The United Nations and the NGOs

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The horrors of the Second World War made the world leaders vow never to allow conflict on such a horrendous scale to ever happen again. As a consequence, the United Nations Organization came into being with a basic charter of ensuring peace and tranquillity in the world. However, the politics of the Cold War severely limited the UN’s ability to mediate on global issues resulting in the organization seeking help through non-official organizations such as Non-Governmental Organizations or NGOs. This essay examines the partnership of the UN with the NGOs and their concrete outcomes for the world community.

The essay first traces the formal organizational linkages of the NGOs to the UN starting with the conference of 1945 in San Francisco that laid the foundations for cooperation. The essay dwells on the influence of NGOs on setting the agenda at the UN and how these influences impinges on the success of the UN in carrying through its plans.

The essay examines the diverse issues of Human rights, peacekeeping, influence on international financial institutions, women issues, education, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability and how the UN has managed to achieve a degree of success in many of these issues owing to the unflinching support of the NGOs.

The essay concludes by stating that the partnership of the UN with the NGOs is predicted to grow in the foreseeable future. In the final analysis, it can be stated that such a partnership has had many a positive outcomes for the UN in achieving its global tasks.

The horrors of the Second World War made the world leaders vow never to allow conflict on such a horrendous scale to ever happen again. As a consequence, the United Nations Organization came into being with a basic charter of ensuring peace and tranquillity in the world. However, the politics of the Cold War severely limited the UN’s ability to mediate on global issues as the Western Bloc and the Eastern Bloc competed with each other to gain supremacy and the UN became just another battleground to publicize each side’s perceived interests. The end of the Cold War did not change the status quo ante at the UN where nations continued to confuse the real issues by aligning with one or other veto holding member of the UN Security Council.

Faced with the dynamics of global realpolitik, the UN had no option but to turn to other allies, the non-official and Track II organizations to help the cause of humanity. These organizations collectively called Non-Governmental Organizations or NGOs have played an extremely important role in aiding the UN agenda. This essay examines the partnership of the UN with the NGOs and their concrete outcomes for the world community.

Organizational Linkages

In April 1945, over 1200 delegates from NGOs attended the San Francisco conference to ensure the inclusion of Article 71 in the UN Charter that laid the foundation for the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) “ to make suitable arrangements for consultation with non-governmental organizations concerned with matters within its competence (Alger 7).” This was followed up with a formal arrangement made under the Economic and Social Council Resolution 1996/31 (NGLS 6) that enabled the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) of the UN to engage with the NGOs.

This resolution provides for official recognition of NGOs who wish to cooperate with the UN in social and economic fields. The DESA has several divisions that look after specific areas such as women’s affairs, social policy, sustainable development, financing for development, population, forests and indigenous issues. NGOs related to these fields can formally subscribe to the UN and be on their list on the specific issues targeted. A typical example of such formal arrangement has been The Earth Summit officially the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio in 1992 (Lawson, Bertucci and Wiseberg 32), which saw the gathering of almost all the heads of states as well as an unprecedented access to NGOs to the processes of the conference.

The Influence of NGOs in Setting the Agenda at the UN

The agenda set by the UN are usually nonbinding and voluntary unlike the agenda set by national governments which are usually passed as acts of parliament or a bill. However, the value of the UN agenda lies in the indirect pressure that such agenda exert on national policies that the people are trying to change but find it difficult. “Through information dissemination, media attention, mobilization and lobbying (Ahmed and Potter 82)” NGOs bring up issues for agenda setting. The effect of such agenda setting has been diverse, ranging from issues of human rights, to fighting for women’s rights or indeed supporting the cause of native people around the world. Some notable successes that have come by cover almost every field of human effort. These are covered in the succeeding paragraphs.

Human Rights Violations

In the field of international human rights “what has been perhaps less obvious has been the increasing coherence of the work carried out by NGOs (Hegarty and Leonard 276)”. NGOs have been at the front position in their campaign to ensure equal treatment for humans all over the globe and highlighting human rights violations. Their effect has been in ‘shaming’ governments to act or modify their policies as also provide the UN with necessary documentary proof to take further action that can be mandated under the UN charter. Even as early as 1995, NGOs used the fourth UN conference on Women in Beijing “to comment on government policies in a high profile way (Ahmed and Potter 85)”. China’s brutal suppression of democratic protests at Tiananmen Square were highlighted by NGOs and condemned at the UN.

This has forced China to modify its authoritarian behaviour and today, Chinese citizens have lot more right to express than was previously deemed to be possible. Take the case in point, that during the run up to the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese authorities had designated areas in Beijing where activists could peacefully protest, is a dramatic departure from the time when any such protests would have been dealt with brutal physical suppression. The US State department and USAID, an NGO has cooperated since 2004, to document evidence of genocide in Darfur (Totten and Markusen 38) which resulted in UN security council resolution 1706 (2006) and 1778 (2007) calling for the governments of Sudan and Chad to cease violence and respect human rights.

The efforts of over 13 NGOs which included Oxfam, US Care, Doctors without borders etc. has finally resulted in the International Criminal Court, on 4 March 2009 to charge the President of Sudan, Omar al-Beshir for crimes against humanity and Genocide in Darfur. The UN’s Department of Political Affairs has a division for Palestinian rights that has a committee to which over 1000 NGOs are officially recognised and who provide a valuable voice for the Palestinian cause. Despite death threats and kidnappings, NGOs continue to report against authoritarian regimes world wide and have given the UN the necessary evidence to take further action.

