particular decisions to be taken. Again this compares very favourably to what pressure groups may expect in domestic legislatures. Many would be very pleased if they could gain immediate access to official papers, talk to members of their parliament and be seen as having a legitimate concern with the outcome of the proceedings.

NGO relations with Secretariat officials

As noted above, the UN Secretariat was given the task of making NGO behaviour more acceptable and it was allowed to work with NGOs to produce reports. These provisions legitimise any contacts that Secretariat officials and NGO activists may wish to have with each other. Contacts may well have been authorised on the basis that officials do not have a political role. Indeed NGOs are quite often described as being 'non-political'.42 In practice the Secretariat and NGOs may wish to make common cause to oppose the policies of particular governments. There was obviously a political alliance when the Centre Against Apartheid, an office of the Secretariat, regularly supplied the Anti-Apartheid Movement, a Category II NGO, with multiple copies of UN reports and publicity materials that would provide arguments to counter Mrs Thatcher's unwillingness to apply sanctions against South Africa. The process is usually more subtle, with NGOs and Secretariat officials persuading a government to give higher priority to policy formulation on an issue or encouraging the commitment of greater resources, rather than seeking a change of direction in government policy. No less a person than the UN Secretary-General has welcomed the alliance of NGOs with the Secretariat. After referring to the difficulty of convincing governments that they should commit personnel, materials and money to the UN, he said 'I need the mobilising power of non-governmental organisations'.43

How NGOs gain prestige

In the Introduction to this book, the great diversity of NGOs was emphasised. One must therefore be cautious in making generalisations about them. However, those which successfully gain the attention of government delegates and secretariat officials tend to have several important, closely-related features in common. Most possess specialised information or expertise; they will thus be influential if that information or expertise is seen as being relevant to the types of decisions that are to be taken. At the extreme, few politicians, bureaucrats or diplomats would dare argue with the considered conclusions of a professional scientific NGO on the nature of the scientific aspects of a policy problem. More generally, decision-makers will listen to NGO activists who appear to know more about a subject than they do, even when they disagree with the policy being advocated by the NGO. NGOs may also have a breadth of experience or range of contacts on a subject which surpasses that of government officials. NGO activists may devote a lifetime to one subject. In contrast, government officials are often moved around in their careers, particularly those dealing with the United Nations. Thus someone who has worked for many years in a small poorly-resourced NGO can possess more information and more experience than someone who has worked on the same subject for a short time in a large well-resourced government bureaucracy.

    It is very important for an NGO to establish a reputation for reliability and integrity; Amnesty International has a policy of systematically checking for multiple sources of information.44 There is no value in possessing information or experience if that information is not believed or the judgement of the NGO is not respected. On the other hand, when a reputation is well established, officials may take action solely in response to a word from the NGO. Finally, NGOs may also try to build up their prestige, for example by associating prestigious individuals with their work or by demonstrating widespread public support for their goals. These major assets of information, expertise, experience, reliability, integrity and prestige, once acquired, help to sustain each other and provide a formidable basis for exercising influence.

Agenda-setting, policy formulation and policy implementation

There are three distinct types of process through which an issue comes under contention in world politics. First, there may be problems in bringing an issue to the attention of the relevant decision-makers. This may be called the politics of agenda-setting. Secondly, there is debate over the formulation of the broad aims and specific objectives of policy. Thirdly, there is the problem of allocating sufficient resources in an appropriate manner, so that the agreed policy is implemented. Politicians in the home governments and diplomats at the UN tend to give the highest priority to policy formulation and are less subject to NGO influence in this process. On the other hand NGOs may dominate agenda-setting and be a major influence on policy implementation. The three processes may be clearly distinct in analytical terms, but in the world of day-to-day politics they interrelate quite closely. If an NGO publishes a report showing that insufficient resources are being allocated for a policy to be implemented successfully, they may be trying to seize media attention in order to establish an agenda for public debate about the need to formulate an alternative policy.

NGOs and agenda-setting

It is fundamental to the existence of NGOs and to the nature of governments that NGOs should dominate agenda-setting. A major reason for the existence of NGOs is that people come together in independent groups to promote some type of activity that is not currently being undertaken by governments. Alternatively, governments may already be involved in an issue, but groups are formed in order to challenge the way a government is handling the issue. Less often, the prospect of a change in government policy may result in a group being formed to resist any change. Even in the last case, the NGO is still trying to influence the content of the political agenda. Put simply, NGOs are often formed primarily to promote political change and new groups will usually aim to have some impact upon public opinion.     For their part, governments are increasingly suffering from agenda overload. They are concerned about tackling immediate problems, in the short-term future. They are predominantly responding to events rather than setting the agenda. They usually try to define the tone and language of political debate. It is not so often that they are able to determine what issues are on or off.

    There are two senses in which there is an agenda for politics. First, there is an agenda for public debate in the news media and, secondly, there is a formal agenda of items due for consideration by a legislature or the UN decision-making bodies. Clearly the public agenda and the formal agendas influence each other. NGOs mainly aim to influence the public agenda by activity within individual countries. The public agenda will vary substantially from one country to another, due to linguistic and cultural differences and varying structures for the media and for political debate. It is important for a global NGO to have distinct branches in as many countries as possible, in order to be able to maximise its ability to make its issues newsworthy in different ways for the different media. Different techniques are chosen according to the number and type of supporters, the skills of the permanent staff and the connections to the media that the NGO has built up.

