Deen, UN Plans to Boost NGOs Come Under Scrutiny (June 2004)

NGOs and Civil Society

For more responses to the 2004 report by the Cardoso-Panel, see>, sz

Deen, Thalif. "UN Plans to Boost NGOs Come Under Scrutiny." Inter Press Service (22 June 2004).

When more than a million demonstrators jammed the streets of London, Berlin, Paris and New York in February last year protesting the imminent U.S.-led military attack on Iraq, the New York Times raved about the growing power of the global anti-war movement.

The massive demonstrations proved that there were two superpowers in the world, the Times declared, "the United States and world public opinion". The same month, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who agreed with the Times' characterisation, appointed a panel of 12 eminent persons to assess the role of civil society and find ways to strengthen its future relations with the United Nations.

The panel, headed by former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, released an 83-page report Monday concluding that "global civil society now wields real power in the name of citizens". The study says the world is now witnessing a new phenomenon -- "global public opinion -- that is shaping the political agenda and generating a cosmopolitan set of norms and citizen demands that transcend national boundaries."

Phyllis Bennis of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies told IPS that it is a good move for the United Nations to take more initiative in supporting civil society, especially in the global south. But the most important aspect of the U.N.-civil society relationship, she argued, is shaped by the question of power. "The U.N. charter begins with the words 'We the peoples' -- but unfortunately, that commitment has never been implemented, and the United Nations remains the province of governments," she added.

In this period of power so concentrated in one member of the United Nations, the United States, the U.N.'s most important role will be as an ally of civil society, along with a variety of governments, in building the global challenge to unilateralism and war. Bennis said that relationship was perhaps most visible in February last year, at the moment of internationally coordinated demonstrations in 655 cities around the globe when "the world said no to war". "That kind of link between the United Nations and civil society will insure the U.N.'s clearest relevance," she added.

In a series of recommendations, the Cardoso panel has called for the creation of a new U.N. under-secretary-general to head an Office of Constituency Engagement and Partnerships that will liaise between civil society and the world body. Jim Paul of Global Policy Forum, a New York-based think tank that closely monitors the United Nations, welcomed the proposal to appoint a senior official to handle relations with NGOs. He said the NGO community had made a similar recommendation to the United Nations as far back as 1999. "It was a proposal that was widely canvassed among NGOs. We actually expected the panel to recommend it," he told IPS.

"With so much going on in the worldwide NGO movement, we needed to centralise the whole thing. And we needed somebody who would see the whole picture. So the proposal to create an under-secretary-general is really great," Paul added. Still, he remained guarded about his support for the proposal because he was told that "civil society would encompass both NGOs and the business community". "If that is the intent, we are opposed to it," he said. The term "civil society," he pointed out, has always been a slippery term because "it can include NGOs, businesses and the man in the moon".

The U.N.'s Global Compact, which has been accused of providing cover for multinational corporations charged with violating labour rights and environmental standards, is to be incorporated into the proposed Office of Constituency Engagement and Partnerships. The report admits that many in civil society are concerned that multinational corporations will have too much influence on the United Nations. "But their constructive engagement through the Global Compact represents a way for the Organisation to monitor accountability and responsibility," says the report, justifying the inclusion of big business in civil society.

The panel also points out that there is a North-South imbalance which favours NGOs from industrial nations whose voices are more prevalent in world forums compared with their counterparts from developing nations. The panel says it is "mindful of the imbalances in the voices currently speaking for civil society in most U.N. processes, which conflict with their ability to reflect the concerns of all citizens". "In particular, civil society speakers come largely from the global North or their organisations are headquartered there; speakers are largely male; most civil society organisations (both Northern and Southern) have unclear unaccountability to the grass roots; and the voices of vulnerable groups are under-represented," the study said.

The panel recommends the creation of a U.N. fund "to enhance the capacity of civil society in developing countries." The U.N. Secretariat has been urged to seek contributions from governments, foundations, U.N. sources and elsewhere. The panel estimates that the total annual budget for all the measures proposed would be some 4 million dollars in core funding. But it also foresees that extra-budgetary funds of about 40 million dollars could be raised for three years, and further envisages that several donors would contribute to many of the proposed activities.

Paul, however, is sceptical about U.N. funding of NGOs, noting that "I am not quite sure what this Fund is meant for." He said his organisation had recommended U.N. funding to bring NGOs from developing nations to U.N. headquarters. This would also be additional means for NGO interaction with the U.N. system. "If the United Nations is to be handing over money directly to NGOs, I think it is going to be a little problematic. I don't believe in NGOs getting money from governments either," Paul said. "I know that many of my colleagues do not have a problem with that," he said. "But frankly, when they do that, the capacity of NGOs to be monitors and to be independent is compromised."

"We have seen how the fund works. NGOs are there to be critical and to maintain some distance from the United Nations and member states," he said. "If we go by what the World Bank does -- particularly when it buys off NGOs -- you have to be a little wary of this." "We agree with the end goal," Paul said, "but we want to make sure that the Fund does not end up rewarding those who are in the applause gallery."