NGOs, the UN and APA

Article by Sally Leverty
APA Office of International Affairs

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)

The term non-governmental organization — NGO — is very broad and encompasses many different types of organizations. They include international charities such as OXFAM and Save the Children, research institutes, churches, community-based organizations, lobby groups and professional associations. Traditionally, NGOs are value-based organizations that depend in whole or in part, on charitable donations and voluntary service. The United Nations (U.N.) Department of Public Information (DPI) defines the NGO as “a not-for profit, voluntary citizen’s group that is organized on a local, national or international level to address issues in support of the public good. Task-oriented and made up of people with a common interest, NGOs perform a variety of services and humanitarian functions, bring citizen’s concerns to Governments, monitor policy and program implementation, and encourage participation of civil society stakeholders at the community level.”

In wider usage, an NGO can be described as any non-profit organization that is independent of government.

NGOs have become increasingly influential in world affairs, and the World Bank estimates that over 15 percent of total overseas development aid is channeled through NGOs. Many of the largest, most significant non-governmental organizations have relationships or official associative status with intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations or the World Bank. An intergovernmental organization, or IGO, is an institution made up of the governments of member states. IGOs usually have a formal, permanent structure with various organs to accomplish is tasks.

There are two general categories of NGOs: (1) operational NGOs, whose primary purpose is the design and implementation of development-related projects, and (2) advocacy NGOs, whose primary purpose is to defend or promote a specific cause and who seek to influence the policies and practices of IGOs.

Statistics about the number of NGOs worldwide are incomplete, but according to the United Nations Development Program, there are approximately 40,000 non-governmental organizations in the world in addition to the community-based organizations which number in the hundreds of thousands.

NGO Status at the United Nations

The basis for the consultative relationship between the U.N. and NGOs is the original Charter of the United Nations. Article 71 says that the Economic and Social Council “may make suitable arrangements for consultation with non-governmental organizations which are concerned with matters within its competence.” NGOs contribute to the work of the U.N. by providing technical analysis and expertise, and their relationship with offices and agencies of the U.N. system differs depending on their goals. This relationship is the principal means through which ECOSOC receives input from NGOs into its deliberations at public meetings as well as in U.N. international conferences and their preparatory meetings. NGOs can give their opinions on social and economic matters, but they do not have a role in the powerful political organs, the General Assembly and Security Council.

ECOSOC resolutions make provisions for NGOs to be placed in consultative status with ECOSOC, which has standardized the application procedure and eligibility requirements for NGOs applying for status. “General status” is granted to large, international NGOs that work on almost all the issues relevant to ECOSOC; “special consultative status” is granted to NGOs that have competence in a few of ECOSOC’s issues; while “roster status” is granted to NGOs which ECOSOC considers can make an occasional useful contribution to its work. In 1946, 41 NGOs held consultative status with ECOSOC; today that number is over 2,800. (View a complete list of NGOs with consultative status.)

Below ECOSOC status there is “association” with the Department of Public Information (DPI), which does not allow participation, but does permit access to the U.N. And finally, there is accreditation to conferences and other one-time events, which can permit considerable participation and lobbying in informal sessions, but does not allow a continuing relationship with the U.N. At the international conferences, NGOs may hold their own “parallel” conferences called the NGO Forums. These forums feature speakers, booths and hundreds of workshops.

APA at the United Nations

The American Psychological Association (APA) was granted special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 2000. NGOs with consultative status have certain privileges to place items on the ECOSOC agenda, and they may also attend UN meetings, regional NGO conferences and international congresses where they may submit written statements and make oral presentations to governments. In practical terms, this allows NGOs with consultative status to share in the follow-up and implementation of major international conferences, network with other NGOs, and ensure that their goals and concerns are brought before the international community.

In addition to ECOSOC, APA is associated with the U.N. Department of Public Information and with the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF). APA is also a member of the Conference of NGOs in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations (CONGO), which helps facilitate dialogue and cooperation between the UN and NGOs. CONGO provides a forum for NGOs with common interests to come together to study, plan, support and act in relation to the principles and programs of the UN. A number of NGO committees and caucuses have been established under the auspices of CONGO, including committees on mental health, aging, disarmament, human rights, status of women, youth, population, and freedom of religion and belief.

An NGO in consultative status with ECOSOC is obligated to uphold principles it agreed to follow when it was granted status. NGOs must submit a quadrennial report and demonstrate that it has made a positive or effective contribution to the work of the UN, ECOSOC or its subsidiary bodies within the past three years. Failure to do so can result in suspension or revocation of an NGO’s consultative status. APA’s consultative status was renewed in 2004 and in 2008.