Today the UN and NGOs are so intertwined that most people think that some NGOs make up a part of the UN system; however, this is not the case.

According to the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), the NGO Branch of the UN Department, the number of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in a consultative status with the United Nations (UN) has currently reached 4,665 while the total number of NGOs worldwide increased to 28,998.

The history of NGOs goes back to the early part of the 19th century, far before the idea of creating the UN (Alger, 2014, 129). Upon the founding of the UN in 1945, many of the NGOs were present at the 1945 San Francisco Conference and they did their best to provide an opportunity for civil society to have a voice among the sovereign states. Considering the global perception after WWII, the drafting of the first seven words of the UN Charter, “We the peoples of the United Nations…” (Alger, 2014, 129) was deemed a success story for NGOs. However, even more important was the inclusion of Article 71, which states that: “The Economic and Social Council may make suitable arrangements for consultation with non-governmental organizations… Such arrangements may be made with international organizations and, where appropriate, with national organizations after consultation with the Member of the United Nations concerned.” (Charter of the United Nations). This has kept the door open for NGOs and paved the way for future steps. Over the years, nine supplements were released and it is highly likely that these changes will continue in the future, in parallel with the developing roles of NGOs and the UN.

The Growing Role of NGOs and the UN.      

Although several NGOs were invited and became part of the creation of the UN in San Francisco in 1945, the following years were a bit of disappointment for the NGO community. According to Alger (2014, 130), some large organizations “such as the Rotary, the International Conference of Free Trade Unions, and the International Chamber of Commerce” were the only NGOs which had representatives to monitor UN activities in the UN Headquarters.

In regards to the UN itself, it originally consisted of 51 members at its establishment in 1945. The first enlargement came with the decolonization of the African countries during the 1960s, which dramatically increased the number of UN member states to 130, increasing the burden on UN due to newcomers’ major problems.

The newly independent African countries, shifted the agenda to economic development with the efforts of John F. Kennedy, causing1960s to be labelled as the “UN Development Decade” (UNA-UK, 2015). In 1970 the UN agreed on a 0.7 % allocation of the GDP from rich countries in order to raise a fund for development assistance (UNA-UK, 2015).

While economic growth was central to the development decade, it was part of a broader agenda of transformation. The “World Food Programme” was created in 1961, the “Research Institute for Social Development” in 1963, the “Conference on Trade and Development” in 1964 and the “Industrial Development Organization” in 1966 (UNA-UK, 2015).

While the UN’s role was growing in 1960s, the activities and number of the NGOs engaged remained limited during the Cold War era due to the tension of bipolar structure of the world between the United States and Russia. The “Conference series”, beginning with the Environment Conference in Stockholm in 1972, the Women’s Conference in Mexico City in 1975 and ending with the Rio Environment and Development Conference in 1992, provided a greater opportunity for NGOs to become more active (Alger, 2014, 130). NGOs were involved in both the preparation and the implementation processes of the conferences. Several policies related to the NGOs’ role within the UN were approved during these conferences (Lewis, 2010, 1059; Alger, 2014, 130). The 1990s could be labeled the “turning point” for relations between NGOs and the UN (Martens, 2005, 9). As a result of this, UN-NGO relations gained a momentum and a review process began.

Like in the 1960s, there was also a spike in the numbers of new countries joining the UN in 1990s. The dissolution of the Soviet Union (USSR) and Yugoslavia resulted in more independent states which subsequently joined the UN, increasing the total number of members to around 190. However, these major changes in the world also created many unresolved problems and unstable regions across the globe. An increasing number of civil wars forced the UN to review its Cold War policy which was designed to prevent interstate wars. After the 1990s, peacekeeping and humanitarian intervention constituted a large portion of UN efforts (Mingst and Karns, 2012, 98). The diversification of UN priorities and the growing presence of NGOs worldwide directed the UN to seek more cooperation with NGOs.

