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August 1973

UN - NGO Relations : a New Departure ?

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Published in International Associations 25, 1973, August-September, pp. 421-423 [PDF version]


There are signs that a movement of opinion amongst high officials in the United Nations Secretariat may lead to a breakthrough in UN-NGO relations. Let us look at some of the evidence as it appeared in chronological order.

Event 1

During the course of 1972, an effort was made to use the occasion of meetings of the UN Inter-Agency Coordination Board in London and Geneva to arrange a confrontation between lACB delegates and a number of invited NGO representat ives. Matters discussed were restricted to the role of NGO's in " development " and " mobilization of public opinion ".These occasions were brought about through the good offices of Stephan Hessel, UNDP and Curtis Roosevelt, Chief of the ECOSOC NGO Section. Follow up on these rather unique meetings, for which internal reports were circulated, seems, however, to have been negligible.

Event 2

The ECOSOC Council Committee on Nongovernmental Organizations agreed to hold, for the first time, a set of " hearings" in July 1972 in Geneva -- to allow NGO's to express their views on their difficulties in responding to calls to action on the part of ECOSOC. This attempt at " dialogue "did not really succeed -- but it was a brave attempt on the part of the Committee and set the stage for later devel opments.

Event 3

Then came the October 1972 meetings of NGO's concerned with the environment at which NGO's were given to understand by Maurice Strong, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, that an exciting new style of relat ionship was to be brought into being as a result of the forthcoming UNEP Governing Council in June 1973. This matter has now been postponed to 1974 however (see article on page 414).

Event 4

In December 1972, in Geneva, a " Meeting of experts on the particular role of the nongovernmental organizations on the mobilization of public opinion and political will "(in support of the International Development Strategy) was convened. Those invited were asked to reply to the ECOSOC NGO Section, although the provisional agenda was under the letterhead of the Centre for Economic and Social Information. The final agenda seems to have been the result of a battle between these two sections, which the NGO Section seems to have narrowly won on points. Most surprising however, was the attendance at the meeting of Mrs Helvi Sipila, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Social and Humanitarian Matters, who took the chair and a very active role. In addition, the Office of the Under-Secretary-General for Polit ical and General Assembly Affairs (Bradford Morse) was represented by Miss Joan Ebert. The meeting and its mysterious report are discussed elsewhere (see page before). The introduction to the report is reproduced here as well as selected paragraphs (see insert, page 413). In the original invitation, the report was intended to be "for the guidance of the ECOSOC Committee on Nongovern mental Organizations in its preparation of recommendations to ECOSOC at its Spring session, 1973". We have noted that the contents of the report were however ignored in the Secretary General's review of CESl/OPl activity (see page 411), Such is the price of interdepartmental victories.

Event 5

We then come to the February 1973 session in New York of the ECOSOC Commit tee on Nongovernmental Organizations, The session is described in a separate article (see page 424). There are three surprising things about this particular meeting. which normally is as open to new approaches as the proverbial eye of the needle is to a camel. Firstly the massive attendance by key members of the UN Secretariat, who made extremely supportive presentations to the (somewhat bewildered ?) Com mittee. Those making presentations included (in order of speaking).

The second surprising thing was that the texts of the presentation were actually rep roduced in an ECOSOC document (E/5257/Add. 1, 9 April 1973), for its 54th session. (The status of the Committee is indicated by the fact that no Summary Records have been produced for several years now). Extracts from some of the presentations are reproduced with this article (see page 425).

The third surprising thing is that the Committee actually managed to go beyond its narrow concern with beating NGO's over the head for not avidly toeing the UN line on a few currently fashionable issues. Some of the NGO's difficulties and the need for changes on the UN side actually appear in print in an ECOSOC document (see page 424). Signs of a breakthrough ?

Event 6

We than come to the UNEP-launched " World Assembly of NGO's concerned with the global environment"(Geneva, June 1973). This was a very exciting test case, since the Environment Programme must develop a system of relationships with NGO's and is not bound by the rigid procedures and precedents developed by other UN bodies. The Assembly was deliberately arranged during the first meeting of the UNEP Governing Council to permit "dialogue" between NGO's and government delegates on the Council. The result is described in a separate article (see page 414). The Council postponed the UNEP issue for a year (because of a current review of - such procedures in ECOSOC ?). UNEP Secretariat members let fall a few ideas for essentially elitist, authoritarian schemes for UNEP-NGO relationships, but gen erally wasted NGO time. The credibility of any " breakthrough "is considerably decreased.

Event 7

But by chance Bradford Morse, Under-Secretary-General for Political and General Assembly Affairs is able to address the Assembly. It emerges that his Office is now the key place within the UN system from which change may be initiated on the NGO question. (Was he responsible for the dramatic events in New York ?) He promises  " dramatic changes"within three months (i.e. for August/September 1973) but is unable to elaborate. He implies that he has been establishing contact with NGO liaison units throughout the UN system and that the coordination of the " UN response " to NGO's is under review. Hopes for a breakthrough rise again. But the UN is so bedevilled with " coordination "problems that probably the only changes possibly are within the ECOSOC Secretariat (see page 429).