    UN meetings and conferences can be important to NGOs because they can be used as a focus for agenda-setting activities. UN occasions generate interactions between the public agendas in different countries, the formal agenda of the UN institution and the formal agendas of domestic legislatures. Holding a UN conference opens up the possibility of news media coverage in most countries, particularly if senior politicians attend. The need for governments to instruct their delegates generates attention, at least within the government bureaucracy and perhaps in the legislature as well. The outcome of the conference may well require financial commitments to be met or treaties and other policy decisions to be ratified and hence legislative action taken.

    There are thus wide-ranging policy domains where the main issues have only been considered because of the work of NGOs. Environmental politics, women's rights and individual human rights have all been led by NGOs. Development politics was initiated within the UN system by the Bretton Woods institutions and by governments, but NGOs have substantially redefined the agenda. In the early 1960s, development was widely seen as increasing the average GNP per capita, whereas now most political actors accept the goal of human development, defined in terms of improving the quality of life of ordinary people. In other areas, such as East-West relations, Palestinian-Israeli relations and the attack upon apartheid, the main agenda has been defined by governments, but NGOs have often redefined aspects of that agenda, both in public debate and formally in international meetings. Most notably they have added a human rights dimension to these three domains. The chapters of this book on the World Bank, the environment, women's rights, the rights of the child and Amnesty International all document the ability of NGOs to change the agenda for governments.

NGOs and policy formulation

It was suggested earlier that the work of NGOs at the UN is less important in policy formulation. The main outline of policy for governments will be decided in capital cities prior to a UN meeting. Pressure from domestic NGOs or the output from earlier UN meetings can influence those decisions. Some NGO techniques at the UN are unlikely to have much impact on shaping the broad policy, though they can be used to mobilise support for a policy proposal that has already been drafted. For example, NGOs can put pressure on a government to sign or ratify a treaty at the end of a conference. Other techniques that generate policy debate at the early stages can be much more influential. Lobbying the UN Secretariat as soon as it takes up a new issue, or preparing an authoritative research report may help to establish the basic principles on which governments will form policy. (At this level, an NGO would be operating at the boundary where agenda-setting and policy formulation overlap.)45 If the report is published under the name of the UN Secretariat, rather than solely under the NGO's own name, then the influence may be very great.

    The main ability of NGOs to affect policy formulation lies not so much in the broad principles as in the details of policy, with committee work and lobbying. Here the NGO people involved must have not only the previously mentioned qualities of expertise, integrity and prestige, but also the ability to communicate and to assess whether there are opportunities for negotiation. In all committees that are not totally deadlocked there will come a point when the well-crafted proposal, which meets the basic requirements of most governments, will be gratefully accepted by tired delegates, even if it does come from an NGO. The best situation for an NGO can be to find a delegation which is already committed to the same policy objectives as the NGO, particularly if the delegation is under-resourced and grateful to receive assistance. They work together on drafting proposals which are tabled by the government. Intergovernmental negotiations will usually be dominated by the official delegations, but that does not exclude the possibility of significant NGO influence behind the scenes. The chapters on Amnesty International and the Convention on the Rights of the Child in this book show how NGOs can influence negotiations.

NGOs and policy implementation

It is not possible to generalise about the impact of NGOs on policy implementation. If governments are highly committed to a policy and have the required expertise and resources, NGO influence may be minimal. But if any of these factors is missing, NGO influence may be substantial. One process is to generate political embarrassment when governments have not achieved the policy goals to which they have officially committed themselves. Here one is back to the basic techniques of generating publicity and debate in the media. But whereas for agenda-setting, the aim is to capture the imagination of the audience, for implementation, the aim is to communicate specific information, to demonstrate that behaviour is not in accord with official policy. When policy has taken the form of making some practice illegal, then establishing proof that it is happening is effective in pushing governments to commit more resources to enforcement. Influencing implementation is mainly about influencing politics within each country. However, publicity in international organisations such as the UN is often an effective technique for generating pressure on the government back home.

    The second major way in which NGOs are involved in policy implementation is that they can be commissioned as operational agents on behalf of the UN in the field. One reason for this may be to use NGO expertise and experience. Another is that governments and the UN may wish to distance themselves from the policy, either for political reasons or because NGOs are more trusted by those who are affected by the policy. A good example of governments maintaining their distance is work on sex education and family planning. NGOs are most likely to be commissioned for development projects, disaster relief and work with refugees.

NGO participation in UN conferences

The main reason for holding major UN specialised conferences is to shift a particular issue higher up public and formal agendas. The Stockholm and Rio environmental conferences, the Bucharest, Mexico City and Cairo population conferences and the series of women's conferences are among the best known. They generated widespread media coverage. Hundreds of other specialised UN conferences have been held.46 Many have attracted little or no media attention, but they can still be highly important. Some engage in policy formulation at the global level. The conferences on the ozone layer and on high-seas fishing, for example, have been the forums for detailed intergovernmental negotiations to produce a common policy. NGOs are deeply involved in both types of conferences.

