Author:Mowell, Barry
Position:Nongovernmental organizations - Report


This article explores the proportionality of representation of development issues in the UN's engagement with civil society. Many scholars have addressed the increasing number and expanding roles of transnational nongovernmental organizations in recent decades. (1) However, little research has been conducted to address the actual behaviors of NGOs in the international arena. The literature does not address patterns of participation regionally or topically or the degree to which NGOs are actually engaged with the UN in development-related or other initiatives. (2) At least in part, this study seeks to address the gap. Using data from the UN's Integrated Civil Society Organizations (ICSO) database, I have analyzed the patterns of international NGOs with UN affiliations regarding the degree of representation of world regions, proportional representation among developed and developing areas, and their focus on development-related policy or issue areas as defined in the UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Monterrey Consensus. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs maintains the ICSO database to provide statistics concerning levels and types of interaction between the UN and transnational civil society. The database, which is searchable via name and type of organization, country or region where the organization is located, the organization's level of consultative status with the UN's Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the language the organization uses, the geographic scope and fields of activity of the organization, and level of the organization's participation in UN meetings, is the primary source of readily available statistics concerning the dynamic between the UN and civil society. As such, it is ideally suited for use in this study.

I analyzed secondary data related to the involvement of UN-affiliated NGOs with MDGs and Monterrey Consensus issues in an effort to identify macro-scale patterns related to whether the number of NGOs in a region is proportional to the region's population. The goal of the study was to determine if imbalances exist in the proportional representation of NGOs from different world regions and in developed versus developing regions and also to gauge the degree of participation of international civil society in the UN framework related to development. The study is based on three hypotheses, each related to a different dimension of plurality and diversity of representation/participation with regard to development issues.

1) Analysis of patterns of NGO participation/affiliation with the UN will reveal imbalances with regard to spatial/geographical representation and variations in focus on issue and policy areas.

2) Although many (possibly most) UN-affiliated NGOs with linkages to Millennium Development Goals or Monterrey Consensus issues will be located in less developed countries (LDCs/developing regions), those regions will not be represented proportional to their share of global population.

3) Only a small percentage of UN-affiliated NGOs that the ICSO database identifies as being linked to Millennium Development Goals or Monterrey Consensus goals will be formal participants in the ECOSOC consultative status program.

This study can be regarded as preliminary research that seeks to establish the degree of plurality/proportionality within NGOs affiliated with the UN or that seek to implement UN goals related to the MDGs and the Monterrey consensus.

The Millennium Development Goals were formulated and supported by the community of nations and many of the transnational organizations related to development. The goals ranged from halving the number of people living in extreme poverty to providing universal primary education by 2015. The MDGs helped mobilize unparalleled efforts to address many of the needs of the least developed areas. While the name of the project transitioned to "Sustainable Development Goals" in 2016, many of the original elements of the MDGs remain, and research continues into the degree to which the MDGs and Sustainable Development Goals have been realized. The Monterrey Consensus is a primary means through which the UN's development objectives can be achieved. The Monterrey Consensus emerged from the UN International Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey, Mexico, in 2002, where most states and many of the world's preeminent development-related organizations--including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization--crafted what is widely regarded as the main framework for international financial cooperation in support of development. As the Millennium/Sustainable Development Goals were the primary encapsulation of transnational efforts to promote development and the Monterrey Consensus was a primary vehicle for facilitating the goals by providing financing for development initiatives, the data in the ICSO database related to the issue categories of these two UN instruments should provide insight into patterns of interactions between the UN and civil society organizations (CSOs) with regard to development.

This study has revealed that UN-affiliated NGOs located in predominantly developing regions are in general underrepresented in proportion to the share of global population in those regions. Asia is the most acutely underrepresented region. This finding undermines perceptions that UN affiliations with transnational NGOs have achieved pluralistic, proportional representation in world regions. I also found substantial variations among specific development-related NGO focus areas. For example, far more UN-affiliated NGOs focus on eradicating poverty and hunger or on gender equality issues than reducing child mortality or improving maternal health. Additionally, the study revealed that only a small percentage of UN-affiliated NGOs in the ICSO database were currently accredited in the formal consultative status program of the UN's Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the primary vehicle for UN engagement with international NGOs. This finding raises questions about the efficacy of the ECOSOC consultative status program as a vehicle for NGOs to collaborate with the UN.


The UN's practice of cultivating formal associations with reputable international NGOs has expanded significantly in recent years and has been described as the most dynamic area of growth and change in the UN framework. (3) Speaking at the World Economic Forum in 1999, UN Secretary Kofi Annan famously suggested that a tripartite model of cooperation between the UN (and other intergovernmental organizations), businesses, and CSOs, including NGOs and labor unions, was needed to sufficiently address many pressing and complex international issues, including those related to development. (4) The UN has invested increasing levels of effort in recent decades to cultivate a more effective, diverse, and democratic institutional culture. This effort has sought to increase both UN interactions with international nongovernmental organizations and the level of interaction among these organizations with a view to supplement the primacy of states as the central actors on the international stage.

The term nongovernmental organization was used in the original charter of the UN in 1945 because of the need for that body to formally differentiate between participation rights for state actors and what were often described at the time as transnational private organizations--that is, international NGOs--as opposed to specialized intergovernmental agencies. (5) The League of Nations had previously referred to such groups as private organizations, while many of these organizations in the early twentieth century called themselves international institutes, international unions, or international organizations. (6) By the 1970s, the term nongovernmental organization had emerged as common public usage through the popularization of UN institutional jargon. (7) Presently, the term NGO is the preferred term in ECOSOC, whereas other UN bodies continue to use the term CSO.

The United Nations classifies a highly diverse range of private entities as NGOs and in fact has only very general criteria for the designation. To meet the UN's criteria, a not-for-profit organization must have officially existed for at least two years, must have an established address, must have a democratically adopted constitution with a representative structure free from direct government control, must have the authority to speak for its membership, must have mechanisms related to accountability, and must have democratic and transparent decision-making processes. Finally, by implication, the organization must not seek to challenge the government of a state either as a political party or by a narrow focus on a human rights issue. (8) The nature and organization of NGOs may vary widely. Many UN-recognized NGOs are community-based organizations that operate on a local or regional level in a single country, while many others are national in scope, operating in a single country. Local or national-level NGOs may still seek an association with the UN as a vehicle for networking and exchanging ideas with other organizations and as a means of providing feedback to the international community about their areas of expertise or of pursuing the possibility of international support for their operational goals. There is also a diverse range of NGOs according to their policy focus areas, giving rise to a diversity of UN terminologies and related classifications, such as environmental NGOs (ENGOs), market advocacy NGOs (MANGOs), and technical assistance NGOs (TANGOs).

Although the concept of NGOs and the perception of them as elements of democratic society slowly emerged and expanded in the nineteenth century, the most substantial growth in the number and transnational nature of NGOs has occurred since the mid-twentieth century...

To continue reading