When the UN decided to change the nature of peacekeeping operations from a more stationary approach to an active role by “carry[ing] out civilian, military and political tasks” (Stahn, 2001, 380), NGOs became inseparable part of these operations and played a significant role in the assistance delivery and humanitarian aid. For example, in 1996 national-level NGOs were given the right to access UN bodies which enabled them to consult with the UN Secretariat as well as attend UN meetings. In 1997, NGOs gained limited access to Security Council meetings (Mingst and Karns, 2012, 90).

Although NGOs were given several rights within specific UN bodies, there was still a reluctance and diverse opinions among the member states as well as the UN bodies themselves. However, NGOs have found different ways to influence the UN actions such as using their informal links or “by mobilizing the local community leaders and groups” (Mingst and Karns, 2012, 91). UN specialized agencies and programs in which NGOs have long enjoyed participation include the International Labour Organization (ILO), United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the World Bank. In some cases, these UN specialized agencies have hired NGOs as contractors rather just mutually beneficial cooperation (Mingst and Karns, 2012, 91).

Today international NGOs have reached enormous sizes and became major actors in the international arena. They have offices worldwide with significant budgets and their staff numbers have increased to huge numbers. Some of them have an annual budget greater than the UN agencies and even bigger than most of the smaller African countries (Morton, 2013, 334, 341).

In 2015, in order to celebrate its’ 70th year of existence, the UN released 70 sub-areas of activities under the eight already-established areas “peace and security, economic development, social development, human rights, environment, international law, humanitarian affairs and health” (UN, 2015). Some of the goals of these sub-areas include the following: “Providing food to 90 million people, vaccinating 58 per cent of the world’s children, assisting over 38.7 million refugees, working with 193 countries to combat climate change, keeping peace with over 125,000 peacekeepers, and mobilising $22 billion in humanitarian aid” (UN, 2015) and many more. These far-reaching goals consequentially could not all be met sufficiently without the help of NGOs who have gained in influence, presence and role over the years.

What benefit(s) do these organisations provide the UN and the international community?

The UN is a heavily bureaucratic large body which works according to the principle of sovereign equality of its member states, with the exception of permanent five, who enjoy the veto power in Security Council. It is very difficult for this kind of bureaucratic organisations to be agile and impartial, especially when the interests of the member states conflict and the economic constraints force it to be more selective. To keep the decision making mechanism working, in some cases, even accelerate it, the UN needs external help. Herein, NGOs play a significant role as it is mutually-beneficial in order to accomplish their entities’ goals. This mutual cooperation, provides the UN with the necessary know-how, resources, and legitimization, which it lacks in the international arena (Martens, 2005, 9). On the other hand, NGOs link with UN officials and state representatives which allows them to gain credibility and therefore are able to acquire more resources (Martens, 2005, 16).

However, the most significant and important problem the UN faces, in my opinion, is international legitimization when trying to reaching civil society. The UN is still perceived as the backyard of the super-powers or the Security Council permanent members by most of the African and Asian countries, especially by those run by authoritarian governments. Therefore, NGOs provide an avenue for the UN to resolve or facilitate this hardship. On this topic, Abiew and Keating (2007, 94) wrote that;

…[G]overnments or warring factions are more likely to welcome [NGOs’] input than other institutional actors, and for a good reason. …particularly in difficult internal situations, governments are often unwilling to accept intergovernmental involvement, be it by the United Nations, regional organisations, or other states, because of the legitimacy it may seem to bestow on insurgents or opposition groups. NGOs…may instead have unique possibilities to gain access and try to diffuse conflict.

Another area in which NGOs play an important role in their relations with the UN is the sharing of professional expertise and information, especially beginning with the international conferences of the 1990’s. NGOs have been sharing expertise and information mainly in three ways: “policy initiating activities, policy developing processes and policy implementing practices” (Martens, 2005, 45).

“Policy initiating activities” aim to affect the political debate in the UN (Martens, 2005, 46). NGOs usually initiate a discussion in parallel with their area of interest and objectives in order to shape the political process in the UN level. While doing this they shape the environment by providing information via official channels, such as annual sessions, meetings or by contacts with officials directly (Martens, 2005, 46). However, this is not one way communication because the UN officials also use these contributions while preparing their official reports. Most of the time, NGOs’ reports provide background information and reduce the preparation time and the cost of the information collection process (Martens, 2005, 45-49). Specifically, NGOs working in the area of human rights contribute to the UN by preparing reports on human rights violations worldwide.

