Are the actions of (some) Development NGOs at the UN reducing space for Women, Indigenous Peoples, Trade Unions, Youth and everybody else, and possibly excluding Local Governments and Scientists?

I have been involved in international stakeholder politics for over two decades and sustainable development policy development for nearly three. Over the years, I have helped set up four different global coalitions of NGOs at the UN – around the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (1993), UN Habitat (1996),WHO (1999) and the Water and Climate Coalition (2007). I served as co-chair of the CSD NGO Steering Committee from 1997-2001 (note 1). I also served as chair of the 64th UN DPI NGO Conference (2011).

During the 1996 UN GA Special Session on Agenda 21, I played a leading role in introducing stakeholder dialogues to the United Nations. (Governments went into informal session to enable me to put the suggestion before them.) I then helped organize the CSD multi- stakeholder Dialogues from 1997-2001, the Bonn Water Dialogues (2001) and Bonn Energy Dialogues (2004).

I share all this to explain that most of my time around the UN has been dedicated to expanding the access of stakeholders and improving the content coming to the meetings.

So, as you might imagine, I never expected to have to write the title or the content of this blog. We are in a period when political space for the involvement of stakeholders in global institutions is under attack, and there is a serious chance risk that might result in the reduction of stakeholder access at the UN.  Unfortunately, this risk is being increased because of the actions of some Development NGOs.  

To explain I need to take you back in time.

As far as the UN is concerned, all organizations that are not national governments are, in principle, considered non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The 1990s saw two distinct discourses develop to refine and expand this system.   Each had its own coalition of proponents. And each experienced significant degrees of success.

The first was a movement to allow access to stakeholders. The second was a movement to allow access to civil society.

At the beginning of the 1990s, many organizations were preparing for the 1992 Earth Summit. Under the leadership of Maurice Strong, and the support of the Center for Our Common Future, there was an enormous outreach to bring great numbers of the world’s citizens and organizations to engage in the Rio process. As the process developed, there was recognition that different types of organizations would have different roles to play in policy development and implementation.

The Rio secretariat empowered this through the idea of the independent sector, which they called ‘Major Groups’ in the text of Agenda 21. They identified nine: women, children and youth, Indigenous Peoples, NGOs, local authorities, workers and their trade unions, business and industry, the scientific and technology community, and farmers.

There have been debates over the last twenty years about whether these groups should be increased to include categories like the education community, disabled people, volunteers, faith-based organizations and parliamentarians. To date that has not happened. I am a strong believer that it should.

The Rio Conference set up a new functioning Commission of the UN Economic and Social Council– the Commission on Sustainable Development. This Commission, from the beginning saw these ‘Major Groups’ as particularly helpful in monitoring the implementation of Agenda 21 and its further policy development and implementation.

The CSD mandate included references to this new role in calling for the Commission to ‘receive and analyze relevant information from competent NGOs in the context of Agenda 21 implementation’, and for it to ‘enhance dialogue with NGOs, the independent sector, and other entities outside the UN system’.

The impact of these nine chapters wasn’t only felt with more access and engagement at the global level it was replicated at the national and local level in many countries, as well. Starting in 1993, 

Governments individually developed with their stakeholders national sustainable development strategies, and over 120 set up National Commissions or National Councils on Sustainable Development. Meanwhile, over the next decade, more than 6000 Local Agenda 21s were developed by local, municipal, town and provincial councils – often utilizing the nine Major Group chapters of Agenda 21 as a starting point in developing their LA21s.

By the time of the five year review of Rio, governments were engaging with stakeholders at all meetings within the UN CSD, and from 1998 to 2002 they gave up two full days of their own negotiating time (the first two days) to hear the views of stakeholders on the issues the CSD was developing policy on.

Other UN bodies started to follow the same approach. UN HABITAT, UNEP, UNFCCC and UNCBD, in particular, developed refined versions to provide space to their relevant stakeholders.
Why was it important that there be a number of distinct categories? 

It was important because each stakeholder category, or Major Group, needs to have its own distinct role. Youth deserve to have their own voice as they represent the next generation, who will have to deal with the success – or the mess – we leave them.   Women deserve to have their own voice, because women often experience the brunt of the impacts of poverty and environmental degradation, and are often at the forefront of ideas to address them.

Farmers, because theirs is the voice of those who feed all of us, and they have a tremendous capacity to contribute to developmental change.

