There is growing interest in the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) within the United Nations system in the making and the implementation of policies at the international level. NGOs are more involved than ever before in global policy making and project implementation in such areas as conflict resolution, human rights, humanitarian relief, and environmental protection.
NGOs at the UN have a variety of roles - they bring citizens concerns to governments, advocate particular policies, present alternative avenues for political participation, provide analysis, serve as an early warning mechanism of potential violence and help implement peace agreements.
The role of consultative-status NGOs was written into the UN Charter at its founding in San Francisco in June, 1945. As one of the failings of the League of Nations had been the lack of public support and understanding of the functioning of the League, some of the UN Charter drafters felt that a role should be given to NGOs. At the start, both governments and UN Secretariat saw NGOs as an information avenue - telling NGO members what the governments and the UN was doing and building support for their actions. However, once NGOs had a foot in the door, the NGOs worked to have a two-way avenue - also telling governments and the Secretariat what NGO members thought and what policies should be carried out at the UN. Governments were none too happy with this two-way avenue idea and tried to limit the UN bodies with which NGOs could 'consult'. There was no direct relationship with the General Assembly or the Security Council. The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in Article 71 of the Charter was the body to which "consultative-status NGOs" were related.
However, what in practice gives NGOs their influence is not what an individual NGO can do alone but what they can do collectively. 'Networking' and especially trans-national networking is the key method of progress. NGOs make networks which facilitate the trans-national movement of norms, resources, political responsibility, and information. NGO networks tend to be informal, non-binding, temporary, and highly personalized. NGOs are diverse, heterogeneous and independent. They are diverse in mission, level of resources, methods of operating and effectiveness. However, at the UN they are bound together in a common desire to protect the planet and advance the welfare of humanity.
The role of NGO representatives is to influence policies through participation in the entire policy-making process. What distinguishes the NGO representative's role at the UN from lobbying at the national level is that the representative may appeal to and discuss with the diplomats of many different governments. While some diplomats may be unwilling to consider ideas from anyone other than the mandate they receive from their Foreign Ministry, others are more open to ideas coming from NGO representatives. Out of the 193 Member States, the NGO representative will always find some diplomats who are 'on the same wave length' or who are looking for additional information on which to take a decision, especially on issues on which a government position is not yet set. Therefore, an NGO representative must be trusted by government diplomats and the UN Secretariat.
As with all diplomacy in multilateral forums such as the UN, much depends upon the skill and knowledge of the NGO representative and on the close working relations which they are able to develop with some government representatives and some members of the UN Secretariat. Many Secretariat members share the values of the NGO representatives but can not try to influence government delegates directly. The Secretariat members can, however, give to the NGO representatives some information, indicate countries that may be open to acting on an issue and help with the style of presentation of a document.
It is probably in the environmental field - sustainable development - that there has been the most impact. Each environmental convention or treaty such as those on biological diversity or drought was negotiated separately, but with many of the same NGO representatives present. It is more difficult to measure the NGO role in disarmament and security questions. It is certain that NGO mobilization for an end to nuclear testing and for a ban on land mines and cluster weapons played a role in the conventions which were steps forward for humanity. However, on other arms issues, NGO input is more difficult to analyse.
'Trans-national advocacy networks' which work across frontiers are of increasing importance as seen in the efforts against landmines, for the International Criminal Court and for increased protection from violence toward women and children. The groups working on these issues are found in many different countries but have learned to work trans-nationally both through face-to-face meetings and through the internet web. The groups in any particular campaign share certain values and ideas in common but may differ on other issues. Thus, they come together on an ad hoc basis around a project or a small number of related issues. Yet their effectiveness is based on their being able to function over a relatively long period of time in rather complex networks even when direct success is limited.
These campaigns are based on networks which combine different actors at various levels of government: local, regional, national, and UN (or European Parliament, OSCE etc.). The campaigns are waged by alliances among different types of organizations - membership groups, academic institutions, religious bodies, and ad hoc local groupings. Some groups may be well known, though most are not.
There is a need to work at the local, the national, and the UN levels at the same time. Advocacy movements need to be able to contact key decision-makers in national parliaments, government administrations and intergovernmental secretariats. Such mobilization is difficult, and for each 'success story' there are many failed efforts. The rise of UN consultative-status NGOs has been continual since the early 1970s. NGOs and government diplomats at the UN are working ever more closely together to deal with the world challenges which face us all.