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close this bookHabitat Debate - Vol. 3 - No. 1 - 1997 - Partnerships (HABITAT, 1997, 65 p.)
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Strengthening the UN-NGO Partnership

by Tony Hill

The past few years have witnessed a dramatic change in the attitudes, approaches and policies of the UN system with regard to relations with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and their participation in the UN system’s work. While this has been most visible in the recent series of UN world summits and conferences, measures to strengthen cooperation with NGOs are being taken across the entire UN system and in virtually all areas of its activity.

Today, in the context of UN reform, virtually all UN system departments, agencies, programmes and funds are engaged in fundamental reviews of their relations with organizations of civil society. In some cases, the functions of NGO liaison offices are being recast from public relations and information to a role more integrated with the substantive programme of the agency concerned. Guidelines for working with NGOs are being developed or updated and more enabling and pro-active approaches to cooperating with local and regional NGOs are being developed for the UN system’s regional and country offices. Many UN agencies and bodies now hold periodic consultations with NGOs on substantive issues, policy questions and programme strategies.

New forms of management and governance of UN entities are also emerging that involve the participation of NGOs. For example, the governing body of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV-AIDS (UNAIDS) has five seats for NGO representatives and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee on Humanitarian Affairs has three places for NGOs. A number of UN agencies now cooperate with standing NGO committees which have been established explicitly as forums for on-going policy dialogue between NGOs and the agency concerned. In addition, several UN agencies are currently exploring new approaches for the greater involvement of NGOs in their governance arrangements and are developing information disclosure policies with inputs from NGOs. The recent establishment of a focal point for NGO matters in the Office of the Secretary-General has given added authority and priority to UN cooperation with NGOs. At the same time the Inter-Departmental Working Group on NGOs has been reconvened in New York and Geneva to provide a forum for UN staff with responsibility for NGO relations to deal with a range of issues and challenges arising from intensified cooperation between the UN system and NGOs.

At the inter-governmental level, UN Member States are providing funding to assure the participation of NGOs from developing countries and countries with economies in transition in UN events and forums. Increasingly, Member States from all parts of the world are including representatives of NGOs in official delegations to the UN. Flexible procedures have also been introduced to enable NGOs accredited to world conferences and summits to participate in the ECOSOC commission charged with follow-up to the conferences. Occasionally, NGOs are now permitted to participate as observers in informal inter-governmental discussions and negotiations. New forms of dialogue and interaction between Member States and NGOs, such as joint panels and roundtables, have also been introduced.

These new approaches and practices are profoundly changing the way that the UN goes about its work. In particular, the recent review and updating of UN legislation dealing with NGO consultative status, whose results are set out in ECOSOC Resolution 1996/31, opens up new possibilities for national and regional NGOs to acquire consultative status with ECOSOC. It also enables the UN system to build upon the innovative and dynamic experience of the past few years and continue to strengthen its multiple and diverse relations and cooperation with the NGO community. Indeed, currently, a Sub-group on NGOs, of the General Assembly’s Working Group on Strengthening the United Nations System, is examining the question of the participation of NGOs in all areas of the work of the United Nations; momentum also appears to be gathering among Governments and NGOs for the establishment of some form of civil society global forum with linkages to the UN General Assembly.

Lying behind these dynamic and innovative processes of change is the growing realization that Governments and inter-governmental organizations, acting alone, cannot successfully deal with the enormous challenges posed by poverty eradication and sustainable development. In the years ahead, the capacity of the UN system to achieve its objectives and goals in these areas will depend crucially upon its ability to forge partnerships and deepen cooperation with the wide diversity of non-governmental organizations from around the world dedicated to the same aims.

Habitat’s Assistant Secretary-General, Dr. Wally N’Dow, referred to this at the recent Habitat Partners Consultation in Geneva (31 January 1997) when he said to participants: “I can but reiterate, no Government alone, whether acting individually or through the international system, can do the job without involving you as a partner. That is why we need you, everyone of you here today, together with your peers back home. Simply put, without you we cannot do the job. With you, nothing is impossible”.

The Habitat II process itself broke new ground through the inclusion of several representatives of local authorities and NGOs in the initial drafting group, through establishing an official partners’ committee at the conference, and through providing innumerable informal and formal opportunities for NGOs and other civil society groups to bring their experiences, insights and proposals to bear on the official conference process. The next opportunity to strengthen the partnership launched at Habitat II will be the up-coming 16th Session of the Commission on Human Settlements (28 April to 7 May 1997) which, amongst other things, will review its own working methods, as requested by General Assembly Resolution 51/177 of 16 December 1996, “in order to involve in its work the representatives of local authorities or international associations of local authorities, as appropriate, and the relevant actors of civil society, particularly the private sector and non-governmental organizations, in the field of adequate shelter for all and sustainable human settlements development, taking into account the rules of procedure of the Commission on Human Settlements and the relevant provisions of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) resolution 1996/31 of 25 July 1996”.

NGOs have already begun to organize for this historic discussion and will be meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, during the weekend prior to the Commission (26 to 27 April 1997) to prepare their advocacy strategies. Hopefully, the spirit of openness, creativity and innovation that marked the Habitat II process will be reaffirmed at the Commission’s next session. At the very least, it should provoke a lively debate.

Tony Hill is Coordinator of the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (NGLS), based in Geneva, Switzerland.