Workers and Trade Unions, as they represent the needs of the billions of employed people, protect them from misconduct, and can utilize their expertise in the workplace to serve as an engine for the change that will help move towards more sustainable methods of production.

Local and regional governments, as they are the closest level of governments to the people,  can actuate change  more quickly, and – as we have seen in certain major economies – can often act when national governments won’t or can’t.

Scientists, because they provide the evidence that helps us determine how to act, and that will help us explain to the public and to politicians why change is needed,

Indigenous Peoples, because of their unique cultural heritage and their traditionally close relationship with the environment, and their sovereign rights to their lands,

NGOs – in the more specific sense of education, research and advocacy groups – because they play a critical role of monitoring implementation and are often themselves agents of implementation

And Business and Industry, especially small and medium enterprises, as they play a crucial role in the social and economic development of all countries, and as such will play a central role in the success – or failure – to transition to sustainable economies.

So it is important to have these voices in any of the decisions that are being taken – nine voices – each with a particular constituency, perspective and expertise – which will make for better informed decisions by governments, and will more likely allow those groups to participate in implementing decisions since they were part of developing them. This is the approach that Rio in 1992 birthed and has played such a positive role in affecting people’s lives across the planet.

So why change?

Meanwhile, while one group of organizations have been focusing on the implementation of Agenda 21, other organizations have focused on forums dealing with poverty, health, education, aid, debt, trade, human rights and peace and security. In these spaces, the discourse has been framed more in terms of civil society.

This model has viewed the world more as a trio consisting of government, industry and civil society. In this context, civil society has tended to mean Youth, IPs, Trade Unions, NGOs, social movements, women and small-scale farmers. In this approach there is no individual space for local and regional governments, or scientists. And clearly, the voices of TUs, IPs, youth and women can be diluted as they must join in a common voice to participate with other members of the civil society coalition.

It is worth noting that it also considerably increases the percentage of the space for the private sector, (from one ninth under the Major Groups, to instead one half of the time allotted to organizations that are not governments).

This approach is, of course, much more attractive for governments who feel threatened by the actions of civil society organizations at home, or are annoyed by the statements of those groups in international fora, and are looking for a rationale to close down space for stakeholders. a category of nations that unfortunately seems to have been increasing.

One would hardly want to see a de facto alliance of these governments with some leading development NGOs. Yet that may be precisely what – unintentionally, of course [I’m sure] – is taking place.

All of this is happening around the post-2015 process where over the next three years the successors to the Millennium Development Goals will be developed. These new development goals would greatly benefit from a multi-stakeholder approach.

One of the weaknesses the MDGs did face, and this has been borne out by independent and official reviews was that their development did not take into account stakeholder input – those ‘different voices’. Clearly their successors need to include these different voices, just as was originally advocated throughout Agenda 21.  

What women believe needs to be reflected in these goals, as does the needs of the next generation, in order to be at the center of any just and fair transition, the future goals must benefit from incorporating the wisdom of Indigenous Peoples, and need to have the full input of trade unions.  And finally, as we explore the limits of planetary boundaries, all should want access to the latest research from scientists. And we clearly have to galvanize local and regional governments to serve as implementing agents of change.  

This doesn’t mean that there should not be multi-stakeholder platforms as well. The strength that is found when many stakeholders come together to support a particular point is very impactful.

Also, no process should mean there is only one voice but should enable as many voices as possible to be expressed. Just as we look for more disaggregated data for the issues, it is the disaggregated views that often provide a necessary breadth of opinions.

For different issues, different configurations might also be effective. When Germany hosted the International Bonn Energy Conference in 2004 its dialogues on energy, it split the industry group into three sectors – traditional industries, a finance sector, and renewables. Any discussion on policy does not have to by all the nine stakeholder groups speaking every time. This was also true for the CSD Dialogues  from 1998-2001which had no more than four stakeholder groups participating. Those might change for the different sub theme being discussed but it enabled a very focused and relevant discussion.

All of which makes it difficult to understand why some development NGOs are opposing the Major Groups/stakeholder approach, other than as an expression of a kind of ‘not invented here’ attitude. Or perhaps it is because much of the space in the development fora is often dominated by a small number of development NGOs from the north. The Major Groups approach significantly balances the influence of large northern NGOs with smaller and southern NGOs, and then further balances that with additional voices – such as Youth, Women, Farmers and Indigenous Peoples – allowing more and more diverse perspectives – particularly from the south.