“Policy developing process” is another area where NGOs have played an important role for decades. NGOs usually participate in the process as advisors or as direct contributors to the policy. Sometimes, NGOs are also asked to propose their own work or take part in the official drafting process (Martens, 2005, 49). NGOs provide a great variety of expertise and technical assistance in areas, in which the UN is lacking, especially related to human rights issues. Realising the importance of this issue, the UN established the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR) and NGO Working Group on the Security Council (WGSC), in order to discuss and exchange views with NGOs more efficiently (Martens, 2005, 50, 51). As it is a win-win situation, some NGOs have been hiring ex-UN officials or ex-presidents / prime ministers to gain credibility and to use them as a leverage. Another benefit that the UN enjoys in this area is the complementary role of NGOs during the terms when the UN official posts are changing due to the assignments of new representatives (Martens, 2005, 50-52).

Before explaining the role of NGOs in implementation practices, it is important to mention their monitoring and early warning role. NGOs usually serve as a “watchdog function of the international community”, (Stahn, 2001, 383) which often remind authorities of their responsibilities. NGOs also carry out horizon scanning and early warning role for any possible future crises and keep the international community alert to unforeseeable risks (Stahn, 2001, 386).

The UN and NGOs usually come together in the field for the “policy implementation practices”.  During the implementation process of the projects, especially in humanitarian relief operations, the UN and NGOs collaborate as partners in order to share the heavy work load (Martens, 2005, 53). NGOs assume the responsibility of various tasks, both during the conflict resolution period and post-conflict reconstruction efforts. The UN benefits from this partnership as NGOs provide highly motivated personnel with the specific knowledge of local necessities, act more flexible than UN bodies due to fewer restrictions from local authorities and, maybe most importantly, in saving the UN’s already limited resources by using their own means of delivery (Stahn, 2001, 388). Sometimes, the UN goes a step further and hires NGOs as a sub-contractor during field work (Martens, 2005, 53-55).

Molly A. Ruhlman, (2015, 99) in her book, touches upon another important aspect of the UN-NGO cooperation specific to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) case by emphasising the advertisement: “…the power of NGOs to publicize the work of the organisation and raise funds; and …the ability of volunteer societies to be avid mission partners on the ground”.

What lessons have been learned from their participation in the UN and their efforts?

After the 1990s, an increasing number of the NGOs and their participation in the UN, led procedures which created a positive outlook regarding NGOs among the international community. NGOs were more successful in areas which the UN lacks the ability to reach. NGO successes were undeniable, but they were not “a straightforward ‘‘magic bullet’’ that would solve longstanding development problems” (Lewis, 2010, 1060).

Maintaining close cooperation between UN bodies, member states and NGOs may be the most important lesson that was learned. Although it was founded with the aim of protecting the civilians, the UN maintained its state-centric structure with skepticism towards NGOs during the years following its foundation. However, increasing pressure by civil society forced the UN to integrate NGOs as “the voice of People” into its body. Today, NGOs are labeled as the “Third UN” and function like a related body to the UN.

The impartiality and legitimacy of the UN has always been questioned by third parties. Since the UN assumes its’ legitimacy from its member states, its’ legitimacy also becomes an obstacle in implementing its’ policies. In his article, Lewis (2010, 1060) states that the UN is aware that by associating less with governmental programs, it has become an avenue “for people to participate in development and social change in ways that would not be possible through government programmes”.

Peacekeeping operations and development programmes are the areas in which the UN learned substantially from its cooperation with the NGOs. Coordination is the main problem in the field where several actors who come from different areas of work, such as the military, politics, or humanitarian relief try to perform overlapping mandates (Stahn, 2001, 389). In line with the experiences from Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda and others, the UN began acting as a coordination body rather than a participant. However, as it is difficult to force independent NGOs to work together, Stahn (2001, 391) proposes that NGOs could offer governmental funding as a precondition of coordination.