    The main outcomes of broad-agenda, single-session conferences are largely determined in the pre-conference preparatory work. The more technical, multi-session conferences can move in unanticipated directions during the conference negotiations. Whatever the type of conference, it is standard practice to give rights of participation at UN conferences to NGOs with ECOSOC consultative status. It has also been common practice to give the same rights at conferences to a wider range of NGOs which apply to attend an individual conference. NGOs have learnt a variety of ways to exercise influence, both in the preparatory work and in conference negotiations.

Preparation of reports for conferences

In many cases, the General Assembly or ECOSOC resolution convening a UN conference will ask the UN Secretariat and governments to prepare reports on one or more of the main topics. Where a topic is a new one for intergovernmental action, or even perhaps for governmental action, Secretariat officials and government civil servants may have no choice but to turn to the relevant NGOs for assistance in compiling their reports. When NGOs are involved from the beginning in the preparation of such reports, they are participating in the most important aspect of agenda-setting: defining how political actors perceive the problem and the nature of what is, and what is not, to be discussed.

Participation in conference committees and plenary sessions

When there is committee work for a conference, either in the preparatory process or during the conference, NGOs are usually able to attend. NGOs which are oriented towards news media coverage or have not learnt the importance of committee work, or which simply do not have enough available personnel, may choose not to attend. Sometimes there may only be a small number of NGO representatives at the committee meetings. This can be an advantage, as they can be allowed to take part in the debate without the delegates being worried about their work being swamped by the NGOs.

    Emphasis has been given to the exceptional nature of the participation rights of NGOs within ECOSOC. In practice these are used rather infrequently by a small number of NGOs. However, the existence of the rights in one of the central organs of the UN legitimises participation in other organs. The general pattern would appear to be that NGO participation is likely to be allowed on a more informal, less restricted basis when the meeting is not the subject of public attention, when the subject matter is fairly technical, when a small number of delegates is present, when few of the delegates are lawyers and when there is a general desire to reach agreement by consensus. All these factors tend to apply in conference committee work.

    The orthodox view of the United Nations stresses that the members are states and that only government representatives have the right to vote. Increasingly the UN tries to operate by consensus and this is now the norm for specialised conferences. Thus voting is less important in formal terms than it used to be. The fact that NGOs do not have voting rights in the UN does not mean that they are unable to affect the decisions. Significant influence can be exercised through input to reports and committee work. In addition, it is now common for NGOs to be allowed to take part in the plenary debates. The time allowed is usually very limited, perhaps to a single short speech on behalf of all the NGOs, but occasionally several interventions are allowed. The work of NGOs inside and outside the conference hall can make it more difficult for the major governments to claim there is a consensus without making further concessions.

    It has been pointed out that NGO representatives can lobby delegates and, when they find one sympathetic to their ideas, draft resolutions and have them tabled by one of the delegations. Because such actions violate the image of NGOs as 'non-political' consultants and the premise of diplomats obeying their government's instructions, they do not often come to light. Nevertheless, some illustrations can be quoted. The IPPF drafted the resolution on the right of access to family planning information passed by the 1968 International Conference on Human Rights and the International Baby Foods Action Network has drafted resolutions on baby foods passed by the World Health Organisation. A more complex story of the International Commission of Jurists being responsible for changing the Geneva Conventions on the laws of war has been fully documented.47 The chapters in this book on the environment and on women's rights show the extent of NGO influence in agenda-setting conferences.

NGO forums and NGO newspapers

At some UN conferences, NGOs have two other important techniques for exercising influence: NGO forums and NGO newspapers. Alongside the official diplomatic conferences, there may be an unofficial NGO conference, which is usually called a forum. Neither 'conference' nor 'forum' conveys the full sense of the chaotic turmoil of the informal fermentation of ideas and debate. Many months before the conference opens, a leading NGO or a wider committee of NGOs will cooperate with the UN Secretariat in publicising the conference and arranging for NGOs to organise their own events in parallel with the diplomatic conference. Sometimes the forum is conveniently placed close to the conference hall, but sometimes it is in a different part of the city. In either situation, many diplomats make the effort to turn up to hear the talks, watch the street theatre, see the exhibitions, watch the films and attend the debates, which between them all raise a wider range of ideas than is discussed in the official conferences. The forums are also attended by journalists and hence widen the public agenda of media debate. Sometimes they will have a direct impact on the formal conference agenda, for example in Stockholm in 1972 when the demonstrations against whaling contributed to the decision of the environment conference to vote for a moratorium on commercial whaling.48

    A conference with a forum usually also has an NGO newspaper. The first was organised as a relatively simple production by Friends of the Earth and the Ecologist magazine for the 1972 Stockholm conference, under the name Eco. The first fully professional newspaper was Planet, produced and funded by IPPF for the 1974 World Population Conference. These newspapers are printed on a daily basis and distributed free of charge first thing in the morning at the main hotels and the main conference buildings on each working day of the conference. They cover the full range of news reporting, cartoons and editorial columns and serve as information bulletins on forthcoming conference and forum events. A small team of experienced professional journalists produces better coverage of the conference than any ordinary newspaper could achieve. They make the diplomatic conferences more transparent in that the professional diplomats often may only learn what other delegations are doing from the NGO newspaper's reports. They also give public notice of NGO attitudes to the direction being taken by the official proceedings. As a general effect, the forums and newspapers provide a continuous reminder during the conference that the public agenda is much wider than the official agenda of the diplomatic proceedings.