It will be a very sad day if the present organizations advocating a ‘civil society’ style structure were to win this battle.  I suspect that future generations of representatives of non-governmental institutions – NGOs, women, IPs, youth, and other stakeholders, and civil society alike –  will not easily forgive them for having given  up their space.  

1.     CSD NGO Steering Committee a case study on the CSD NGO Steering Committee by Megan Howell, former Director of the office of the Steering Committee’s, northern caucus:
2.     CSD NGO Steering Committee Terms of References online at:


  1. Part 1

    Dear colleagues,

    Roberto and Felix have important points. There are three “actors” in international, intergovernmental negotiations – governments and their representatives, international organizations and their representatives, and Non-Governmental Organisations. The “major group” enhancement, to my mind, was largely inspired by Strong and others wanting to release the grip the ECOSOC accredited NGOs had on the civil society participation in UN conferences – and we achieved radical enlargement of NGO participation in the Earth Summit process. Then Amb Razali [Malaysia](who led the Earth Summit legal and institutional issues working group for governments, and I, who led the NGO working group on legal and institutions issues [INTGLIM] came to agreement on an ECOSOC CSD instead of a GA CSD (or a high level segment of ECOSOC that Sweden wanted). We picked ECOSOC because we had no NGO consultative arrangements in the GA. (I am not sure we made the right decision).

    Then Razali and I completely upset the UN and NGO departments and many “CONGO’ NGOs, by getting ECOSOC to “accredit” all the UNCED NGOs – bringing in 350 or so by fiat to consultative status. Then in 1996 – when Razali was GA President, I think, we revised the foundational NGO resolution (1296) to 1996/31, eliminating most of the the prejudicial language against human rights organizations, and extending ECOSOC status beyond the international NGOs to national, subregional and regional [chaired by Pakistan Ambassador Kamal].

  2. Part 2

    Most important, and this was what I was building up to, in 1996/31 we included part 7 on NGO participation in UN conferences – which tragically, most NGOs and governments and the UN have completely forgotten (some intentionally) – but it has most of the best-practices provisions for accreditation to UN conferences, and it is a disaster that NGOs don’t insist that governments refer to this resolution as the basis for all their conferences.

    Felix and others supported models of NGO involvement that included NGOs actually voting in intergovernmental decision-making, which I and my group have strong reservations. But, I understand, in principle, the reasons.

    At the end of the 1990s, to me tragically, NGOs joined governments in closing down the “prep com” model for international conferences by the UN. I do not think the MDG 2000 summit had any real preparatory meetings. Part of the process to abandon the world conference process of the 1990 was based on ‘conference fatigue’ and the dangers that the “plus 5” processes would risk reopening agreements and risked taking us backwards. However, even at the time I and WFM believed this was a catastrophic mistake.

  3. Part 3

    Many NGOs supported also the move away from inclusive global governance to exclusive governance - salivating at the G7, G8, now G 20 as the most rational and efficient model.
    Again, this is a fantasy for decent or competent, much less democratic global governance. Most of the pro G7-8-20 NGOs joined in the largely mythological bashing of the UN and General Assembly.

    At another time, I could comment on the weaknesses of the “High Level Panel” mechanism, especially when it is delinked from a major, inclusive conference framework.

    So, my input Felix, is that part 7 and prep com based full GA conferences should be restored as the primary basis for the conferences. Tri-partite conference frameworks as you describe – governments, business and industry, and NGOs must be fiercely opposed. We need to get progressive governments to oppose this framework. In this, it may be the G 77 and NAM that may be most supportive – but if not we need to build a N-S ‘like-minded-government grouping ‘ that will support our framework.
    I know this is too, too cryptic and truncated – I am as usual rushing between commitments – but I think attacking the development NGOs is the wrong strategy – make business and industry come into the negotiations as NGOs accredited. Otherwise they come in on government delegations, as NGOs and as you say 50% of a tri-partite model.

    All the best and forgive the rushed drafting of this.

    Bill Pace

    PS – We implemented the N-S like minded group model in drafting the ICC treaty in the 1995-1998 period inside the GA – so this is not theory but practice.

    William R. Pace
    Convenor, Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC)
    Steering Committee Member, International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP)
    Executive Director, World Federalist Movement-Institute for Global Policy (WFM-IGP)
    New York - 708 Third Ave, 24th Floor, NY 10017 phone: +1 646 465 8510
    The Hague - Bezuidenhoutseweg 99A, 2594 AC phone: +31 70 311 1082 | |


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