NGOs, Civil Society, Stakeholders – what do we mean and when

There has just been a two day meeting organized on Major Groups and Other Stakeholders (MGoS) Workshop on Governance, Transparency and Accountability with the hope of an outcome of:

“Building on the governance discussions from the previous sessions, recommendations on how the future engagement of MGoS in the HLPF may be best structured to fulfill the provisions of 67/290 to the fullest extent possible will be considered. Recommendations for the establishment of autonomous coordination mechanisms among MGoS engagement at the HLPF will also be considered.”

I listened in and participated when I thought I could make a useful contribution. What became clear was that people misunderstand concepts that they use, or use them wrongly or possibly don’t understand the consequences of using them.

A little history

Traditionally as far as the UN is concerned everyone one who is not government is a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). 

Outside the UN over the last twenty five years, two general discourses have taken place, one in the sustainable development field and the other in the development field. The first on sustainable development where around the 1992 Earth Summit Maurice Strong (Secretary General of the UN Conferences in Stockholm [1972] and Rio [1992]) and others wanted to tap into what at that time they were calling ‘sectors of society’ to help with the implementation of Agenda 21. By the Summit in June 1992 governments had agreed to recognize for the first time nine sectors or as they became known, the nine Major Groups.

They didn’t just do this by listing them but by developing chapters of Agenda 21 on what the rights and responsibilities of those Major Groups should be. I strongly suggest people go back and read those chapters (Chapter 23 to 32).
To remind people of the preamble chapter 23:
  1.  Critical to the effective implementation of the objectives, policies and mechanisms agreed to by Governments in all programme areas of Agenda 21 will be the commitment and genuine involvement of all social groups.
  2. One of the fundamental prerequisites for the achievement of sustainable development is broad public participation in decision-making. Furthermore, in the more specific context of environment and development, the need for new forms of participation has emerged. This includes the need of individuals, groups and organizations to participate in environmental impact assessment procedures and to know about and participate in decisions, particularly those which potentially affect the communities in which they live and work. Individuals, groups and organizations should have access to information relevant to environment and development held by national authorities, including information on products and activities that have or are likely to have a significant impact on the environment, and information on environmental protection measures.
  3. Any policies, definitions or rules affecting access to and participation by non-governmental organizations in the work of United Nations institutions or agencies associated with the implementation of Agenda 21 must apply equally to all major groups.
  4. The programme areas set out below address the means for moving towards real social partnership in support of common efforts for sustainable development.
Paragraph 3 in particular opened the door for these nine to engage at the UN

When the UN Commission on Sustainable Development was established in 1993, it included in the terms of reference for the Commission a number of key and unique requirements:

National level

26. The Secretariat should take into account the particular clusters of the multi-year thematic programme of work of the Commission and be guided by the following list of issues as regards the information to be included in the analytical reports:
26(b) Institutional mechanisms to address sustainable development issues, including the participation of non-governmental sectors and major groups in those mechanisms;
26 (m) Other relevant environment and development issues, including those affecting youth, women and other major groups.
28. In order to organize the information provided by Governments, the Secretary-General is requested to prepare, taking into account regional and subregional dimensions, the following analytical reports for future sessions of the Commission:
(v) Specific problems and constraints encountered by Governments at all levels, including local Agenda 21 activities and activities related to major groups;
39 (b) Identify gaps and opportunities for cooperation, including cooperation with non-governmental organizations and major groups;

In the 1990s  there were huge advances in the involvement of what we were now calling stakeholders in the work of the Commission and that work starting to positively  infect other parts of the UN that were dealing with NGOs. Whether it was at UNEP which renamed its Civil Society Section to Major Groups and Other Stakeholders in 2004, or at the UNFCCC and CBD where they used the stakeholder concept but had in the CBD there own views on who that should be.

So how are we defining stakeholders?

In its broadest sense, a stakeholder is any individual, organisation, sector or community who has a ‘stake’ in the outcome of a given decision or process.  In the context of international decision making processes, such as those at the UN level, the term stakeholder usually refers to a global constituency or group such as farmers, NGOs, trade unions and workers etc."

By the ten year review of Rio in 2002 there were now nine seats in the negotiating rooms - one for each Major Group. I have been an early advocate for expanding the Major Groups to include more stakeholder groups and is something I continue to advocate for whether it’s the education community or disability groups or older people.

Between 1997-2001 there was a joint venture between the Major Groups, UNDESA and the Chair of the CSD (usually a Minister) to organize the multi-stakeholder dialogues with member states.

When we talk about expanding stakeholder space this is a great example where member states gave up 12 hours, let me repeat that 12 hours of negotiating space in fact the first two days of the CSD each year to dialogue with stakeholders.

These were then, four three- hour session to discuss different sub themes of the thematic issues infront of the CSD.  It was a true interactive dialogue. We never had all Major Groups participating in each of the dialogues, but the Major Groups selected from among themselves the 3 or 4 most relevant Major Groups to the issue being discussed for each three hour sessions. For the dialogues half the time went to governments and half to stakeholders. Operationally by February before the May CSD a short paper by each Major Group for each session were written and from the Major Group papers a comparative analysis was produced by the secretariat which became the focus of the debate.

No speaker was allowed more than two minutes and the key speakers from each relevant stakeholder group for each of the dialogues were not allowed to exceed five minutes. These were the ONLY prepared statements after that the dialogue would require all those who participated to be able to do that as experts.  You had better know your stuff because the chair or a government official would come back often and ask you to explain what you meant or what proof/evidence you have for what you are saying. So very quickly only the best and knowledgeable stakeholder representative took the floor. It ensured very high quality debate.