NGO activists as insiders

When considering the full range of NGO activities, it can be seen that through involvement in report writing, committee work, lobbying, forums and their own newspapers, NGOs have a wide repertoire of activities from which to choose to influence conference proceedings from the outside. They can also exercise influence from the inside. The most prestigious NGOs experience a movement of personnel between their own secretariats and the UN secretariats and this occurs in both directions. Much more widespread is the practice of governments recruiting NGO activists as advisers on an ad hoc basis for the duration of a particular conference. When this happens the NGO individual officially becomes a government delegate and therefore has the maximum ability to lobby his own government's policy but he may lose some freedom to take part in the public debate or to lobby other governments. The most impressive example of NGO access was when Dr Sai, the President of the IPPF, was elected, in his role as head of the Ghanaian delegation, to chair the Preparatory Committee for the 1993 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD).

NGO participation in other UN bodies

NGOs direct a great deal of time and effort to specialised conferences. As the outcomes are less rigidly defined by a long history of past decisions, they can usually achieve a greater impact here than at the regular meetings of established institutions. Nevertheless, input to reports, committee work and lobbying can occur in the same way to influence the decisions of the committees and commissions of ECOSOC and the decisions of the UN specialised agencies. As is shown in Chapters Five and Six of this book, a substantial impact is made by NGOs on the Commission of the Status of Women and the Commission on Human Rights. NGOs also have a special role in the new Commission on Sustainable Development as is discussed below.

    With the exception of the Red Cross, recognised NGOs have not been allowed officially to participate in regular sessions of the General Assembly, but they have addressed special sessions on disarmament and on development and in November 1993 a curious new development occurred. The Assembly's Second Committee was debating the progress of the preparatory work for the ICPD when it suspended its discussions to hear from the head of the NGO Planning Committee, Billie Miller, and resumed when she had finished speaking: thus in reality an NGO addressed the Second Committee, while officially nothing happened.49 It remains to be seen whether this was an isolated event or the first step down the road towards regular direct NGO involvement in the Assembly. For the time being, one access route is through working with specialised Assembly committees, outside the regular sessions. The second route to influence in the Assembly is through preliminary work in ECOSOC or specialised conferences, or sometimes through the agencies. Many of the General Assembly's resolutions come from recommendations by these other bodies and receive little time and attention in the Assembly itself. In practice an NGO that achieves success in a subsidiary body of ECOSOC may well be determining the text of an Assembly resolution. In addition, although they have no formal rights, NGOs engage extensively in informal lobbying in the corridors and the meeting rooms while the General Assembly is in session.

    Very occasionally access has been gained to Security Council committees to report on violations of sanctions resolutions.50 In general, direct influence on the agenda of the Security Council cannot be achieved. Indirect influence, via the public agenda, can occur. For example, reports in the world's media from the emergency relief NGOs in Somalia made a significant contribution to the Security Council decision to establish a UN peace-keeping operation. The distinction is not so much whether governments allow NGOs less access on questions of political conflict than on economic and social matters. The distinction is whether or not the meeting has procedures that legitimise NGO access and whether or not the particular NGOs seeking access have established a sound reputation for themselves.

    In UN documents, and studies of UN politics based solely on the formal proceedings, the role of NGOs often seems insignificant. For example, a brief study by Kaufmann on the adoption of the UN declaration against torture talks in detail about the government proposals, speech-making and negotiations, but fails to mention Amnesty International or any other NGO.51 Nevertheless, as Helena Cook outlines in Chapter Seven, Amnesty was central to this whole process. Diplomats like to see NGOs as useful advisers, having 'consultative status', but definitely not as equal participants in diplomacy. Thus NGOs are usually very careful not to step beyond the bounds of accepted procedure. They have much less ability to take part in formal public UN meetings than in informal private meetings. Most of their influence is invisible except to the immediate participants, and it is therefore very easy to underestimate the impact of NGOs on UN proceedings. Recent resolutions have explicitly specified that 'non-governmental organisations shall not have any negotiating role'.52 In terms of diplomatic norms, such a specification should be redundant. The fact that it has been thought necessary to assert this position is a warning to NGOs, but it is also a tribute to the prestige and the influence that NGOs have achieved.

