The Role of NGOs
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Defining NGOs: What the UN Says
From the UN Department of Public Information: NGO refers to a non-profit citizens’ voluntary entity organized nationally or internationally. Thus, professional associations, foundations, trade unions, religious organisations, women’s and youth groups, cooperative associations, development and human rights associations, environmental protection groups, research institutes dealing with international affairs and associations of parliamentarians are considered NGOs.
From the Report of the Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations–Civil Society Relations: Non-governmental organization (NGO). All organizations of relevance to the United Nations that are not central Governments and were not created by intergovernmental decision, including associations of businesses, parliamentarians and local authorities. There is considerable confusion surrounding this term in United Nations circles. Elsewhere, NGO has become shorthand for public-benefit NGOs — a type of civil society organization that is formally constituted to provide a benefit to the general public or the world at large through the provision of advocacy or services. They include organizations devoted to environment, development, human rights and peace and their international networks. They may or may not be membership-based. The Charter of the United Nations provides for consultations with NGOs.
NGOs, civil society, or major groups?
The Panel described civil society in the following way:
… the associations of citizens (outside their families, friends and businesses) entered into voluntarily to advance their interests, ideas and ideologies. The term does not include profit-making activity (the private sector) or governing (the public sector). Of particular relevance to the United Nations are mass organizations (such as organizations of peasants, women or retired people), trade unions, professional associations, social movements, indigenous people’s organizations, religious and spiritual organizations, academe and public benefit non-governmental organizations.
Stakeholders: Yet another term!
Those who have an interest in a particular decision, either as individuals or representatives of a group. This includes people who influence a decision, or can influence it, as well as those affected by it.
Role of NGOs in MEAs
Enhancing the knowledge base
Advocacy and lobbying
Membership in national delegations
Contribution to compliance review and enforcement as well as dispute settlement procedures
Supporting international secretariats
Broader functions of NGOs in international environmental governance
Terminology around NGOs varies. They are defined by the UN as ‘non-profit citizens’ voluntary entities organized nationally or internationally.’
A range of other terms are used almost interchangeably, particularly ‘stakeholders’, ‘civil society’ and ‘major groups’.
NGOs have been involved in the UN since its inception; the rate of involvement has grown exponentially. Different agencies of the UN have their own accreditation arrangements (see Module Seven).
NGOs bring knowledge and information, new issues and expert advice to intergovernmental negotiations and can play different roles, including: