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The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 7, Issue 1, November 2004

A publication of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law

Table of Contents

Letter from the Editor

Nurturing Civil Society

The UN and Civil Society
John D. Clark

Civil Society and Media Freedom: Problems of Purpose and Sustainability in Democratic Transition
Craig L. LaMay

Religion in its Place
Jim Sleeper

Women, Civil Society, and NGOs in Post-Soviet Azerbaijan
Nayereh Tohidi


Legal Changes Affecting Not-for-Profits in Japan
J. Hana Heinekin and Robert Pekkanen

Lazarus Rising: Civil Society and Sierra Leone's Return from the Grave
J. Peter Pham

Ten Emerging Principles of Governance by Nonprofit Corporations and Guides to a Safe Harbor
Thomas Silk

Emerging International Information Collection and Sharing Regimes: The Consequences for Canadian Charities
Terrance S. Carter and Sean S. Carter

Politics and the Pulpit
Milton Cerny


Effective Economic Decisionmaking by Nonprofit Organizations
By Dennis R. Young
Reviewed by David Robinson

Framing Democracy: Civil Society and Civic Movements in Eastern Europe
By John K. Glenn III
Reviewed by Gerald M. Easter

American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society, 1700 - 1865
By Kathleen D. McCarthy
Reviewed by Matthew Crenson

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The UN and Civil Society

By John D. Clark*

New Imperatives in Global Governance

The United Nations stands at a crossroads. The litany of global challenges and the dangerous schisms that confront the world make the organization more important than ever, yet in powerful political circles it is often seen as failing to make a mark, as trapped in a sterile word-game of drafting resolutions when something much bolder is needed, and – for some – as having outlived its relevance.

Part of the dilemma lies in the UN’s origins. It was founded by about 40 governments at the close of World War II – the governments that really did rule the world. Now there are 191 Member States of the UN, and there are many other global powers in the shape of multinational corporations, media magnates, and leading NGOs that cannot be left out of international policy debate. Furthermore, citizens now expect democracy to be more than the opportunity to vote every few years for a president or parliamentary representative. They want to engage directly through civil society organizations in the debates on the issues that concern them most deeply. Traditional representative democracy is being supplemented by participatory democracy.

This phenomenon is particularly significant in matters of international policy for two reasons. First, new technology is changing the geography of politics. It is no longer necessary to be grouped together just according to the communities where we live. Through participatory democracy, we can aggregate by communities of interest, which can be global as easily as local. Second, in the era of globalization, there is an increasingly evident lacuna: while much of the substance of politics has been globalized (trade, economics, climate change, HIV/AIDS, the SARS pandemic, terrorism, etc.), the process of conventional politics hasn’t. Its main institutions – elections, political parties, and parliaments – remain rooted at the national level, hence the gap. Civil society, by contrast, is able to adapt to working in strong global organizations and networks.

For the UN to rise to today’s challenges, it needs to change how it works and to expand the array of actors that enter its global stage. The Secretary-General is mindful of these imperatives and has proposed a number of relevant reforms in these directions since he assumed office. While some have been implemented, others have been resisted by Member States. Mindful of the importance of the UN becoming more outward-looking, particularly enhancing relations with civil society and others, but also aware of the obstacles to progress, he commissioned a “Panel of Eminent Persons” to offer guidance. The panel was chaired by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the former president of Brazil, and comprised twelve distinguished people from diverse geographic and sector backgrounds.

The following is a summary of the main proposals contained in the panel’s report (“We the Peoples: Civil Society, the United Nations and Global Governance,” published as a UN General Assembly document, A/58/817, 11 June 2004). The full report is available on the panel’s website: www.un.org/reform/panel.htm.

How the UN Can Enhance Its Relations with Stakeholders

The panel’s starting observation was that today’s multilateralism is different from that of 30 years ago. Then, governments would come together to discuss an emerging issue until there was sufficient consensus for an intergovernmental resolution. They – and their intergovernmental organizations – would work on implementing this agreement. Today, it is increasingly likely that a civil society movement and a crescendo of public opinion puts a new issue on the global agenda; next, a few like-minded governments are first amongst their peers to recognize the power of the case and start pressing for global action; together with the leading civil society protagonists, they form an ad hoc coalition on the issue; this builds public and political support for global action through iterative processes of public debate, policy dialogue, and perhaps pioneering action to demonstrate ways to redress the problem. Such global policy networks have shaped responses to issues as diverse as landmines, poor countries' debts, climate change, affordable treatment for AIDS, and gender relations. Such networks influence the political agenda and generate a set of cosmopolitan values and norms that transcend national boundaries. They also spawn operational relationships that are pivotal, as partnerships are becoming increasingly important for getting things done.

Hence – like it or not – civil society is as much part of global governance today as governments. To adapt to this new multilateralism, the UN must continue to transform its institutional culture – as Kofi Annan has begun to do – from a rather inward-looking institution to an outward-looking networking organization.

