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close this bookImplementing Agenda 21: NGO Experiences from around the World (NGLS)
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NGOS and the UN system since the earth summit: The NGO steering committee for the commission on sustainable development

by Tom Bigg and Felix Dodds


Over the years since the Earth Summit, enormous changes have taken place in the functioning of UN institutions and processes. Significant reductions in the funding provided by governments have forced the UN secretariat, agencies and programmes to cut back on their activities and staffing. Uncertainties over the intentions of major donors make long term planning extremely difficult. To add to this gloomy picture, the power of governments to take decisions to address many of the global problems identified in Rio is widely perceived to be on the decline, as multinational companies grow in influence and multilateral agreements reduce the authority of national governments over many areas of policy crucial to sustainable development. According to Richard Barnet and John Cavanagh in Global Dreams: Imperial Corporations and the New World Order, " The fundamental political conflict in the opening decades of the new century, we believe will not be between nations or even between trading blocs but between the forces of globalization and the territorially based forces of local survival seeking to preserve and redefine community."

On the positive side, the Earth Summit provided a focus for consideration of the changing role of the UN, given the end of the Cold War. International relations would no longer be governed by hostilities between two superpowers, and the Brundtland Commission's timely report provided the rationale for new ways of considering international cooperation and shared objectives and responsibility. The UN system as a whole was able to consider what this new paradigm would mean to its own operations, and also the ways in which "sustainable development" could give new relevance to the UN for a whole range of non-state actors, as well as governments. The UN has been open to those outside central government in certain contexts (the Economic and Social Council, implementation of country programmes, and consultation on specific issues, such as those addressed by UN conferences and summits). Agenda 21 and the other Rio agreements shifted the emphasis dramatically. Two elements recur throughout and are crucial to the changing role of NGOs in the UN system:

- the importance of local, or grassroots action

- the need for participation by those outside government in every stage of decision-making and implementation

The involvement of the major groups of society, as defined in Agenda 21, is not an optional extra for sustainable development but should be seen as a sine qua non. The concept of "partnership" has been whdely used (and abused) in recent years, but it lies at the heart of the agreements reached in Rio. According to Chapter 23 of Agenda 21, "Critical to the effective implementation of the objectives, policies and mechanisms agreed to by governments in all programme areas of Agenda 21 will be the commitment and genuine involvement of all social groups. One of the fundamental prerequisites for the achievement of sustainable development is broad public participation in decision-making. Furthermore...the need for new forms of participation has emerged."

Recently other UN summits, notably the 1995 Social Summit, have elaborated on the role of Major Groups of civil society. 1 consideration of emerging opportunities for non-governmental involvement in the UN system should draw on these. However, it should focus principally on what happened before, during and since the Earth Summit, and on ways the principles established there have been put into practice. We do not intend to examine national structures for Agenda 21 implementation in detail, or the range of innovative developments in other UN processes, except when relevant to a consideration of the changing institutional arrangements for N GO participation in UN follow up to the Earth Summit.

NGOs and the UN: Before, During and After the Earth Summit

The International Facilitating Committee

The run up to the Earth Summit was clouded by disagreement over how NGOs should organize themselves. To address the issue, the Centre for Our Common Future called a meeting of NGOs in June 1990. Representatives from most of what would later be called the Major Groups attended. They included representatives of industry, trade unions, women's organizations, and youth and voluntary non-profit groups. The meeting led to the creation of the International Facilitating Committee (IFC), which would act as a "facilitating group," rather than a political or representative forum. After much discussion, industry was allowed to be part of the committee. The Non-Governmental Liaison Service (NGLS) played a vital role in providing continuity and support for the evolving NGO arrangements.

The International Non-Governmental Organizations Forum (INGOF)

Some NGOs were unhappy that the IFC was unable to agree on political statements, and they disliked industry's involvement. The Environmental Liaison Centre International led a group that set up an International Steering Committee (ISC). The ISC, along with the French government, organized what has been described as "a dreadful meeting" of NGOs in Paris in December 1991. At the meeting participants agreed on a synthesis of NGO positions entitled Roots for Our Future, and they elected representatives to an International Non-Governmental Organizations' Forum (INGOF). Two representatives from each geographical region were chosen to lead INGOF, which took over from the ISC during the final months before Rio.

