The original intention in founding the United Nations was for it to be exclusively a voluntary organization of sovereign states in which they agreed to work together and cooperate for the good of all. In its charter we read, “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind….,” clearly setting forth its original vision and purpose.
But, from its beginnings, the understanding was already forming that governments alone could not achieve the lofty goals of a safer, more peaceful and prosperous world. So, in Article 71 of the Charter of the United Nations we find a point of entry offered to ‘civil society’ – those who are not governments, but who have an interest in the future harmony of the world. In fact the term Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) was invented by the United Nations. This provision marked a major departure from the structure of its predeessor (the League of Nations) that failed to provide a hearing to ourside affiliates. Article 71 led to the ongoing collaborative relationship between the UN and the NGOs that endures to this day.
What I observed, from my internship at the UN this year, suggest that a love/hate relationship exists between the member states and the NGOs. The UN, and many of the member states, recognize they need the NGOs in order to fulfill the implementation of mandates such as the Mellinneum Development Goals (MDGs). So much is this the case that while I was there I attended a 2 day hearing in the General Assembly hall where the NGOs were given the opportunity to address the UN on how they observed the Nation States achieving, or failing to achieve, the MDGs. Yet, it was interesting to note that of the 192 countries that make up the member states, only 27 were represented at these hearings.
The other side of the equation is this: Member States, like Australia, send financial support to developing counties. Australia, through AusAID, sends financial support to Papua New Guinea (PNG), but rather than give the money to the government of PNG, they give it to the Community of Christian Churches to provide basic social services. This is because the level of corruption in the government is such that the best guarantee of getting the money to the people who need it is to give it to an NGO. Australia is not unique in this respect. The UN more and more recognizes that it needs to rely on the NGOs to get aid to those in need. Yet the member states, while they recognize this important partnership with the NGOs, are not enamoured of it because the NGOs keep them honest and point out their corruption and exploitative practices that violate human rights.
Officially the nature of the consultative relationship between the UN and the NGOs is meant to be reciprocal. NGOs are granted the privilege of participating in a wide variety of UN-sponsored meetings and activities. In return, they are expected to contribute, each in their own way, to support the Economic and Social developmental aims of the UN. The UN department by which NGOs are connected to the UN is ECOSOC – The Economic and Social Council.
When we, the Passionist Congregation, made our application to be recognized as an NGO within the UN framework, we were asked what contribution we would expect to make to the goals of the United Nations if granted consultative status. So the relationship is understood in terms of a partnership with the member States of the UN for global development.
A religious congregation such as ours brings a certain richness to the wider NGO community and to the UN system because of the expertise that its members have developed over hundreds of years. This expertise grows out of living in situations of diversity with the skills that this calls for; it comes from a familiarity with the struggles of people forced to lived in poverty or who experience social exclusion; It comes from long experience with the use of such strategies as social analysis and theological reflection; use of the see/judge/act as a way of discerning and reaching decisions.
As an international community of religious, we Passionists already live a multicultural experience. Because of the countries in which we find ourselves, we are used to working close to people, especially those who are forced to live in poverty.
This knowledge of the real challenges facing people as they struggle with poverty and injustice helps us to be able to understand and articulate some of the root causes of the issues that lie at the core of the UN agenda of development, human rights and peace. This capacity for analysis means that we do not come empty handed to the debate, decision making and formulation of policy in the inter-governmental forum that constitutes the United Nations.
The best way the membership of an NGO, such as ours, can help strengthen their presence and influence at the UN is by raising their profile on the ground. By increasing our efforts for advocacy in the countries where we are present, making governments take notice of us by our work with the poor and disadvantaged as well as lobbying when we observe them act in ways that fall short of respect for human rights, we give a louder voice to our representatives working at the UN headquarters. This raised voice, of course, is not our own. Our task, like that of most NGOs, is to give a voice to the voiceless, including the voiceless environment, so that these are heard in the General Assembly hall and the Member States. This is critical because the Member states, actively operating in a world dominated by the philosophy of the ‘Free Market Economy,’ often see the poor at best as comodities, and at worst as colatoral damage. The poor need us to give them a human face and a human voice that challenges a philosophy that often reduces them to a statistic.