Coordination and information sharing in the field is utmost importance especially when the military is conducting an operation in parallel with the humanitarian efforts. Experiences from Somalia and Rwanda show that sometimes efforts to help people may serve the warring parties of the conflict and make the situation harder for the UN forces. For example, roads constructed by NGOs for humanitarian aid had the consequential effect of facilitating the movements of militia groups in the area (Stahn, 2001, 391). Additionally, NGOs who didn’t want to be seen with UN forces, hired local militia to provide security for them and financed the warring parties indirectly. In these kinds of operations, civil-military coordination centers emerge as a necessity (Stahn, 2001, 394). These examples also reveal that “NGO operations sometimes cause unintended consequences which might have been avoided. … [H]umanitarian aid in civil wars may prolong the war, even as it saves lives. …[A]lthough NGOs do not generate conflicts, they sometimes contribute to and reinforce violent conflicts.”(Abiew Keating, 2007, 103).

To provide the precise balance of association with the numbers of international and local NGOs is also a challenge for the UN. Domination of well-funded international NGOs often has a negative impact on the development of the local market and the civil society (Stahn, 2001, 401). When NGOs hire large numbers of locals with good wages, people usually tend to be willing of continuation of the situation. However, this has the effect of preventing the restoration of the local economy (Stahn, 2001, 401). Lewis writes that this results in “the creation of a franchise state’’ like in Bangladesh, for example, when the foreign-funded NGOs were given the responsibility of the key public services (Lewis, 2010, 1059).

Switching to Education, Inger Ulleberg, (2009, 12-13) in her report for UNESCO focused on the NGOs’ roles in education. In this area, NGOs normally fill the gaps where governments are unable to provide necessary capacity. Gap filling usually works during the presence of an NGO and only has impacts on individuals rather than the system itself. According to Ulleberg (2009, 12-13) “many such projects have proved to be short-lived and some NGOs have chosen to undertake new activities that can be described as capacity development in their focus on sustainability”.

Although this paper has attempted to dissect the many facets of the UN’s role in the world as well as its developing relationship with NGOs, many complexities remain and are ever changing due to global dynamics. Throughout history, there were not only the success stories but also the failures as a consequence of the unpredictable nature of the operation environment. However, by studying the failures, these bodies can learn lessons which will make both the UN and NGOs stronger in the future.

Should NGO’s continue to have a significant role at the UN?

Rana Lehr-Lehnardt asks in her paper “whether the world would be a better place without NGOs”. Her answer is mostly “no”. She mentions that when comparing the benefits of NGOs with the costs, benefits still outweigh the costs and therefore, NGOs still play a vital role with their imperfections able to be fixed (Lehr-Lehnardt, 2005, 46). When looking at issues such as humanitarian aid, natural disasters, diminishing resources, and warring between populations we see that NGO expertise in these subject-areas will be a necessity for years to come.

NGOs are aiming to make this world a better place to live. Current developments across the globe show that the world still has many issues and dangers that are negatively affecting large populations. This has led many to question the legitimacy of the UN. Every new crisis which exacerbates the already-heavy burden of the UN. The UN alone is not a sufficient actor anymore. One recent example is the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. Here, the UN found no way out to provide enough humanitarian aid to the people in need since the donor states did not pay their commitments. The UN solved the problem by launching an internet campaign to raise the needed funds.

Today, the impacts of the natural disasters are much more devastating due to climate change. Tsunamis in Japan and in Indonesia, earthquakes in Pakistan and Turkey, floods in China had enormous impacts on those countries and future natural disasters will most likely be more destructive. To limit destruction and deaths, humanitarian relief NGOs will be on the forefront.

Another major factor for why NGOs will still play a vital role is the world population, which is increasing exponentially, while natural resources are diminishing. Nation states are looking for new ways to feed their population and scarcity of water and food will likely cause new conflicts. Therefore, NGOs having expertise on conflict prevention will be an essential necessity for the UN.

