UNRISD Research and Policy Brief 6: UN World Summits and Civil Society Engagement


UN summits and related processes can have highly positive - but not always sustainable - impacts on civil society structure, networking and advocacy in countries that have hosted such events, according to UNRISD research. While the United Nations (UN) remains an intergovernmental organization, an increase in the number of influential civil society actors has placed new pressures on the organization to accommodate popular voices and further enhance collaboration. The link with civil society actors has been growing since the early 1990s in particular, in the context of UN summits and conferences, and related processes. Civil society organizations (CSOs) have amplified their demands on the UN with regard to information, access and participation in these global events. And the UN has recognized the importance of accommodating the demands of CSOs for a greater voice and role in development processes.

UN summits and the resulting action plans offer opportunities for CSOs to lobby delegates and the media in support of their ideas and projects, and to adapt a summit theme as an integral part of their own work. There is also scope for civil society actors to advance proposals, and to help implement and monitor summit agendas.

But what do such opportunities for civil society engagement really mean? Given that CSOs tend to differ in their perceptions of and approaches to international institutions - depending, for example, on ideologies, philosophies or strategies adopted to bring about social transformation - what have been the effects on the structure of civil society at the national level? While many CSOs seem to have chosen to take such opportunities to work within the system for change by directly participating, other more radical groups refuse engagement. Yet even they may find the UN summits a useful platform for advocating their points of view before a wide audience.

Briefing available in english, french and spanish.


United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, Geneva, Switzerland, ISSN 1811-0142, 6 pp.

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