[Dateline: New York | Author: DESA]
A newly-developed civil society participation database greatly eases interactions between civil society and the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). For the United Nations, maintaining a close relationship with civil society organizations (CSOs) is an integral part of ensuring that its work reflects the will of “we the peoples,” as foreseen in the Organization’s Charter.
As Under-Secretary-General Sha Zukang points out, “from the very beginning, civil society has played a critical role in major UN conferences and summits. The effective cooperation between civil society and the UN, especially with our Department of Economic and Social Affairs, was vital to the success of those conferences – and to the value of their outcomes.”
New software for connecting to civil society
A new civil society participation database named iCSO facilitates interactions between civil society organizations and DESA. The database, developed by DESA's Communications and Information Management Service, provides online registration for CSOs, eases the application procedure for consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and helps those non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are already accredited to the Council to submit their quadrennial reports and to designate representatives to the United Nations.
In the past, these processes would have required extensive correspondence, painstaking filing and dedicated administrative staff time. Anyone who wished to find out more about particular civil society organizations, especially those organizations that do not have significant web sites of their own, would face a major research undertaking.
Instead, today, by simply accessing iCSO through the Internet, users can search through a database of more than 12,000 organizations to find out more about their activities, which meetings they participate in and the status of their United Nations accreditation. Currently, iCSO includes organizations in the areas of sustainable and social development, advancement of women, financing for development, forests and public administration.
In time, iCSO may come to encompass an even broader range of thematic areas of the United Nations. Additionally, iCSO is expected to transform and modernize DESA’s relationship with NGOs, releasing staff time from responding to routine queries and physically processing NGO applications towards more substantive activities to enhance DESA’s interaction with civil society.
An old relationship
DESA’s relationship with NGOs through ECOSOC is an old one, which dates back to the late 1940s. The first time that NGOs took a role in formal UN deliberations was through ECOSOC in 1946. Since 1946, the number of NGOs which have consultative status with the Council has mushroomed from 41 to some 700 by 1992 and finally some 3187 today.
Article 71 of the UN Charter authorized ECOSOC to make suitable arrangements for consultation with NGOs. Civil society’s relationship with ECOSOC is governed today by ECOSOC resolution 1996/31 (available in E/1996/96), which outlines the eligibility requirements for consultative status, rights and obligations of NGOs in consultative status, procedures for the withdrawal or suspension of consultative status, the role and functions of the ECOSOC Committee on NGOs, and the responsibilities of the UN Secretariat in supporting the consultative relationship.
Consultative status is granted by ECOSOC upon recommendation of the ECOSOC Committee on NGOs, which is comprised of 19 Member States. There are three categories of status: general, special and roster consultative status. In addition to the Consultative Status with ECOSOC, NGOs might have obtained other accreditations in the economic and social area. Some of these were temporary accreditations for a particular conference that are no longer valid.
Which organizations are eligible?
Consultative relationships may be established with international, regional, sub-regional and national non-governmental, non-profit public or voluntary organizations. NGOs already affiliated through consultative status with another international organization may be admitted to consultative status with ECOSOC provided that they can demonstrate that their programme of work is of direct relevance to the aims and purposes of the United Nations. In the case of national organizations, consultation with the Member State concerned is required.
To be eligible for consultative status, an NGO must have been in existence (officially registered with the appropriate government authorities as an NGO/non-profit) for at least two years, must have an established headquarters, a democratically adopted constitution, authority to speak for its members, a representative structure, appropriate mechanisms of accountability and democratic and transparent decision-making processes.
The basic resources of the organization must be derived in the main part from contributions of the national affiliates or other components or from individual members, rather than from government budgets. Organizations established by governments or intergovernmental agreements are not considered NGOs.
General, special and roster status
There are three categories of status of NGOs with ECOSOC: general consultative status, special consultative status and roster status.
General consultative status is reserved for large international NGOs with a broad geographical reach whose area of work covers most of the issues on the agenda of ECOSOC and its subsidiary bodies.
Special consultative status is granted to NGOs which have a special competence in, and are concerned specifically with, only a few of the fields of activity covered by ECOSOC. These NGOs tend to be smaller and more recently established.
Organizations that apply for consultative status but do not fit in any of the above categories are usually included in the roster. These NGOs tend to have a rather narrow or technical focus. NGOs that have formal status with other UN bodies or specialized agencies such as FAO, ILO, UNCTAD, UNESCO, UNIDO, or WHO, among others, can be included on the roster status. The roster lists NGOs that ECOSOC or the UN Secretary-General considers to make “occasional and useful contributions to the work of the Council or its subsidiary bodies.”
Participation in international conferences
NGOs in general consultative status, special consultative status and on the roster that express their wish to attend relevant international conferences convened by the United Nations and the meetings of the preparatory bodies of the said conferences can as a rule be accredited for participation. Other NGOs wishing to be accredited may apply to the secretariat of the conference for this purpose.
Future interaction with civil society
The iCSO database automates many of the routine tasks and queries that are involved in the many stages of the accreditation process, and facilitates the information gathering by government representatives. While the database itself cannot speed up the accreditation process, which depends on the quality and timeliness of information provided by the NGOs, as well as on the deliberations of the NGO Committee, the database does serve to free up staff and delegate time for the more substantive and political issues involved in the granting of consultative status with ECOSOC.
Nevertheless, even in the short term, the growth path of new applications of NGOs for consultative status can be expected to shift up significantly. All in all, iCSO is expected to strengthen DESA’s relationship with civil society.
For more information, see http://www.un.org/esa/civilsociety.