Peace Keeping Operations

By the end of the Cold war, the international community was besieged with tribal conflicts and civil wars and cries for help in resolving such conflicts. The difficult issue was how to separate the truth from the fiction that inevitably gets mixed in all conflict situations. This challenge existed when it came to deploying UN peacekeepers world wide. In this regard, the NGOs have helped considerably in arriving at the true facts of the cases and have strengthened the hand of the UN in arriving at the various decisions to send in peacekeepers. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the UN’s peacekeeping operations worked closely with NGOs who were sub-contracted the tasks to run transit camps and reception centres for ex-combatants. In Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, and Liberia, NGOs delivered medical assistance to far off areas in coordination with the UN.

NGOs have also been instrumental in improving prison conditions in these countries under the sponsorship of the UN’s Department of Peace Keeping. In Eritrea, the UN mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UMMEE) coordinates HIV/AIDS awareness training to schools and women in close cooperation with the NGOs. In conflict situations where peace keepers are deployed, it is often the NGOs who are the only acceptable mediators to the actors involved and are thus become responsible for casualty evacuation, medical relief, disaster relief, counselling and mediation.

International Financial Institutions

Financial institutions associated with the UN such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, WTO etc, have found it necessary to engage with NGOs to gain legitimacy for their operations (Connelly and Smith 235). The IMF board of directors have increased interaction with NGOs since the 1980s (Ahmed and Potter 81). NGOs ever critical of financial institutions’ over emphasis on macro financing capitalist policies have had a moderating effect in deciding the future financial policies of these institutions. The effect of the NGOs on these financial institutions has been to make them look at more ‘people friendly’ policies rather than just concentrate on big corporate and big ticket projects. While on ground the practical implementation of such an effect is yet to clearly take root, a start has been made nonetheless.

Women Issues

The partnership of the UN with NGOs to highlight the troubles of women has resulted in many concrete steps being taken worldwide. Joachim observes that the efforts of the NGOs to highlight the troubles of women and their protests across the globe have helped in forcing a UN declaration in 1993 on the elimination of all forms of violence against women and condemnation of gender violence (1). Not only have the NGOs targeted governments to take social and administrative actions to address the plight of the female gender but also the “neo-liberal economic development paradigm that the IMF and World Bank promote (Steans 91)”, which the NGOs argue have accelerated female poverty.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has a close cooperation with NGOs to monitor the troubles of women displaced as refugees in the trouble spots all over the world. Not only does displacement results in disruption, but also exploitation, rape and different treatment of women across the globe. The success of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and its growing ratification by countries around the world shows the growing power of NGOs-UN partnership in initiating progressive change for the progress of mankind.


NGOs have greater grassroots operational capacity than official formal organizations. Realizing this, the UN has been outsourcing more and more of its work to the NGOs which has resulted in the NGOs gaining “in the global developmental dialogue (Jones and Coleman 253)”. The UN fully realizes the importance of imparting education to the exploited and the ‘have- nots’. As a result, the United Nations International Children Education Fund (UNICEF) in collaboration with NGOs has initiated programs that include not only general education but also “peace education (Alger 398)”.

Poverty Reduction and Environmental Sustainability

One of the prime duties of the UN is to make every effort towards removal of poverty from the world. The emphasis has been to sustain development of what is known as the ‘Third World’. To accomplish that task, the UN formed new agencies such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). “The United Nations Development Programme has cooperated more closely with the NGOs in poverty reduction and environmental sustainability (Howell and Pearce 98). However, the march of globalization has increased trade competition which has disadvantaged the poorer nations. This fact activated the UN to institute another agency to look into trade matters that led to the formation of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

The UNCTAD has formal and informal mechanisms to collaborate with NGOs on trade issues. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN has increasingly involved NGOs to participate in their meetings to provide valuable insight in their areas of expertise. This has resulted in codifying pest control and ‘farmer field schools’ in Asia and Africa as well as a wide range of other activities. The rapid degradation of the global environment necessitated setting up the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). The UNEP has a special civil society and NGO unit that helps coordinate environment related awareness, campaigns and pressure groups world wide.

The UN as a voluntary body executes its diverse tasks through consultation and consensus. Building consensus at times requires resources outside the official channel. NGOs provide the much required help as over a period of time, the legitimacy of these organizations in the eyes of the global polity has grown. The ability of NGOs to create pressure points for stubborn governments to undertake reformative measures is one of the reasons why the partnership between the UN and the NGOs is predicted to grow in the years to come. In final analysis it can be stated that the partnership of the UN and the NGOs has resulted in many positive outcomes in the diverse field of human affairs.

Works Cited

Ahmed, S and D Potter. NGOs in International Politics. West Hartford:Kumarian Press, 2006.

Alger, Chadwick F. The Future of the United Nations System. Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 1998.

Connelly, James and Graham Smith. Politics and The Environment. Florence, KY: Routledge, 2003.

Hegarty, Angela and Siobahn Leonard. A Human Rights: An Agenda For the 21st Century. Florence, KY: Routledge, 1999.

Howell, Jude and Jenny Pearce. Civil Society & Development. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002.

Joachim, Jutta M. Agenda Setting, The UN, and NGOs: Gender Violence and Reproductive Rights. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2007.

Jones, Philip, Worner and David Coleman. The United Nations and Education. Florence, KY: Routledge, 2005.

Lawson, Edward H, Mary Lou Bertucci and Laurie S Wiseberg. Encylcopedia of Human Rights Edn 2. London: Taylor & Francis, 1996.

NGLS. UN System Engagement With NGOs, Civil Society, The Private Sector, and other Actors. Geneva: UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service, 2005.

Steans, Jill. Gender and International Relations. Boston: Polity, 2006.

Totten, Samuel and Eric Markusen. Genocide in Darfur. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2006.

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