Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been active in the United Nations (UN) since its founding. They interact with the UN Secretariat, programmes, funds and agencies and they consult with the Member States.
NGO work related to the UN comprises a number of activities including information dissemination, awareness raising, development education, policy advocacy, joint operational projects, and providing services and technical expertise. This work is undertaken in formal and informal ways at the national, regional and international level.
Since its creation, the UN has committed itself to ensure that NGOs have a role to play in the work of the organization.
The UN Charter Article 71 states:
"The Economic and Social Council may make suitable arrangements for consultation with non-governmental organizations which are concerned with matters within its competence. Such arrangements may be made with international organizations and, where appropriate, with national organizations after consultation with the Member of the United Nations concerned."
Since 1945, the engagement of NGOs in the work of the UN has considerably evolved. The 1970’s and 1980’s witnessed a significant increase in their participation in the activities of the organization. In this period, there was a recognition of their ability to shape the global agenda as well as of their important role as operational actors. However, NGOs involved were mostly northern-based international NGOs and, with a few exceptions, their relations with the UN remained of a formal nature.
UN-NGOs relationships changed profoundly in the 1990’s, both quantitatively and qualitatively. The involvement of NGOs in the UN-organized world conferences, in particular, marked a turning point. Tony Hill talks about a "second generation" of UN-NGOs relations. This generation "is marked by the much larger scale of the NGO presence across the UN system, the more diverse institutional character of the organizations involved, now including national, regional and international NGOs, networks, coalitions and alliances, and the greater diversity of the issues that NGOs seek to address at the UN. Above all, the second generation of UN-NGOs relations are essentially political and reflect the motivation of NGOs to engage with the UN as part of the institutional architecture of global governance".
One institutional response of the UN to this significant changes was to review the consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Resolution resolution 1296 of 1968 was replaced by resolution 1996/31 adopted in 1996, which allows, among other things, subregional, regional, and national NGOs to be accredited. Before, only international NGOs could apply for consultative status.
Since then, the necessity to strengthen UN/NGOs relations has been underlined in various documents, in particular in the Millennium Declaration of September 2000. The commitment of Member States to give greater opportunities to NGOs has been reaffirmed in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document (para 172-174).
In 2004, Secretary-General Kofi Annan decided to set up a panel of experts which was asked to formulate recommendations to strengthen UN civil society interactions. This resulted in the “Cardoso Report” (A/58/817).
Following the “Cardoso Report”, the Secretary-General issued a report (A/59/354) that contains a set of proposals to bring greater coherence and consistency to UN-NGO relations. Those include: simplifying the accreditation process, increasing financial support for the participation of southern NGOs, improving country-level engagement of UN representatives with NGOs and opening further the General Assembly to NGOs.
Since the Cardoso Report, some concrete developments have taken place. For example, the General Assembly has started to hold informal hearings. A Trust Fund has also been established to support UN country teams work with civil society.