The Changing Nature of the UN System: From Intergovernmental Institutions to Multistakeholder Fora

Raffaele Marchetti, Professor of International Relations, LUISS University, Italy, specially for

Last year when I was visiting the UN headquarter in Genève I was outright surprised when the guide described the UN as a global forum. As a scholar of IR, I have always thought the UN as a classical international intergovernmental organization, whose membership was exclusively reserved to states. All of a sudden, I was discovering that what I have learnt for many years was out of focus. I got very curious about that, so I asked for more info about that definition, and the guide told me that the idea of a forum was the new UN brand image devised to suggest a more inclusive, accessible, and open organization.

The transformation of the classically Westphalian system (based as it was on the centrality of the states and their institutional correlate of intergovernmental relations) into what is by now recognized as the system of global governance is a process that has been going on during the last thirty years.

By now, the international system is populated by a wide variety of international institutions from purely intergovernmental to completely private ones. In between these two extremes, we have a number of hybrid institutions in which both public entities, such as the states, and private actors, such as international non-governmental organizations or multinational corporations, have in different degrees a formal seat and power to take part in the decision-making process.

There are signals that the United Nations is slowly moving from the one extreme of being a purely intergovernmental organization to becoming a more hybrid organization that is progressively including in its proceedings a number of stakeholders, though in different forms. At least four mechanisms can be singled out.

The first by now well-developed formula for the inclusion of stakeholder adopted by the UN since many years is the classical consultation with civil society organizations, whereby civil society may at times also include for profit actors. Before any annual session of the UN General Assembly, for instance, a public hearing takes place with a number of NGOs engaged with the themes of the following session. In parallel to any world summit, there is very often a civil society gathering somehow sponsored by the UN.

A second mechanism for engagement with civil society is the subcontracting of specific functions to NGOs. The UN usually assigns through public tenders a number of tasks to civil society organizations, in areas such as public sector development, development aid, or monitoring. This is a practice that has been going on for decades and it is widely adopted also by many other international organizations under the aegis of the new public management doctrine.

A third mechanism more recently observed concerns the founding, financing, aggregating, or simply sponsoring of newly created NGOs. For instance, just between 1946 and 1965, UNESCO founded and financed no less than 25 new NGOs, outsourcing entire areas of its activity to them. Jens Steffek calls these organizations IONGO. The EU is often doing the same by aggregating a number of civil society organizations in distinct bureaux. Contrary to common assumptions, these organizations are not expression of the civil society input from below, but are rather a response to the resource scarcity or political ambition of international organization.

Finally, a fourth mechanism that has been envisaged and implemented in the last few years is the formal inclusion of non-governmental organizations into the decision-making process of the United Nations. These is a particularly innovative transformation in that it significantly erodes the pure intergovernmental nature of the UN. Consultation, sub-contracting, or the founding of NGOs are all activities that preserve the line of demarcation between the intergovernmental organization whose membership is state-based and the (increasing) interaction with external non-governmental actors. With this fourth mechanism, instead, non-governmental actors move inside (not anymore purely) intergovernmental organizations. From an international relations perspective, this is revolutionary. Two instances of such inclusion of NGOs into intergovernmental organizations occurred in the last seven years. In 2007 NGOs were included in the workings of UNAIDS, and in 2009, in the working of FAO. Given their innovative nature, it is worth exploring them in close details in the following.

The UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, is an hybrid partnership striving to achieve universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support. Since 2007, NGOs are included in the Programme Coordinating Board (PCB) that is the governing body of the UNAIDS. UNAIDS pull together the efforts of the United Nations system, civil society, national governments, the private sector, global institutions and people living with and most affected by HIV. The PCB of UNAIDS guides, reviews and makes decisions about the policies, priorities, long range plans, and budgets of UNAIDS. There are 37 seats on the PCB: 22 Member States, 10 Cosponsors, and 5 NGOs. Cosponsor organizations include a number of specialized UN agencies. As stated in the “Terms of Reference of the UNAIDS PCB NGO Delegation”, Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) hold five (5) seats on the PCB. Eligible NGOs include local, national, regional and international NGOs, networks of people living with HIV (PLHIV Networks), AIDS service organizations (ASOs), community-based organizations (CBOs), AIDS activist organizations, faith-based organizations (FBOs), and networks or coalitions of AIDS organizations. Collectively these are referred to as NGOs. NGOs are further defined as not-for-profit and working primarily and actively in the field of HIV (i.e. the main purpose or one of the main purposes of the NGO, association or network is its work in the HIV field). There is one seat for each of the following five regions: Africa; Asia/Pacific; Europe, Latin America/Caribbean; and North America. These seats are occupied by the 5 Main Delegates. Though technically, it is the NGO (the organization, and not the person representing the organization) that holds the seat on the PCB, a specific representative of the NGO applies to fill the seat. Due to the challenges and steep learning curve of serving as an NGO Delegate to the PCB, it is intended that this single representative serve for the full term of service. Though technically NGOs do not have “the right to take part in the formal decision-making process” of the PCB, in practice NGOs fully participate and are essential, respected stakeholders in decision-making processes. They do not, however, have voting rights.

The Committee on World Food Security (CFS) of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was set up in 1974 as an intergovernmental body to serve as a forum for review and follow up of food security policies. In 2009 the CFS went through a reform process that included a number of stakeholders. The vision of the reformed CFS is to be the most inclusive international and intergovernmental platform for all stakeholders to work together in a coordinated way to ensure food security and nutrition for all. CFS was reformed to address short term crises but also long term structural issues. The Committee reports annually to ECOSOC. CFS is made up of three categories of actors: Members, Participants, and Observers. The membership of the Committee is open to all Member States of FAO, IFAD and WPF. Participants can be from representatives of UN agencies and bodies, civil society and non-governmental organizations and their networks, international agricultural research systems, international and regional financial institutions and representatives of private sector associations and private philanthropic foundations. The Bureau is the executive arm of the CFS. It is made up of a Chairperson and twelve member countries. The Advisory Group helps the Bureau advance the Committee’s objectives in particular to ensure linkages with different stakeholders at regional, sub-regional and local levels and to ensure an ongoing, two-way exchange of information. The Advisory group is made up of representatives from the 5 different categories of CFS Participants. These are: 1) UN agencies and other UN bodies; 2) Civil society and non-governmental organizations particularly organizations representing smallholder family farmers, fisherfolks, herders, landless, urban poor, agricultural and food workers, women, youth, consumers and indigenous people; 3) International agricultural research institutions; 4) International and regional financial institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, regional development banks and the World Trade Organization; and 5) Private sector associations and philanthropic foundations. In 2011-2013, members of the advisory group were the following: UN Bodies: FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation), WFP (World Food Programme), IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development), Right-to-Food: Special Rapporteur on the right to food - Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN High Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis, UN Standing Committee on Nutrition (SCN); CSOs/NGOs: The World Forum of Fish Harvesters & Fish Workers (WFHFF), Mouvement International de la Jeunesse Agricole (MIJARC), Indigenous Caucus (ICAZA), World Alliance of Mobile Indigenous Peoples (WAMIP); International Agricultural Research Bodies: Bioversity International; International Financial and Trade Institutions: World Bank; Private Sector/Philanthropic Foundations: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, International Agri-Food Network.

As evidenced by these four innovative formulas, and especially by the fourth one, even the most classical locus of intergovernmental action, the UN, is changing. More and more, non-governmental actors, that is relevant stakeholders get closer to important decision-making processes at the international level. With these stakeholder trend that is currently characterizing global governance comes also a redefinition of legitimacy that is now moving from a purely input legitimacy to an output legitimacy. From representatives whose legitimacy derive from a formal mandate, increasingly legitimate actors are perceived also those who have a relevant expertise, sound moral principles, or simply an ability to deliver on the ground. The notion of political authority is dramatically changing. It should not come as a surprise that also most traditional forms of international institutions such as the UN system is undergoing a significant restructuring in line with this transformation.