This departure should not be seen as threatening to governments. Civil society and governments play different roles; one is no substitute for the other. Civil society is an arena for deliberation of policies, not decision-making. Yes, the sector greatly influences those governments that truly embrace democracy and bestow on civil society its full rights (the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association). But CSOs focus on specific causes, not overall political programs; this is both the sector’s strength and its weakness. Aggregated, civil society presents a huge array of diverse interests, not an alternative governing blueprint. We still need a government to balance the competing demands and construct an overall policy framework.

Its reflections and widespread consultations led the panel to put forward about 30 practical proposals for strengthening UN-civil society relations (the principal ones are summarized in a box, below). Behind the specific proposals lie four key imperatives or paradigm shifts that it suggests should guide the UN in its reforms in this area:

1. Reinterpret multilateralism to mean multi-constituencies

The way multilateral agendas are shaped has changed – with civil society bringing new issues to the global agenda, and with governments taking effective actions not by consensus but through multi-constituency coalitions of governments, civil society, and others. Increasingly iterative processes of public debate, policy dialogue, and pioneering action are the way to redress problems. The UN should explicitly adopt this important mode of multilateralism, and use its convening power to create multi-constituency forums, open formal UN forums to all actors necessary to solve critical issues, and regularize the use of a range of participatory modes such as public hearings.

2. Realize the full power of partnerships

Multi-stakeholder partnerships have emerged as powerful ways of getting things done and closing the implementation gap by pooling the complementary capacities of diverse actors. Achieving the Millennium Development Goals and other global targets demands a UN that is proactive and strategic in catalyzing new partnerships, incubating emerging ones, and investing in developing necessary staff skills and resources.

3. Link the local with the global

The deliberative and operational spheres of the UN are separated by a wide gulf, hampering both in areas from development to security. A closer connection between them is imperative so that local operational work contributes to the global goals and global deliberations are informed by local reality. The UN needs to give priority to enhancing its relationship with civil society at the country level. On the development side, this implies prioritizing relations in field offices. On the security side, it means strengthening informal engagement of the Security Council with civil society.

4. Help tackle democracy deficits and strengthen global governance

The new configurations of the 21st-century political landscape, described above, pose critical challenges for traditional mechanisms of global governance. They demand changes in the UN not just by engaging civil society in policy-making at all levels, but also by enhancing the role of parliamentarians and local authorities in the deliberative process on pressing global issues.

Promoting an Enabling Environment for Civil Society

The panel strongly believes that the UN and its Member States can benefit greatly from the insights and experience of civil society and from the partnership opportunities it offers. However, the panel was aware that these opportunities are much richer in some countries than others. There are many reasons for this, but one – familiar to all readers of this journal – is that the legal and policy environment in many countries obstructs the healthy evolution of civil society. Hence the panel included one recommendation (Proposal 30) stating that “Member States should encourage, through the forums of the United Nations, an enabling policy environment for civil society throughout the world and expanded dialogue and partnership opportunities in development processes. The Secretariat leadership, resident coordinators and governance specialists should use their dialogues with Governments to similar effect.”

Specifically, the panel suggested that the new Partnership Office in the Secretary-General’s cabinet and Resident Coordinators at country level should use their dialogue with governments to encourage improvements in the policy environment for civil society, including revision of relevant laws. The new civil society specialists appointed in Resident Missions should provide technical guidance in this area.

Where Now?

On September 13, 2004, the UN Secretary-General issued a response to the Panel’s report (see: http://ods-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N04/507/26/PDF/N0450726.pdf?OpenElement). In this, he urged Member States to adopt many of the panel’s proposals, especially for reforming and easing the NGO accreditation process, for opening the General Assembly to civil society involvement, for strengthening the dialogue of the Security Council with civil society (especially on the ground in conflict-affected countries), and for engaging more systematically with parliamentarians and local authorities. He also announced a number of measures that he had decided to take, as chief executive, to implement panel proposals. These steps included establishing a trust fund to enhance the capacity of civil society in developing countries to engage more systematically with the UN; identifying a civil society focal point person in Resident Missions to coordinate the UN system’s work and dialogue with civil society at the country level, guided by country-level UN-civil society advisory groups; and opening a Partnership Office in his cabinet to provide institutional leadership in strengthening relations with the full cast of actors important to the UN beyond its membership of governments – especially civil society, the private sector, parliamentarians, and local authorities.

The panel’s report and Kofi Annan’s response were discussed in the General Assembly on October 4-5, 2004. Although inconclusive, a number of Member States from all regions voiced support for the main proposals (although others also spoke against them). It is likely that groups of UN ambassadors will work together over the months ahead to promote agreement on these measures through specific committees of the General Assembly.