The impact of the Earth Summit on the UN system

The relationship between the UN and NGOs went through another major period of change from 1992 to 1994, as a result of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) - popularly known as the 'Earth Summit'. It is often asserted that the breadth of participation of NGOs at UNCED in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 was unprecedented. In reality there has been a steady evolution in the role of NGOs, but many people only really became aware of it in 1992. The UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in June 1972 was a turning point. The Secretary-General of the conference, Maurice Strong, proposed that not only the ECOSOC NGOs but also 'other NGOs of genuinely international character' should be invited provided that they were 'directly concerned with the subject matter of the Conference'.53 In the 1980s the restriction that NGOs should be international was dropped and 'national NGOs' or even very local NGOs were able to attend. By 1987, at the International Conference on Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, only 39 per cent of the 179 NGOs were on the ECOSOC list.54 The participation in UNCED by many NGOs which had never before had any contact with the UN was simply an extension of existing practices. The result was to involve a much larger number of NGOs than at any previous UN conference. In total about 650 NGOs were officially accredited to be at UNCED and about 1400 attended the unofficial Global Forum.

    One understandable reason for the participation of NGOs in UNCED being seen to be so exceptional is that the outcome was unanticipated at the start of the process. In December 1989, when the General Assembly first decided to convene the conference, the developing countries were very suspicious of the environmental NGOs. The resolution that was adopted not only sought to restrict NGO participation to the established ECOSOC NGOs; it also implied that some would not be able to attend because they were not 'relevant'.55 Many governments gave serious consideration to the role of NGOs for the first time in August 1990 at the first meeting of the Preparatory Committee, PrepCom I, with a 'sea change' in attitudes having occurred in the eight months since the Assembly decision.56 The greatest shift was in the G-77 group of developing countries, which were now primarily concerned to ensure a balance between environmental and development NGOs and adequate participation by NGOs from developing countries. Even so some delegates still succeeded in imposing restrictive language in the agreed text.57 Despite the wording of UNCED Decision 1/1 being less liberal than previous UN practice, it opened the door for any NGO to gain accreditation to the PrepCom meetings and the full conference.

The prestige of environmental NGOs

The media coverage of environmental issues and the diplomacy of the Earth Summit continued to generate an astonishing momentum to increasing the status of NGOs. Agenda 21, one of the five main documents produced by the Earth Summit, devoted one of its four sections, covering 39 pages, to the proposition that 'the commitment and genuine involvement of all social groups' was critical to the effective implementation of sustainable development policies by governments.58

    During the debates around the Earth Summit, the language about NGOs became very confused. Agenda 21 refers to 'social groups' and 'major groups'; some of the leading activists preferred 'independent sectors'; and the various documents were inconsistent on whether the term NGOs covered only the ECOSOC NGOs or all organisations.59 Agenda 21 gave Section III the title, Strengthening the Role of Major Groups, and devoted nine chapters to women, youth, 'indigenous people and their communities', non-governmental organisations, local authorities, workers and their trade unions, business and industry, the scientific and technological community, and farmers. Maurice Strong, Secretary-General of the Rio conference, seems to have been trying to broaden the range of those involved in the conference, particularly by bringing in scientists and industrialists.60 In this he was remarkably successful, with Agenda 21 carrying through to nothing less than the UN's first charter for democracy, in the call for all the 'major groups' to be involved in a 'real social partnership' with governments for the formulation and implementation of sustainable development policies both at the international level and within each country.

The new Commission on Sustainable Development

Chapter 38 of Agenda 21 called for the creation of a Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) to ensure review and follow-up of the new commitments on environmental and development policy that had been made by all governments at Rio. Action by the General Assembly and by ECOSOC led to the creation of the CSD, election of its 53 members and the holding of its first meeting in February 1993.61 Agenda 21 stated that in the follow-up process there should be 'an expanded role for non-governmental organisations, including those related to major groups, with accreditation based on the procedures used in the Conference' and this was endorsed in the resolutions establishing the CSD.62

    When the time came to implement these decisions in New York, many divisions appeared within the Secretariat, among the governmental delegations and even among the NGOs. There were practical worries about security and about accommodating hundreds of new NGOs within the over-crowded headquarters facilities. Some delegates in New York were not as comfortable as those in Rio with the new ideas. Many of the new NGOs regarded the existing arrangements as too slow and cumbersome and the idea of 'consultative status' as being incompatible with 'social partnership'. On the other hand the established NGOs were satisfied with the existing procedures and were worried that their special position might be undermined by the new NGOs.63

    On the same day as the CSD was created by ECOSOC, the Council approved an ambiguous, poorly-drafted Decision.64 The new NGOs were placed on the Roster, solely for the purposes of consultation with the CSD. Because it was assumed that NGO requests to address the Commission would be too time-consuming, it was expected that NGOs would be asked to appoint a spokesperson.65 In March 1993 the Secretariat wrote to all the non-ECOSOC NGOs accredited to UNCED and invited them to apply for a place on the CSD Roster by 15 April, in order to be in time for the first substantive meeting of the CSD. The secretariat also went beyond the terms of the ECOSOC Decision and invited any other interested NGO to apply as well.66 Although it had been estimated that up to a thousand new NGOs might apply, by the deadline only 479 UNCED NGOs and 71 other new NGOs had done so. They were all approved by the Council.67 At the CSD session in June 1993 some 280 NGO representatives were present. This was a large number, but a far cry from the theoretical maximum of more than two thousand, combining the established NGOs and the potential new NGOs.68

    After a year in which the new NGOs were denied full access to consultative status facilities, the first ECOSOC Decision was overturned and the environmental NGOs were brought in as another section of the Roster operating by the established rules for consultation under the provisions of Resolution 1296.69 The final result was that, following on from the UNCED precedent, from July 1994 single-country NGOs gained access to the UN system for the first time in large numbers, rather than as occasional exceptions to the norm that an NGO should be based in several countries.