The IFC provided the physical infrastructure in Rio for the NGO parallel meeting, known as the Global Forum. Many NGOs attending the UNCED fourth and final preparatory session, held in New York in March 1992, organized their substantive input through INGOF. INGOF used the six months before the summit to focus on developing NGO treaties, which offered a forum for NGOs to debate and agree on their plans of action during the summit. The treaties were an attempt to negotiate common positions to enable NGOs to cooperate more closely at the international level. They were not intended for consideration by governments preparing for the negotiations in Rio but constituted a parallel "alternative" process.

At the Earth Summit, hundreds of NGOs worked in issue-based groups under the INGOF process to negotiate over 40 treaties. INGOF also hosted regular plenary meetings to which all NGOs were invited. At the final plenary session, participants decided that NGOs did not want a new coordinating structure to continue after the Earth Summit. Instead, INGOF was asked to ensure that copies of the treaties were translated and distributed, and to provide an information clearing-house service for NGOs immediately after the conference. Substantive follow-up work was to be dealt with at the regional level, and the NGO treaties were to be used as public documents by NGOs as they saw fit. An international meeting to consolidate the regional work was called for at that time and held in Manila (Philippines) in late 1995.

INGOF was a bold attempt to deal with some of the key difficulties NGOs experienced when active internationally. Among its activities, INGOF acted as a distributor of up-to-date information. particularly through electronic conferencing; and a facilitator to promote NGO common positions by proposing that NGOs work on developing common positions for their own activities, and not focus all their energy on trying to change government positions.

Some of the larger NGOs viewed the INGOF process as a distraction and chose to focus on direct interaction with decision-makers. However, others saw the alternative treaty process as an opportunity to create "political space" for NGOs. They used the treaties to explore whether a political agenda could be agreed to with which NGOs across the world could work. However, both the IFC and INGOF had problems that were not resolved at Rio and both suffered from a perceived lack-of transparency and accountability.

UN Commission on Sustainable Development

So who would take forward the coordination of NGOs in the post-Rio process? At the first meeting of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) in April 1993, NGOs organized the way they had at the preparatory meetings, as if the structure that had operated then still existed. It became obvious that this was not a viable way of working. For example, the instigation of official CSD intercessional meetings meant that without any NGO facilitating process, there would be little involvement of NGOs or other Major Groups unless governments or the UN felt their presence would be beneficial. When this was the case, they went to NGOs they already had a relationship with, which continued to reinforce a predominately Northern NGO bias.

NGOs attending the CSD agreed to collect the views of those present on the way forward. This was accomplished, and a paper was presented to a full meeting of NGOs towards the end of the final week of the meeting. The paper received support, but no process was agreed on how to take it forward, because trust had broken down between Northern and Southern NGOs. However, discussions did take place during the following year to prepare for the next CSD. Some NGOs attending the "between the summits" meeting, organized by the Environment and Development Resources Centre in Copenhagen, took the opportunity to prepare a set of recommendations.

This draft agreement was presented to the NGOs at the CSD in May 1994, where discussions were frank and forthright. They extended the original paper to include the possibility-for the first time in the United Nations-of creating a body that would include representation from all Major Groups identified in Agenda 21. There was a heated debate on whether industry should be allowed to be a member of the steering committee, which was similar to discussions about setting up the IFC before the Earth Summit. In the end it was felt that the steering committee was not a political committee, and in the spirit of Rio and the Small Island Developing States Conference, it should be inclusive. Participants agreed that the committee would be made up of elected representatives from:

- regions (Western Europe, Eastern Europe, North America, Central America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, South America, Australasia, and Small Island States);

- issue-based caucuses;

- Major Groups (industry, indigenous people, farmers, NGOs, trade unions, youth, women, local government, and academics);

- North and South multi-regional caucuses; and major international networks.

