The United Nations Charter established six principle organs of the UN. Some like the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Secretariat are so well known they are virtually household names.
Others, like the Trusteeship Council and the International Court of Justice, are almost unknown, and are rarely heard from. The Charter established the remaining body, the Economic and Social Council, to serve as the central forum for the discussion of international, social, economic, cultural, educational and health-related issues. It is also directed to promote respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms. From the very beginning, as part of its charter, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) was instructed to consult with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) concerned with matters with which the Council dealt. The Council recognized that these organizations, with special competence in specific areas, would be of value and should be permitted to express their views.
In 1948, forty-one NGOs were granted consultative status by ECOSOC; and by 1968, three hundred and seventy-seven had achieved that status. Today, that number is over 2000.
At the same time, the UN Department of Public Information (DPI) had instituted an accreditation process that allowed NGOs special access to information about UN activities. In fact, it is the DPI that sponsors the annual three-day DPI/NGO Conference each September and is attended by over 1900 NGOs. In addition, the DPI holds weekly briefings on a great variety of topics of interest to NGOs, ranging from the plight of indigenous people, the sex trafficking of children, the problems of aging, HIV/AIDS, fresh water supply, etc. As an aside, both ECOSOC and the UN Department of Public Information accredit the International Kolping Society.
Over the last decades, the exponential growth and influence of NGOs and their interactions with the UN and influence in formal deliberations of UN bodies and conferences, has led to some significant victories. The treaty on banning land mines and the success in having the debt of poor countries reduced or eliminated is attributed to the outcry and marshalling of public opinion by the NGO community. Civil society has power, but it is not the authority to decide or to enforce. Rather, it is the capacity to argue, to propose, to denounce, to experiment and to innovate. That is what we are called to do.
But not everything runs smoothly in the NGO-UN relationship. Many NGOs feel frustrated in their inability to achieve substantive participation in policy-making and implementation of agreed programs.
Some Member States, on the other hand, feel that direct participation in decision-making by civil society would tend to undermine the inter-governmental process. In addition, the sheer numbers of NGOs preclude many individual voices from being heard, and so a frequent request is to consolidate similar positions and appoint a single spokesperson. This has never been easily accomplished.
And, of course, there is also the concern that there is a lesser participation in UN affairs of NGOs from developing countries.
In the keynote speech at the DPI/NGO Conference last fall, Fernando Henrique Cardozo, chair of the panel on UN-Civil Society Relations, stated that "...immense changes are taking place under our very eyes in the patterns of democratic governance." For the concerns they voice, the services they provide, the ideas they promote, "non-state actors have become of inescapable relevance for governments and the UN system."
"Civil society and public opinion are much more powerful today than in 1945. The roles of all the actors - state and non-state - are changing." It therefore stands to reason that the ways in which the UN and civil society interact must also change. And indeed, they are changing.
Today, there are a variety of ways to hear the voice of civil society. Open questionnaires are used, targeted interviews, dialogue with specific stakeholders and regional consultation meetings are among the newer techniques.
Just in the past week, Kolping has been invited to participate (via e-mail) in a questionnaire from ECOSOC on civil society's activities for poverty reduction in the Least Developed Countries. Since we have a presence in some of these countries, we were able to respond almost immediately with info about Rwanda, Benin, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia. The response indicated that as an NGO in the field, we were promoting advocacy, capacity building and training, teaching about and warning against corruption, and, in the arena of micro finance, providing funds and project management. We further indicated that of the UN's Millennium Development Goals, Kolping was primarily focused on addressing the eradication of poverty and hunger, and also establishing a global partnership for development, combating HIV/AIDS and other diseases, and the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women.
This information will be consolidated with that of many other respondents and, through a series of dialogues and forums in the next few months, ultimately find its way into the Ministerial Declarations of ECOSOC High Level Segment of 2004. This questionnaire, the manner in which the information was disseminated and collected, is an outstanding example of the new ways in which civil society and the UN can interact.