NGO Access at the UN
28.11.1998: Article on the website of the Global Policy Forum. By James A. Paul, Executive Director
In an era of rapid globalization, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) increasingly operate in a global policy environment. Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, Greenpeace, and many others, seek to influence the great international decisions of the day. So they need to interact with global institutions. They want to participate in the process where policies are decided. The United Nations, the main global policy body, has been unusually open to NGO input over the years.
Nation states are usually the decision-makers, but NGOs seek "access" to information and to those that make the decisions. This can mean many things. NGO representatives want physical access to the conference halls where official meetings take place, so that they can observe, interact with delegates and monitor proceedings. NGO representatives want to circulate their own documents, to speak to meetings, to have access to documents and to gain entry to informal, preparatory meetings and the like. NGOs also want access to administrative offices in the Secretariat and other agencies, and the right to be consulted in the administration's policy-formulation and policy-implementation process. In some (rare) cases, NGOs aspire to official voting status in the decision-making process itself, as is the case in the International Labour Organisation.
At the United Nations, NGOs have had some access from the beginning. But recently those rules of access have seemed outmoded and in need of change. NGO importance soared with the global conferences of the 1990s, especially the great environmental conference at Rio in 1992, with over ten thousand NGO representatives participating. Never before had NGOs been so prominent, so full of energy and ideas, and so central to the intergovernmental negotiating process. Subsequent conferences in Vienna (1993), Cairo (1994), Copenhagen (1995) and Beijing (1996) confirmed this new level of NGO dynamism and influence. The UN and its agencies also began to subcontract many services directly to NGOs -- including provision of emergency relief, demining, reconstruction, governance training and more -- further magnifying NGO status.
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