The system of regional representation helped to ensure that there were more Southern than Northem NGO representatives on the committee. Two co-chairs-one from the North and one from the South-were chosen by all Northern and Southern-based NGOs present. During CSD sessions, the co-chairs took responsibility to organize steering committee meetings and to act as the focus for the steering committee in the intercessional period. It was agreed that they should be based in New York to enable them to have regular meetings with officials from the CSD secretariat in the Department of Policy Co-ordination and Sustainable Development (DPCSD), as well as with relevant UN Missions.

Key roles identified for the steering committee were:

- transfer up-to-date information to members of the committee, so that they can disseminate it more widely;

- provide a link with DPCSD and particularly with its Division for Sustainable Development; facilitate selection of NGO representatives for governmental interses sional meetings;

- organize facilities for NGOs taking part in CSD meetings;

- facilitate setting up NGO working groups on issues to be addressed by the CSD;

- organize government/NGO dialogues and morning and evening strategy sessions for NGOs; and - act for the NGO body as a whole when there are disputes with the CSD secretariat or bureau, or between NGOs.

In many ways the NGO Steering Committee was an amalgam of the IFC and the ISC (INGOF) approaches before the Earth Summit. It was agreed that the steering committee should not take positions on behalf of NGOs; its role is to create the circumstances in which common NGO positions can be developed. This is a very important distinction: common positions should emerge in NGO caucuses, which are open to all eligible organizations. The caucuses should then present positions developed to the CSD. The steering committee also acts if there is a dispute within a caucus -for example, in 1995 members of the forest caucus objected to a document that was released with the names of their organizations listed as supporters, when none of the organizations had seen the document. The steering committee in this instance closed down the caucus and reopened it with a steering committee chair.

The caucuses have been vital to the success of NGO activities at the CSD, and increased access has been achieved because NGOs are relatively well organized. NGOs at CSD meetings have access to governmental "informal" and "informal informal" sessions, and they have been able to address delegates during these. This has been at the bequest of the chair of the relevant meetings, but because the chairs of the CSD-Ambassador Razali, Dr Klaus Tr, Ambassador Cavalcanti and Minister Gechev-all have placed great emphasis on NGO participation, even the more reluctant countries have acquiesced. The steering committee has made necessary arrangements to coordinate NGO interventions on the issue under discussion. I his is a move away from the system in operation during sessions of other UN commissions, in which NGOs are only able to speak at the end or beginning of sessions. As a result, NGO speakers are obliged to be succinct, to the point, and not excessively lecture the governments.

The steering committee had three overall working objectives when it was set up-to be transparent, accountable and democratic. It has been able to achieve these. Each year elections to the committee from the various caucuses take place and two co-chairs are elected or endorsed by the whole body of NGOs. Since 1993 the committee has grown as Major Groups, international networks and issue-based caucuses have joined. At present the committee's membership includes, among many others, organizations such as the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, International Chamber of Commerce, International Council for Local Environmental
initiatives, Greenpeace International, Women's Environment and Development Organization, Third World Network and the Habitat International Coalition and many others. The steering committee, through financial support from Ford Foundation and the government of the Netherlands, has been able to employ staff in New York to prepare for the June 1997 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS), or Earth Summit 11 as known by NGOs.

Run Up to Earth Summit 11

The steering committee has been vital in a number of areas in preparing NGOs and other Major Groups for UNGASS. The committee has:

- produced a synthesis paper of all the NGO papers available at CSD-4, held in May 1996;

- set up a CSD NGO Steering Committee web page for up-to-date information on UNGASS;

- produced a monthly newsletter to keep people informed of UNGASS developments;

- set up a list server for all steering committee members so they can keep each other informed;

- produced a training document for NGOs attending the 1997 events;

- produced an information pack of 20 papers on ten issues that NGOs can use for their own domestic meetings;

- produced a directory of all NGOs accredited to take part in the 1997 events;

- set up a process so that NGOs can agree on positions about major issues to be addressed at the 1997 events;

- raised funds for Southern and Eastern European NGO participation at the three key meetings in New York during 1997;

- raised funds for staff and infrastructural costs associated with the 1997 events;

- is working to establish infrastructure for NGOs at the 1997 events; and set up a general list server for anyone interested in the 1997 events.