Undoubtedly, the coming years will see a growing role for civil society, the private sector parliamentarians, and local authorities in the UN and other forums of global governance. However, this will not be without controversy. Many in civil society resent the growing clout of large corporations – especially as hard-pressed international organizations increasingly seek funding and operational links with major companies. Similarly, central governments tend to resist the shifting power towards local authorities. And as matters of foreign policy come to dominate politics, parliamentarians resent their relatively weak voice in international forums.

The main tension, however, will concern the role of CSOs. As Jody Williams said of the sector, when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines: “We are a superpower!” It is true. Even the most powerful governments find that CSO pressure forces them to be more accountable and often to moderate their policies, and corporate CEOs are routinely challenged to demonstrate “corporate social responsibility.”

Superpowers, however, are inevitably resented. The clear ascendancy of policy-oriented CSOs has led to increasingly aggressive challenges from governments, corporations, the establishment media, and others. Questions are increasingly asked: Who elects the CSOs? To whom are they accountable? How can they prove they speak with authenticity for particular constituencies or on specific issues? What is their level of integrity? Such concerns are certainly surfacing in the debate now underway about the implementation of the panel’s proposals.

Key Proposals of the Cardoso Panel

Shift from a “fixed-slate” approach: The UN has tended, through its emphasis on admitting to its deliberative processes primarily those NGOs that have been accredited by an inter-governmental committee, to prioritize engagement with a fixed set of NGOs on all issues. Instead, it should engage with actors most relevant to the issue in hand (be they NGOs, private sector organizations, local authorities, or others). The responsible stakeholder networks focusing on those issues, rather than inter-governmental committees, should determine who speaks and who attends.

Establish a new “civil society and partnership tsar”: A new high-level bureau should be established in the Secretary-General’s office to help create critical mass for enhanced engagement. This would steer the UN’s relations with civil society, parliamentarians, local authorities, the private sector, and others – making sure there are appropriate balances between these sectors. It would also catalyze institutional culture changes toward an outward-looking organization.

Open the General Assembly (GA) and its committees and special sessions to civil society: At present, accredited NGOs only have formal rights to engage with the UN’s Economic and Social Committee (ECOSOC). This restriction is historical and no longer defensible. The GA is the overarching UN forum and hence should also be enriched through carefully structured inputs from CSOs and others.

Reform and de-politicize the accreditation processes: Some accreditation process will still be needed but this should be reformed: a) to allow entry to the GA as well as ECOSOC; b) to emphasize the technical merits of those applying, rather than political factors, and c) to become swifter and more transparent. The panel-proposed mechanism hinges on a review of applications by a Secretariat body (not, as at present, by a special inter-governmental committee), drawing on the experience of staff throughout the UN system who work most closely with CSOs. Recommendations on accreditation would then be presented in a consolidated report for inter-governmental approval, but specific applications would be discussed at this level only when deemed problematic. This process should be taken up in an existing committee of the GA (probably the General Committee) so that accreditation is not overemphasized and that it is considered alongside other organizational issues.

Enhance the UN Security Council’s links with civil society: The Security Council should expand the growing practice of holding informal consultations with CSOs, but it should broaden this to include CSOs from the affected countries, not just those based in New York. The practice of Security Council “field missions” should be expanded, and these should always include meetings with civil society. Commissions of inquiry after Council-mandated operations should also become the norm, ensuring opportunities for civil society to contribute to these.

Strengthen links with Parliamentarians: The UN should convene “global public policy committees” on the most pressing issues to provide a link between Standing Committees relevant to those issues in a wide range of parliaments. As with their national-level counterparts, these would take evidence from a range of experts, forward policy proposals, and scrutinize progress on past agreements.

Revive multi-constituency forums: Governments have decided that the big conference has been an overused tool. Perhaps so, but it should not be completely abandoned. Used sparingly, it can help foster global norms on emerging policy issues. Smaller, more politically predictable events – public hearings – can also be staged to bring all relevant stakeholders together for reviewing progress on meeting globally-agreed goals, especially the Millennium Development Goals.

Focus at the Country-Level: The UN should appoint civil society and partnership specialists at the country level to help UN offices in the country strengthen their engagement.

Establish a fund to enhance southern civil society engagement with the UN and to promote innovations in partnerships: At present, Northern CSOs dominate processes of engagement with the UN. While many do a good job in representing Southern CSOs, the latter generally want the chance to engage directly. Also at present, while examples of partnerships abound, these are often little more than implementation contracts. Experience shows that more holistic approaches can add much greater value and should be developed fully. Addressing these challenges requires new sources of “venture funding,” for which a special donor-financed trust fund should be set up.


* John D. Clark was staff director for the Panel of Eminent Persons on UN-Civil Society Relations. He has now returned to the World Bank, where he is Lead Social Scientist in the East Asia Region. He formerly headed the Bank’s NGO and Civil Society Unit and is an ICNL Board Member. This article is written purely in his personal capacity, and the views expressed are not necessarily shared by the World Bank or the United Nations.


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ISSN: 1556-5157