Increasing number of conflicts are threatening the world peace and stability. Today regional crises create international impact, such as refugee crises emanating from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq having a worldwide effect. Millions of people, looking for a better way of life are moving in the world irregularly which pose a threat to the world’s security. NGOs may propose better ideas to deal with the refugee problem as the international organizations are desperate and have no solution until now.

Another shift in the world which could affect many is the increasing trend of nationalism. Nationalist leaders are winning elections and their racist discourses are posing a threat to democracies. The Turkish democracy is the latest victim of increasing nationalism and radicalism in the country. People are in need of advocacy NGOs as rule of law and freedom of speech have disappeared. Journalists, elites, academics and many more were jailed for nothing more than having opposing views from the ruling regime.

Twelve years have passed since Lehnardt wrote her paper and there is major change in the situation, it has become worse. In analyzing the problems that persist across the world such as starvation, refugees, disease prevention, human right abuses to name a few, I believe that NGOs should continue to have a significant role and partnership with the UN. In many cases, we have seen success stories which were mutually- beneficial to both the UN and NGOs. With today’s ever-changing problems, it seems that NGOs are continuously being formed with specific expertise can tackle global challenges.

Are there particular NGO’s leading the way with respect to their efforts and effectiveness at the UN?

There has been a well-known geographical separation of north and south among the NGO community. NGOs from developed countries in the northern hemisphere have had greater influence in the UN and in the world compared to NGOs from less-developed countries in the southern hemisphere (Murazzani, 2009, 504). One reason for this is NGOs from the north are deep-rooted old organizations which have long-standing relations with the UN since its establishment in 1945 (Murazzani, 2009, 504).

Bill Morton (2013, 325) in his article highlights the names of eight of these northern-based international NGOs which include “World Vision International, Oxfam International, Save the Children International, Plan International, Médecins Sans Frontières, CARE International, CARITAS International and ActionAid International”. These eight are prominent in their work and had a “combined revenue of more than US$11.7 billion in 2011” (Morton, 2013, 325).

They differentiate from other NGOs in terms of their globally widespread structure, reach, size, budget and their perceived legitimacy (Morton, 2013, 326). Apart from their main office, they all have worldwide autonomous offices in order to reach the crisis areas more easily and work as a part of larger NGO consortium (Morton, 2013, 326). They have a more professional and larger organization capacities, which enable them to allocate personnel to specific areas. They have the ability to cooperate with private sector and academia. Lastly, they have been proven to be legitimate and trustworthy for donors considering their background and achievements (Morton, 2013, 329). Examples below demonstrate us how these NGOs have enhanced over the years.

World Vision International, founded in U.S.A. in 1950 and became international in 1977, is one of the biggest global relief, development and advocacy organizations. According to its 2015 annual review, it controls a budget of $2.730 billion. This organization has reached people in need in more than 100 countries with more than 44,000 staff (World Vision International Annual Report 2015).

Another major NGO player is Oxfam International which continues its mission together with 17 Oxfam organization in more than 90 countries. Oxfam has more than 10,000 staff and nearly 50,000 volunteers across the world. It controls a budget of €1,049.6 million, approximately $1.300 billion (Oxfam Annual Report 2014-2015).

One distinct NGO is Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières-MSF) which differentiates itself from others as it works on a specific area. MSF is a medical humanitarian organization delivering emergency aid to people who are affected by conflicts, disasters and epidemics. It spent $ 1.362 billion (82% for social missions) of its $1.533 million total income in 2015 (MSF Financial Report 2015).


Since its creation, the United Nations has evolved with the challenges over the years. Whether during its creation directly after World War II, or the transition during the Cold War Era, or the addition of many more members with the dissolution of the USSR and Yugoslavia, the United Nations has always had a significant role in facing global challenges. The United Nations has always adapted through its history and further engagement with NGOs has proven to be mutually beneficial. For this reason, I see NGOs to remain active and engaging the United Nations in trying to limit the outbreak or manage crises as well as be frontrunners for peace and conflict resolution. The UN and NGOs will continue to use the methods throughout this paper, mainly regarding cooperating and information sharing as well as peacekeeping operations in order to ensure that they are successful when it comes to taking on today’s challenges.




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