Opportunities in 1997

There are two elements to the review of Agenda 21 that are central to the approaches NGOs will take in preparing for UNGASS. One is to raise the profile and therefore the stakes of the event as much as possible. This will entail working nationally and internationally to make sure that the five year review is used as an occasion for widespread consideration of experiences since the Earth Summit and key issues to be addressed for the future. The other element is for NGOs working at the UN level to consider where critical decisions are taken, and whether those areas in which they are given extensive rights are merely a playground for those working on "soft" issues, while the real decisions on key questions of trade and finance are taken in intergovernmental fore well beyond their reach:

'NGOs must consider the fundamental question of whether their work in the UN process should be intensified with an eye to achieving better results or whether they are simply participating in marginal activity, while the important decisions are being taken by bodies beyond their influence (such as the G-7, World Trade Organization or the Bretton Woods institutions). -Jens Martens and Peter Mucke, German NGO Forum 1996

These two approaches are complementary, because UNGASS offers the opportunity for governments to acknowledge that progress toward sustainable development will require far greater coordination of different international activities. The institutions established to further the objectives of sustainable development should not be peripheral, but should be enabled to call to account other bodies as appropriate. Similarly, the extent to which this rationale has been applied to regional, national and local decision making processes should be the focus for non-governmental organizations in preparing for UNGASS.

Changes in NGO Access to the UN System

A comprehensive review of NGO involvement in the work of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) was finalized at the ECOSOC meeting in July 1996. Two issues debated in meetings of the Open Ended Working Group on the Review of Arrangements for Consultations with

NGOs are particularly significant when considering follow up to the Earth Summit. They are the rights of national organizations to participate in ECOSOC processes and new definitions of the nature and roles of NGOs, which include use of the "Major Groups" terminology of Agenda 21 and an emphasis on networks and other innovative structures.

The first, based on the priorities identified in Agenda 21, has been accepted. The second has proved problematic because informal structures and an expanded definition of the concept of civil society do not correspond with the more narrow mandate and objectives of the working group.

Ad hoc Arrangements in Various Fora

While these changes to official arrangements for AGO accreditation have been debated, a large number of less formal developments have occurred. These can be understood as pointers for changes that could be widely applied in the future or as impromptu occurrences dependent upon a set of circumstances, which could not necessarily be replicated.

Those frequently cited are discussed below.

Habitat 11

The International Facilitating Group for Habitat 11 was set up using the model that the CSD NGOs devised. The terms of reference were changed little, but it was decided that there should be four co-chairs: two Northern and two Southern, made up of two women and two men. This management team was to coordinate the work of the IFG in the run up to Habitat II. The lFG has carried on working after the conference; its work will be reviewed at the next meeting of the Commission on Human Settlements in May 1997.

During preparatory meetings for Habitat II. NGOs were able to participate in meetings of the informal drafting group, which was preparing the text for the Istanbul programme of action. This extended to tabling textual amendments directly. A real breakthrough for the NGOs in Istanbul was when the UN agreed le. bring out the Ngo Composite Text as an official

UN document (A/Conf.165/lNF/8), which is the first time NGO amendments were given official recognition. This was due to strong support by the United States government. In addition, NGOs were allowed to take the floor and speak from a microphone on their amendments, which enabled governments to listen and respond to NGO proposals. If a government sponsored an NGO amendment, the conference was allowed to debate it. This is the first time an NGO document has been made available in this way.

One proposal under consideration for the future of the Commission on Human Settlements after Habitat 11 is that it be reconstituted as a quadripartite body with representation from governments, NGOs, local authorities and the private sector. This will be discussed at the commission's meeting in May 1997.

