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The Role of NGOs. In this Session. Learn how NGOs participate in the intergovernmental arena, including the negotiation of MEAs. Consider the value of NGO roles. Defining NGOs NGOs at the UN and in MEAs Defining Objectives: different NGO roles in negotiations.

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in this session
In this Session

Learn how NGOs participate in the intergovernmental arena, including the negotiation of MEAs. Consider the value of NGO roles.

  • Defining NGOs
  • NGOs at the UN and in MEAs
  • Defining Objectives: different NGO roles in negotiations
defining non governmental organisations
Defining Non-Governmental Organisations

How do you describe an NGO? One survey found 48 different terms and acronyms. Here is a sample:

In short, there is no agreed terminology for describing the NGO sector.

In some ways, it is easier to describe what NGOs are not, rather than what they are. It is generally agreed that NGOs are not:

  • part of government, or
  • organized primarily for private profit.
defining ngos what the un says
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.
defining ngos what the un says5
Defining NGOs: What the UN Says
  • 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
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.
ngos civil society or major groups7
“Major Groups” is a term that was introduced in Agenda 21, agreed by governments at the Rio Earth Summit. It describes nine sectors of society identified as having a significant role in sustainable development:


children and youth

indigenous people


Local authorities

Workers and trade unions

business and industry

the scientific and technical community


NGOs, civil society, or major groups?
stakeholders yet another term
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.

ngos at the un
NGOs at the UN

“Ten years ago there was little talk of civil society in the corridors of power, but now the walls reverberate with at least the rhetoric of partnership, participation, and the role of citizens’ groups in promoting sustainable development”

  • The number of NGOs who are active at the UN has grown rapidly, especially since the 1990s.
ngos in intergovernmental processes
NGOs in Intergovernmental Processes

4 important functions:

  • Setting agendas
  • Negotiating outcomes
  • Conferring legitimacy
  • Implementing solutions
role of ngos in meas
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
  • Ensuring transparency
  • Supporting international secretariats
  • Broader functions of NGOs in international environmental governance
unep s approach to cs
UNEP’s approach to CS

Service-delivery – organizations that develop, monitor and implement projects/programmes or services; these CSOs are often based at the grassroots level or work closely with community-based organizations (CBOs).

Representation – organizations that aggregate citizen voices; these include CSO umbrella and network organizations and indigenous peoples’ groups.

Advocacy and policy inputs – organizations that provide expertise and lobby on particular issues; these include think-tanks, research-oriented institutions and “watchdog” institutions.

Capacity building – organizations that provide support to other CSOs, including funding, training and raising awareness; these institutions include foundations and major NGOs.

Social functions – organizations that foster collective social activities, including religious groups.

considering the role of ngos
Considering the role of NGOs

The following quotes suggest some different opinions of the role of NGOs. What do you think?

[A] NGOs are tugboats in international channels.

[C] …civil society is not just a resting place for social movements on their way to the state. It is meaningful and sometimes crucial as a site of political action in its own right.

[B] social movements take an unlikely idea, make it seem feasible, and then put it into practice.

[D] the rise of the global idiots … any group with a fax machine and a modem has the potential to distort public debate .

in summary
In Summary
  • 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:
in summary16
In Summary
  • Setting agendas
  • Negotiating outcomes (by proposing alternative language and solutions)
  • Conferring legitimacy
  • Implementing solutions
  • Sometimes, a choice has to be made about working ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ official processes. Both have pro’s and con’s, and the decision needs to be taken carefully.