Review of the arrangements under Resolution 1296

In the euphoria of the Earth Summit, provisions were written into Agenda 21 for a review of the 'formal procedures and mechanisms' for the involvement of NGOs in the United Nations system.70 The pressures for such a review came from NGOs seeking a much greater role in ECOSOC than that provided by the existing consultative status, the need to consider whether special procedures were required on sustainable development questions and the desire of some to establish formal relationships in the General Assembly. The Secretariat wanted consideration of the resources allocated to their NGO Unit and the logistics of dealing with much greater numbers of NGOs. Some governments wished to give positive support to NGOs as part of the process of global democratisation, while others, which were antagonistic to human-rights NGOs and some environmental NGOs, no doubt hoped that the review process would provide opportunities for them to halt, or even reverse, the growth in the activities and the prestige of NGOs.

    In February 1993 ECOSOC decided to establish a review. Rather than this encompassing all the activities of NGOs in the whole UN system it became simply 'a general review of current arrangements for consultation' under Resolution 1296.71 The NGO Committee worked on the terms of reference for the review and recommended that an Open- Ended Working Group should consider the ECOSOC arrangements, the possibility of standardising the rules for participation in international conferences, and improvement of the work of the NGO Committee and the Secretariat's NGO Unit. The preamble to their resolution prejudged the review by 'recognising the continued validity of its Resolution 1296(XLIV) as a useful framework'.72

    At the time of writing, the review has not been completed. The Secretariat published a comprehensive report on how the arrangements have worked in the past73 and in July 1994 the Open-Ended Working Group published an interim report, in which it was plain that the debate was again moving in a positive direction for the NGOs.74 One weakness of NGOs is that they have an impatience with bureaucratic processes that seem irrelevant to their issue area, such as this review. Participation by the NGOs in the first stage of the review was predominantly by a small number of well-established traditional NGOs, mainly from ECOSOC Category I. The opportunity to push on an open door was not being taken.

    The outcome will probably be a re-affirmation of the existing consultative arrangements that have worked successfully for more than thirty years, with only minor amendments being suggested. The really difficult question is whether any formal arrangements should be initiated for NGOs in the General Assembly. This is most improbable for the regular sessions, but a possible compromise is that standard procedures for international conferences should also apply to special sessions of the Assembly. There is a clear need for the Secretariat NGO Unit to be strengthened, but it may not be allocated the necessary resources. The events arising from the Earth Summit represented a significant change in the relationship between NGOs and the UN system, but they should be seen less as a dramatic turning point and more as part of a long evolutionary process.

[For the actual outcome, see ECOSOC Resolution 1996/31 .]


This chapter has concentrated on the role of NGOs in the main UN policy-making bodies and not in the operational programmes or the specialised agencies. In these other parts of the wider UN system the role of NGOs has been much less controversial. In operational programmes, NGOs gain recognition through being effective partners in the field. In the specialised agencies, there is generally a formal consultative system similar to the ECOSOC one, but working with a smaller number of more specialised NGOs. Whenever governments are dealing with technical questions they are glad to deal with those who have technical expertise.

    The extent to which NGOs are now recognised as being integral to the UN system was shown by the warmth of Boutros Boutros-Ghali's welcome in September 1994 to a conference of NGOs at the UN's headquarters.

I want you to consider this your home. Until recently these words might have caused astonishment. The United Nations was considered to be a forum of sovereign states alone. Within the space of a few short years, this attitude has changed. Non-governmental organisations are now considered full participants in international life.75

The following chapters offer case studies of how this participation by NGOs has made a significant difference to United Nations politics on a wide range of issues.


  1. General Assembly Resolution of 16 February 1946 quoted in Yearbook of the United Nations 1946-47, (New York: United Nations, 1947), p.551.
  2. For the purposes of simplification the main text has referred throughout to the NGO Committee. In practice the use of the term 'NGO Committee' covers what were officially five different mandates from February 1946 to May 1968.
  3. UN Yearbook 1946-47, p.552.
  4. As early as August 1947 ECOSOC Resolution 95(V)II admitted four 'national' NGOs on the basis that their governments had approved, see UN Yearbook 1947-48, p.687. This was incorporated as a general provision in Resolution 288B(X) of 27 February 1950, expressing the requirement in Article 71 of the Charter.
  5. UN Yearbook 1946-47, p.552.
  6. Resolution 288B(X) and UN Yearbook 1950, p.659.
  7. Failure to produce a quadrennial report can lead either to demotion or to being struck off completely. For a recent example of demotions see Report of the Committee on Non-Governmental Organisations, UN document E/1993/63 of 7 June 1993, p.18.
  8. ECOSOC Resolution 1099(XL) of 4 March 1966 increased the size of the Committee on NGOs from seven to 13 members and ECOSOC Resolution 1981/50 of 20 July 1981 increased it to 19 members.
  9. UN Yearbook 1946-47, p.552.
  10. Ibid., p.554 and ECOSOC Resolution 57(IV) of 28 March 1947. Further debate led to Resolution 214C(VIII) of 14 February 1949, which refined the details of Resolution 57(IV), see UN Yearbook 1948-49, p.709-11.
  11. UN Yearbook 1947-48, pp.687, 689-90 and 694; UN Yearbook 1948-49, pp.709-11.
  12. General Assembly Resolution 386(V) of 4 November 1950; ECOSOC Resolution 366(XII) of 21 March 1951, repealing Resolution 214C(VIII) (see note 10 above); and UN Yearbook 1951, pp.598-9.
  13. ECOSOC Resolution 334A(XI) of 20 July 1950 and UN Yearbook 1950, p.663.
  14. UN Yearbook 1951, p.597-8.
  15. Ibid., p.597.
  16. UN Yearbook 1954, p.299.
  17. ECOSOC Resolution 287(X) of 3 March 1950 and UN Yearbook 1950, p.661-2.
  18. ECOSOC Resolution 1219(XLIII) of 5 June 1967 and UN Yearbook 1967, pp.564, 570.
  19. UN Yearbook 1946-47, pp.552, 554. See also UN Yearbook 1948-49, pp.713-4, for specification of the NGOs that had joint representation.
  20. UN Yearbook 1946-47, p.554 and UN Yearbook 1948-49, p.714.
  21. UN Yearbook 1946-47, p.554.
  22. UN Yearbook 1950, p.659.
  23. See Report of the Committee on Non-Governmental Organisations, UN document E/1993/63, pp.12-13. This decision was endorsed by ECOSOC on 30 July 1993 in Decision 1993/329.
  24. Human Life International was initially recommended in January 1991 by the NGO Committee for inclusion on the Roster (see UN document E/1991/20, p.12). However, in May 1991 ECOSOC refused to endorse this decision and referred the application back to the Committee's 1993 session, (see ECOSOC Report, UN document A/46/3, p.126 para.63 and Decision 1991/216). Finally, in May 1993 the application was rejected (see UN document E/1993/63, p.15). The factor that probably tipped the decision against Human Life International was that it had campaigned in the United States against children collecting money for UNICEF.
  25. UN Yearbook 1946-47, pp.551-2.
  26. Ibid., p.553.
  27. Ibid., pp.149-50 and General Assembly Resolution 49(I)B of 15 December 1946.
  28. Ibid., p.151 and General Assembly Resolution 49(I)C of 15 December 1946.
  29. UN Yearbook 1947-48, pp.690-1 and ECOSOC Resolution 95(V)III of 16 August 1947.
  30. UN Yearbook 1950, p.657.
  31. Of the eight ECOSOC agenda items proposed by NGOs, four originated with the WFTU (covering equal pay for men and women, freedom of association, trade union rights and full employment), while the AFL raised three items (the protection of migrant labour, forced labour and publication of information on development projects). In those days of Cold War antagonisms, some matters seemed more contentious than they do now. See UN Yearbook 1947-48, p.693 and UN Yearbook 1948-49, p.712.
  32. UN Yearbook 1950, pp.657-9.
  33. Ibid.
  34. All the practices were codified in ECOSOC Resolution 288(X) of 27 February 1950 and then reviewed and re-affirmed with some changes in Resolution 1296(XLIV) of 23 May 1968. The text of the latter resolution in given in Appendix Two.
  35. ECOSOC Resolution 1099(XL) of 4 March 1966.
  36. ECOSOC Resolution 1219(XLII) of 5 June 1967.
  37. Chiang Pei-heng, Non-Governmental Organisations at the United Nations. Identity, Role and Function (New York: Praeger, 1981). The references to the New York Times stories are given in pp.120-1. The debates in early 1967 are covered in pp.106-15. See also UN Yearbook 1967, pp.563-4.
  38. ECOSOC Resolution 1225(XLII) of 6 June 1967.
  39. General Assembly Resolution 2339(XXII) of 18 December 1967, paragraph 10, invited NGOs 'that have a demonstrable interest' in the items on the agenda to send observers to the conference. The proposal in document A/L.542 to delete paragraph 10 was lost by a vote of 51 in favour to 51 against, with 11 abstentions. See UN Yearbook 1967, pp.504-7.
  40. Chiang, op.cit., Chapter Six.
  41. Ibid., p.184 and p.211, note 48.
  42. ECOSOC Resolution 366(XII) of 21 March 1951, passed by 11 votes to 5 with 2 abstentions, stated that relationships of NGOs with ECOSOC are 'technical and largely non-political in character'.