Global Environment Facility

Prior to meetings of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), one day is devoted to open dialogue with NGOs. Extensive changes to the relations with NGOs have occurred since the GEF was first created. Given the role of the World Bank in the GEF this could constitute an opening for greater involvement of NGOs in meetings of the international financial institutions.

United Nations Joint Programme on HI V/AIDS

This is the newest interagency UN body, which brings together WHO, UNICEF, UNDP, UNESCO, UNFPA and the World Bank, in the fight against AIDS. Five seats have been allocated to NGOs on the UNAIDS governing board.

Intergovernmental Panel on Forests

The IPF, an open-ended intergovernmental working group of the Commission on Sustainable Development, has built on the partnership with NGOs that was evident at the CSD. During panel sessions, NGOs have worked through the CSD NGO Steering Committee to choose representatives to attend governmental intercessional meetings. At the panel itself, the NGO caucus on forests facilitates interventions, which have been
been substantive and on the agenda item under discussion. The chair's draft included NGO amendments within the text and indicated NGO amendaments in the same way as suggested textual changes from individual governments, the G-77 and the European Union. This is the first time NGO recommendations have been recognized in this way in official UN negotiation of a draft text without the support of countries for the amendments.

A More Effective UN System

Many NGOs and some governments are using the 1997 review as an opportunity to open up wider debate on ways to improve instruments designed to promote sustainable development work. In particular, the lack of ownership of decisions taken in UN intergovernmental fora has been cited as a real stumbling block. Also of concern is the inadequacy of the consensus-building process, which is a means within the UN to initiate dynamic and decisive action. A range of practical steps that could be taken have been put forward as potential solutions to these shortcomings.


Non-governmental organizations have had to adapt to rapidly-changing patterns for interaction with the various parts of the UN system dealing with Earth Summit follow up. Often they have been able to take advantage of the evolving nature of current arrangements for NGO participation in different fora to push for steadily increasing access and influence in UN intergovernmental negotiations. The rapidity of change frequently has made advances easier; yet it carries with it the danger that such developments easily could be reversed.

The CSD NGO Steering Committee has established new ways of operating, which have already been used as a model for closer cooperation
between NGOs, governments and the UN system. UNGASS will demonstrate if this is an aberration or not. It definitely reflects changes at local and national Ievel in many parts of the world and otters a valid process for NGOs operating internationally, which is transparent, democratic and accountable.

Changing Responsibilities for NGOs

"NGOs," according to Peter Padbury of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, "are often seen as critics. Many NGOs working on the sustainability agenda have shifted from seeing themselves as critics to seeing themselves as 'co-creators' who bring analysis, expertise and solutions to policy dialogues. They can link local action with the global dialogue."

Despite the importance placed on decisions and actions at the local level, it is extremely difficult to establish direct links between the UN and such contexts. NGOs operating at the international level have a key role to play in building such links. However, these responsibilities are not clearly spelt out-indeed, the disparate nature of NGOs makes it difficult to be prescriptive in this respect. Nevertheless, an enhanced role for civil society in the functions of the UN will require NGOs to pay serious attention to the degree to which they can claim to be a legitimate voice of others.

These issues of legitimacy and representativity will become more and more relevant as organizations of civil society gain more of a role in the process of governance. Questions such as the capacity of these organizations to express the aspirations of people, while providing information and education, will become increasingly relevant.

Report of a Seminar on Involvement of Civil Society in Follow-up to the Social Summit, held in Mohonk, New York, 1995

It is not viable to separate consideration of ways to ensure greater representation of NGOs at the UN level from questions about their legitimacy and mandate from a wider community. Just as the link between the UN and national decision making needs to be strengthened, NGOs working at the international level also have a responsibility to promote public interest and involvement in the process of working towards sustainability.

More and more, NGOs are helping to set public policy agendas-identifying and defining critical issues, and providing policy makers with advice and assistance. 11 is this movement beyond advocacy and the provision of services towards broader participation in the public policy realm that has such significance for governance."

-Our global Neighbourhood report of the Commission for Global Governance, 1994.