Event 8

The next item arose from the opening speeches to ECOSOC's 55th session (Geneva, July 1973). Both the President of ECOSOC and the UN Secretary-General devoted significant portions of their speeches to a matter which has hitherto been quietly forgotten. (Not the NGO question unfortunately). The point raised was the role of ECOSOC as defined in the Charter of the United Nations to oversee the pro grammes of the specialized agencies. " The fact is that in spite of the accepted over seeing powers of ECOSOC in all subjects explicitly mentioned in Chapter IX of the Charter, à kind of loose interaction has developed between the Council and those organs. It could be said that a satrapy minded attitude was spurred by the incapacity of the Council to act as the central organ from which policy decisions should emerge... I hope that my successors in this Chair will take every possible advantage of Resolution 1768, on the Rationalization of the work of the Economic and Social Council, and act as catalyzers for integrated programmes within the system. "The Secretary General asserted on this point that existing obstacles "can no longer stand in the way of a reassertion of ECOSOC's constitutional authority within the system... ""Why is this change of attitude relevant to the future of UN-NGO relations ?

A major difficulty for NGO's with concerns relating to programmes of several UN bodies, is that from the UN system side the relationships with each such body are quite distinct and independent. An NGO may be "interrogated" by several UN bodies on related points because the NGO liaison units within the UN system do not liaise amongst themselves -- to the point that an "NGO" to one part of the system may not "exist" or be "persona non grata" to another part of the system. (Still worse, however, within a particular UN body, the NGO liaison section may engage in interdepartmental battle with the section of the office of public information char ged with relating to NGO's. and so on for each department with substantive interests calling for relations with an NGO),

Therefore, if operational meaning is given by ECOSOC to the Charter provisions noted above, the procedure by which all units of the UN-system relate to NGO's may well come under review. This could lead to considerable rationalization to the advantage of all parties. It could also lead to a review of the peculiar procedures by which UNESCO and ECOSOC (and now UNEP) encourage the myth that the respective Conferences of NGO's are in some way " bound "to the respective secretariats to the greater glory of all the individuals concerned on both the NGO and on the UN system side (The Conferences are serviced through the kind offices of the UN bodies and meat in their secret ariat conference rooms. This gives the uninformed the impression that me Conferences must report to these bodies and must avoid adopting any independent stance. It also prevents the many NGO's ization of their overlapping activities. The multiplicity of such conferences and their effectiveness needs to be sharply questioned from the UN side in any general review of UN-NGO relations.).

Event 9

The last event in the chronological sequence to date, was the meeting of the ECOSOC Committee on Nongovernmental Organizations (Geneva, July 1973) -- the follow up to the exciting New York meeting. What a disaster the Geneva meeting was in contrast.

It was supposed to be a two day meeting (July 4-5) and the issues raised by the prev ious session certainly warranted the time. At the last minute all the work was trans ferred to the second day because the government delegates wanted to be present at the opening session of ECOSOC (on July 4th) -- which might have been expected. The revised agenda concentrated on NGO action on the questions of racism, colon ialism and development. A spokesman of the Committee on Human Rights of the Conference of Nongovernmental Organizations in Consultative Status with ECOSOC was permitted to present a proposal under the first point (E/C.2/CAP. 1. The document was not available to other NGO's present, which made it somewhat difficult to follow the debate). Delegates debated this paper endlessly so that whatever its merit it effectively rendered it impossible to give adequate time to the broader issues raised at the previous session. To cap it all, after arranging for a working group to review the text (which chopped a further hour off the afternoon session), delegates discovered that they had " reservations " which required further debate with many procedural obscurities.

A number of NGO representatives with prepared statements wasted hours waiting for the snail-like debate to move on to later points of the agenda. It became apparent in the late afternoon that the question of UN-NGO relations and the "hearing" of NGO's would be examined hastily and impatiently into the last few minutes of the session. Having been exposed to this ridiculous procedure in the past, it did not seem worth waiting for a repeat performance.

If there is any inclination towards an improvement to UN-NGO relations initiated from the UN side, it would require a considerable feat of imagination to determine a means by which it could be accomplished via this Committee. The whole proc edural style and approach of the Committee is designed to alienate all but the most sycophantic NGO's from any attempt to relate more effectively to the UN system. Is it so utterly impossible to elaborate a more creative and imaginative procedure ? But maybe the absence of the February impetus behind the Committee was a means of delaying matters which are being debated elsewhere within the ECOSOC system. But even if Bradford Morse can come up with some new formula, how can he expect to upgrade the ECOSOC Committee in the eyes of government delegates ? Maybe his - dramatic changes " will only amount to an interdepartmental shuffle ? Maybe he really can find a way to set a new style of relationship to the advantage of every whether they work until 1975. Meanwhile, whilst organizations tinker with procedural party. We will hear his proposals when this issue comes off the press -- we will not know whether they can be implemented for some time. We will probably not know pleasures, the peoples they purport to represent, suffer increasingly from famine, war, pestilence and a variety of no less painful, if less physical, constraints upon their well-being..

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