UN consultative status for NGOs: politics, processes and privileges

Non-governmental organizations are among the participants of the third session of the global platform for disaster risk reduction by the United Nations. Photo by: UNISDR / CC BY

Rights groups around the globe rejoiced the news emerging from a July 25 meeting of the United Nations Economic and Social Council. The International Lesbian and Gay Association had won back its consultative status.

ILGA, a global alliance of more than 600 groups advocating for lesbian, gay, bi and transgendered people, originally secured consultative status with ECOSOC in 1993. But the alliance lost its status a year later because some council members felt ILGA’s stand on underage sex was not strong enough.

Consulting with non-governmental organizations, along with the academic and business communities, is essential for ECOSOC to meet its broad mandate. The council acts as a forum for discussions on global economic and social issues, and the creation of policy recommendations addressed for U.N. members. In addition, it coordinates the economic, social and related work of U.N. specialized agencies, as well as functional commissions and five regional commissions.

For NGOs, winning consultative status with ECOSOC can be useful, particularly for advocacy campaigns that are global in scale. Why? Because it allows access not only to ECOSOC but also its subsidiary bodies, various U.N. human rights mechanisms, ad hoc processes on small arms, and special events organized by the General Assembly president. This means ample opportunity for organizations to lobby top officials on their causes.

World Vision International, for instance, had a hand in including language on child orphans in the U.N. Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS. InterAction used its consultative status to lobby for gender equality during gatherings of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women from 2003 to 2006.

Both World Vision and InterAction have been awarded general consultative status, one of three accreditation categories granted by ECOSOC. This status is reserved for NGOs “concerned with most of the activities of the ECOSOC and its subsidiary bodies.” Such organizations tend to be fairly large and have broad geographical reach.

Special status is given to NGOs that “have a special competence in, and are concerned specifically with, only a few of the fields of activity covered by the ECOSOC.” The bulk of new accreditations, according to the United Nations, fall in this group. ILGA has special status.

The third group is called roster. It includes NGOs that “can make occasional and useful contributions to the work of ECOSOC or its subsidiary bodies.” These are normally organizations with a narrow or technical focus.

The type of consultative status determines the perks and duties of NGOs, as the table below shows.

The practice of granting consultative status is nearly as old as the body in charge of it. It has its roots in Article 71 of the U.N. Charter, which some have credited for popularizing the term “non-governmental organization.”

In 1946, ECOSOC gave out consultative status to the International Chamber of Commerce, International Cooperative Alliance, International League for Human Rights, and World Federation of Trade Unions. As of August 2011, there are 3,536 accredited NGOs: 142 enjoyed general consultative status, 2,406 special status and 988 roster status.

So, how does an NGO get consultative status?

The current process is governed by ECOSOC Resolution 1996/31. As per the resolution, the council’s Committee on NGOs screens applications by NGOs (which are submitted online) and recommends to ECOSOC which of these groups merit consultative status. The final decision rests with the council.

Some 400 NGOs apply for accreditation each year, with 100 to 150 earning recommendation from the committee in each of its two sessions (January and May). According to the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, it is “very rare” for the council to reject the committee’s recommendations.

The committee comprises 19 members representing major geographical regions. For 2011 to 2014, the members are Belgium, Bulgaria, Burundi, China, Cuba, India, Israel, Kyrgyzstan, Morocco, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Peru, Russia, Senegal, Sudan, Turkey, the United States and Venezuela.

In ECOSOC’s July 25 meeting, some delegates voiced concern about the work of the committee and its recent actions, including what some critics called the panel’s hesitation to recommend certain human rights groups for consultative status. The committee made no-action decisions on ILGA’s application in two previous occasions. ILGA was finally granted consultative status after a favorable vote on a resolution proposed by Belgium and co-sponsored by the United States.

The issue of human rights has historically caused friction within the committee. A recently published paper notes that principles and political positions influence attitudes of committee members: Member states with conservative views on sexuality, such as Islamic countries, tend to oppose recommendation for consultative status of NGOs working to uphold LGBT rights.

A note to NGOs: The practice of granting NGO accreditation is not exclusive to ECOSOC. In fact, several other international organizations and U.N. bodies also award a similar status to nonprofits. The Committee on World Food Security, for instance, officially welcomed civil society representatives as members in 2010, allowing them to join debates though not the right to vote.

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    Eliza Villarino

    Eliza Villarino currently manages one of today’s leading publications on humanitarian aid, global health and international development, the weekly GDB. At Devex, she has helped grow a global newsroom, with talented journalists from major development hubs such as Washington, D.C, London and Brussels. She regularly writes about innovations in global development.