The United Nations and Civil Society in Times of Change: Four Propositions

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The United Nations and organized civil society in the form of international NGOs have yet to find an optimal mode of engagement that works for both sides. This has many reasons, but foremost it is caused by a formalized and politicized administrative process with, in the end, rather limited participation opportunities for NGOs. The current regime fails to live up to its potential – a deficit that is becoming more acute as both the UN and NGOs face legitimacy pressures and have to brave geopolitical and resource uncertainties. In response, the article proposes a more differentiated cooperation model based on functional roles and new organizational formats. Such an approach could enable a mutually beneficial relationship to emerge between the United Nations system and international civil society.

Policy implications

  • NGO Contracting: A central system for UN contracts and controlling should be established, which could legally and organizationally be outsourced to a private institution.

  • NGO Civil Engagement: International civil society should be integrated into UN volunteer services and building on, and linking with, corresponding service agencies at the national level.

  • NGO Whistle‐Blowers: The UN needs to figure more prominently as a promoter of transparency and accountability. NGOs could be part of an independent organizational platform and quasi civil society ‘audit institution’.

  • NGO Extension: The UN could act as an innovation platform, clearinghouse and even extension service for international and global governance challenges brought before it by NGOs.

  • World Civil Society Assembly: A space for ideas, a place for debate and exchange, and offering national and international politics and civil society a forum to meet on an equal footing.