The most successful dialogues (on tourism) were organized under Simon Upton, the New Zealand Minister and Chair of the CSD, and the report from the dialogues entered the Chair’s summary as an official New Zealand government position into the negotiations. Governments then had to negotiate out what we had proposed if they didn’t like it.

So the nine chapters of Agenda 21 for the first time gave space to all nine major groups to have their own voice at these negotiations.  This was particularly important I believe for the women’s groups, youth groups and Indigenous Peoples groups but it also enabled a space for the first time at the UN for local government.  Chapter 28 of Agenda 21, the local authority’s chapter had a huge impact as it asked:

“Each local authority should enter into a dialogue with its citizens, local organizations and private enterprises and adopt "a local Agenda 21". Through consultation and consensus-building, local authorities would learn from citizens and from local, civic, community, business and industrial organizations and acquire the information needed for formulating the best strategies.”

By 2002 over 6000 local authorities had worked with their local stakeholders and citizens to produce their own local agenda 21.

Agenda 21 also ensured that industry had only one of nine spots at the table not the usual conscript of one of two as had been the case for many years. 
Now back to the civil society discourse, in the development field this construct has had many meanings some including industry some not. Let me take the Wikipedia definitions:

 “Civil society is the "aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens."[1] Civil society includes the family and the private sphere, referred to as the "third sector" of society, distinct from government and business.[2]'s 21st Century Lexicon defines civil society as 1) the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens or 2) individuals and organizations in a society which are independent of the government.[1]

If you take out industry what this construct does is to reduce the discussion to two spaces in all: one for industry and one for the rest of non state actors which it calls civil society. Accordingly it takes away individual voices from very every key parts of society and in particular the three I mentioned above (Women, youth and Indigenous Peoples) and it takes away all space from local government, as we have seen in the Financing for Development process.  So the result - whether intended or not - of supporting a civil society discourse is to take away space from very important parts of society AND massively increases the space for industry.

Another problem is that NGOs sometimes use civil society when they mean NGOs….and often any ‘civil society’ grouping is a front for larger northern NGOs.
I just don’t understand the logic of the people who are supporting the civil society discourse. Unless you want to reduce space for stakeholders.

On an operational level in the Commission on Sustainable Development process we have always had combined stakeholder groups working together, but using their individual speaking slots to support each other which is of course a much stronger way of doing it than just giving one voice to CSOs.

In the post 2015 process please let’s expand the voices to the larger stakeholder community and not reduce it.

Recommendations to consider        
  1. Stop using the term civil society as it will only help to reduce the space, not increase it
  2. I am in favour of expanding the stakeholder space, and so what I think would be a first step is the development for the 2016 HLPF of equivalent chapters to those nine we had for Major Groups in 1992 in Agenda 21 which identify the rights and responsibilities of the stakeholders that are going to engage in the HLPF.

For me that means at least two new stakeholder groups that I would add: the aging community and the disabled community. But the chapters need to reflect what each stakeholder group will provide so it can be monitored and reported on.  We are now moving into implementation and that needs to be reflected in those chapters. So what role does your stakeholder group have in implementation? Again do read the 1992 Agenda 21 chapters to start thinking about this.


Well, to some extent this would apply to all stakeholders, but I will address the NGOs as I co-chaired the NGO coalition at the UN CSD from 1997 to 2001. Let me share a few of the things that we had then:
  1. The NGO Coalition had seats on its board for all Major groups
  2. We had annual elections for all the posts that included Co-chairs, Major Groups reps and issue causes co-coordinators. These were at the end conducted by email.
  3. All positions had to have a male and female as co-organizers including one from the north and one from the south
  4. All thematic issue caucuses eg human rights, water, housing etc had to produce a mission statement, an active plan and list all members unless there were good reasons why not a caucus could be established (eg human rights organizations in certain countries)
  5. All  thematic issue caucuses had to show at least 10 UN accredited organizations as members to be recognised as a caucus
  6. All thematic issue caucuses had to show geographical representation and have a plan to outreach to strengthen the weaker represented regions
  7. We had a web site with all this information for anyone to see
  8. A staff person employed by the committee supported the thematic issue caucuses and the organizational issues off all Major Groups
  9. If any issue co-oordinators did not fulfil their obligations, they were sacked and a letter sent to their Executive Director explaining why they had been sacked. This happened twice in the 8 years of the coalition and in one of those cases the organization reprimanded the staff person in their annual review.
  10. We produced a printed Annual Report which was sent to ALL government Missions to ensure transparency

There are lessons from the above for sure.

Recommendations to Consider

The NGO Major Group sets up at least 17 thematic caucuses (one for each of the SDGs) to work on the monitoring and implementation of the Post 2015 agenda now. These caucuses hold annual elections and agree a mission statements and an NGO web site should be set up for all the caucus information to be in one place. This would also include registration in the relevant thematic caucuses.

Sorry for this long blog but I do feel passionate about expanding stakeholder space as I believe it helps governments make better informed decisions.


  1. I very much like the idea of a non-gov caucus for each of the 17 SDGs. Not only would it make a good division of the issues we're dealing with but would suggest structure for interaction with the governments. We would have to be careful to make sure the caucuses were in good contact, maybe by having a separate oversight group that could ensure communication and also be a voice for the Earth as a whole entity. Because even in the SDGs, after all that learning in the OWG where the concept of the planet as a living entity was clear to many (alas not to all) there is danger of going silo. Whenever there is this kind of separation of issues the tendency to go silo is present and we need to acknowledge that and work against it. It has already appeared among...uh...stakeholders with various important and heartfelt causes. What is happening to move these suggestions forward? Mary Gilbert, Quaker Earthcare Witness


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