  43. 'Statement by the Secretary-General on the Occasion of the Forty-Seventh Conference of Non-Governmental Organisations' (London: UN Information Centre, mimeo, 20 September 1994), p.3. See Appendix Three.
  44. Martin Ennals, 'Amnesty International and Human Rights', in P Willetts, Pressure Groups in the Global System (London: Pinter, 1982), p.73.
  45. At the extreme it is possible for NGOs to be fully credited, along with international secretariats, as joint authors of reports defining policy objectives. An important example would be the World Conservation Strategy.
  46. See P Willetts, 'The Pattern of Conferences', in A J R Groom and P Taylor (eds.), Global Issues in the United Nations Framework (London: Macmillan, 1989), for a list of 147 global conferences from 1961 to 1985 and an analysis of their general features.
  47. K Suter, An International Law of Guerrilla Warfare: The Global Politics of Law-Making (London: Frances Pinter, 1984).
  48. T Burke, 'Friends of the Earth and the Conservation of Resources', in Willetts, op.cit., p.121.
  49. ICPD 94. Newsletter of the International Conference on Population and Development, no.10, November-December 1993, p.5.
  50. A Minty, 'The Anti-Apartheid Movement and Racism in Southern Africa', in Willetts, op.cit., p.40.
  51. J Kaufmann, United Nations Decision Making, (Alphen aan den Rijn: Sijthoff and Noordhoff, 1980), pp.150-4.
  52. See for example, Decision 1/1 in Appendix Two; ECOSOC Resolution 1993/4 of 3 February 1993, and ECOSOC Decision 1993/215 of 12 February 1993.
  53. UN document A/CONF.48/PC.11 of 30 July 1971.
  54. Report of the International Conference on Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, Vienna, 17-26 June 1987, UN document A/CONF.133/12, pp.136-9.
  55. General Assembly Resolution 44/228 of 22 December 1989, para.12.
  56. Stephen Collett, Progress of UNCED, PrepCom I Nairobi, 6-31 August 1990 (Memo to NGO Development Committees, New York and Geneva, dated 15 August 1990), p.3.
  57. The key debate took place on 10 August 1990, at an 'open- ended meeting' to discuss amendments to the text of UN document A/CONF.151/PC/CRP.7.
  58. Report of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Annex II, Agenda 21, UN document A/CONF.151/26, quotation from the Preamble to Section III in vol.III, p.4.
  59. For an illustration of the verbal confusion, note the five different meanings of the term NGOs implied in Agenda 21, paragraphs 38.5, 38.8(d), 38.11, 38.13 and 38.14, in UN document A/CONF.151/26 vol.III, pp.88-91.
  60. Maurice Strong was responsible for the paper on NGOs (UN document A/CONF.151/PC/9) that led to Decision 1/1. In paragraph 8, he lists under 'groups in society' six of the nine groups covered by Agenda 21 Section III.
  61. Much of the Agenda 21 text on the CSD was endorsed by the UN. See Agenda 21, Chapter 38, International Institutional Arrangements, A/CONF.151/26, vol.III, pp.90-1; UN General Assembly Resolution 47/191 of 22 December 1992; ECOSOC Decision 1993/207 of 12 February 1993; and the elections of 16 February 1993 given in ECOSOC Decision 1993/201.
  62. Agenda 21, paragraph 38.44 and General Assembly Resolution 47/191, paragraph 8.
  63. For the debate on the role of NGOs in the CSD, see The Independent Sectors' Network 92 published by The Centre For Our Common Future, Geneva, particularly August-September 1992, pp.1 and 6, and January 1993, pp.8-9. (From October 1992, '92' was dropped from the title of this newsletter.)
  64. ECOSOC Decision 1993/215 of 12 February 1993, given in Appendix Two of this book.
  65. UN document E/1993/12 of 29 January 1993, paras.18 and 20.
  66. . United Nations Secretariat ECOSOC/NGO Unit, Notification, 3 March 1993, given in Appendix Two.
  67. The applications for the CSD Roster are given in UN document E/1993/65 of 21 May 1993, with the UNCED NGOs and other new NGOs listed separately. The applications were approved by ECOSOC Decision 1993/220 of 26 May 1993. A single consolidated list of these two groups of NGOs is given in UN document E/CN.17/1994/INF/1 of 25 April 1994.
  68. The UN documents do not record the level of NGO attendance at the first substantive session of the CSD, but The Independent Sectors' Network reports 'over 280 representatives of NGOs were in New York' (June p.1). As some NGOs would send more than one person, this means that probably less than 200 organisations were taking part.
  69. See UN document E/1994/33 of 12 July 1994, paragraph 24, for the CSD recommendation that all the NGOs accredited to the Commission be placed on the Roster and ECOSOC Decision 1994/300 of 29 July 1994 giving provisional endorsement to the recommendation.
  70. Agenda 21, paragraph 27.6. See also paras. 27.9(a) and 38.44.
  71. ECOSOC Decision 1993/214 of 12 February 1993.
  72. Report of the Committee on Non-Governmental Organisations, UN document E/1993/63 of 7 June 1993, endorsed with only minor amendments as ECOSOC Resolution 1993/80 of 30 July 1993.
  73. UN document E/AC.70/1994/5 of 26 May 1994.
  74. UN document A/49/215-E/1994/99 of 5 July 1994.
  75. Statement by the Secretary-General ..., op. cit., p.1, see note 43 above.

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