United Nations

After months of preliminaries, work begins on a "Millennium NGO Forum"

In Brief: 

The plan seeks to combine and consolidate a wide range of proposals for an end-of-the-millennium gathering of civil society and accompanying calls for the creation of an ongoing international “people’s assembly” at the United Nations.

To be held in conjunction with the United Nations scheduled “Millennium Summit” in the year 2000, the proposed gathering would seek to lobby world leaders and highlight the importance of world civil society.

UNITED NATIONS - After many months of talk, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are moving ahead with a bold plan to hold an "Millennium NGO Forum" in the year 2000 that would seek to highlight the importance of world civil society in solving major global problems in the 21st century.

If the plan wins the kind of support its organizers hope for, it could lead to a large and diverse gathering of thousands of NGOs from all over the world. The meeting will correlate with the United Nations "Millennium Assembly" summit meeting scheduled for September 2000 at UN headquarters and is likely also to be held in New York. Its overall goal would be to consolidate the work of various NGO forums at UN conferences in the 1990s and lay the groundwork for even greater NGO activity and partnership with the UN in the coming decades.

The plan, put forward in outline form at an NGO meeting held at the UN on 15 July 1998, emerged after many meetings and consultations involving a cross-section of NGOs interested in the idea. While many of these were ad hoc, with NGOs and NGO networks from many sectors contributing ideas, the formal planning process took place under the leadership of the Task Force on UN Reform of the Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Status with ECOSOC (CONGO).

At the end of the 15 July meeting, which was attended by more than 100 NGO representatives, an interim steering committee was appointed by consensus. The committee will seek further to define the plan and make a concrete recommendation for the formal election of an executive committee to carry it out. Then, in a meeting that has been tentatively scheduled for 1-2 December 1998 at the UN in New York, the recommendations will be openly consulted on by a diverse group of NGOs, gathered from as wide a base as possible, and the executive committee will be elected.

The proposal for a Millennium NGO Forum comes partly in response to the call last year by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan for the holding of a "people's millennium assembly" as a companion event to his proposed "millennium assembly" for UN member states in September 2000. In a resolution last year, the UN General Assembly agreed to the concept of having a "millennium assembly" in conjunction with its regular meeting in September 2000, and to include a summit segment, called the "millennium summit." The idea of a parallel NGO assembly, however, has not yet been formally addressed by UN member states.

At the same time, the plan seeks to combine and consolidate a wide range of proposals for some sort of end-of-the-millennium gathering of civil society and accompanying calls for the creation of an ongoing international "people's assembly" at the United Nations.

Indeed, one of the key aspects of the work undertaken by the CONGO Task Force on UN Reform was the degree to which it was able to obtain support for a single culminating event from the various non-governmental groups and interested individuals who were putting forward various ideas and proposals of their own.

"We're hoping now that this will be it, a basis for unity of all of our efforts," said Harry Lerner, director of the Campaign for a More Democratic United Nations (CAMDUN), one of a number of NGOs that had already been working to organize some sort of millennium people's assembly.

CAMDUN, said Dr. Lerner, had worked closely with others since the Earth Summit + Five meeting at the United Nations in New York in June 1997 to create an "earth action coalition." It won the support of some 1,600 NGOs in 130 countries, he said, and this network evolved into something called the Millennium People's Assembly Network, which has now given its support to the Millennium NGO Forum plan unveiled on 15 July.

Other groups around the world that are seeking similar goals have likewise given tacit support to the Millennium NGO Forum proposal. A group of NGOs working in Geneva and Canada, for example, is planning to hold a "World Civil Society Conference" in Montreal in December 1999, while a coalition of Korean-based NGOs has scheduled a major conference on "The Role of NGOs in the 21st Century" in Seoul, Korea, in October 1999, said Angus Archer, head of a United Nations Association-Canada project entitled "Civil Society and the United Nations."

Now, according to Mr. Archer, both of these gatherings are likely to become "preparatory" conferences for the culminating Millennium NGO Forum as proposed on 15 July. Given all of the various discussions worldwide about NGOs, civil society and the importance of their participation, coupled with the general interest in the millennium, a Millennium NGO Forum at the UN that ties all of these themes together "could be very big," said Mr. Archer.

A departure from the past

The plan put forth by the CONGO Task Force in July suggests that NGOs should consider holding a major meeting two or three months in advance of the UN Millennium Summit in September in order to prepare a "consolidated report" of NGOs on the state of the world and the opinions of civil society for presentation to the governments at the Millennium Summit.

Such a procedure would be something of a departure from past NGO forums at UN world conferences where NGOs have met simultaneously and in parallel with governments. In such instances, final, unified NGO proposals for action emerged at the end of the process, often just as government representatives were going home.

Under this proposal, "issues can be thrashed out in advance so that when the UN Secretary General gives his consideration to a report to the governments in mid-summer, he will already have our input," said Techeste Ahderom, who chairs the CONGO Task Force on UN Reform, at the July meeting. "When the heads of state and government meet in September 2000, we will lobby them" with a representative statement of NGO concerns from around the world.

Other aspects of the July proposal call for a series of regional meetings of NGOs before the year 2000. As noted, many NGO gatherings with similar goals are already being organized on an ad hoc basis, and the proposal would seek to bring together the results of these various consultations. The plan also urges local NGOs to hold other gatherings at the local level on millennium issues. The results of such local consultations would be transmitted up through the national and regional level meetings and, finally, to the culminating Millennium NGO Forum.

A Slow Birth

In part because of the great diversity of interests of NGOs, disagreements about how global issues should be approached, and the lack of any formal mechanism for NGOs to collaborate and coordinate their efforts, it took considerable time for the Millennium NGO Forum proposal to solidify. While a number of groups and individuals had proposed a wide range of plans and proposals, none had managed until the 15 July meeting to achieve any sort of consensus among NGOs, and especially among the core group of active NGOs at the UN.

Into the breach stepped CONGO, one of the oldest and perhaps the best organized formal grouping of NGOs. Founded in 1948, CONGO is composed of roughly 300 international NGOs and NGO confederations that have been recognized by the UN and granted the right to enter into consultations with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Through its Task Force on UN Reform, it began to reach out to other NGOs with a series of meetings in early 1998.

By many accounts, Mr. Ahderom, who is the main representative of the Bahá'í International Community to the UN, played a key role in drawing into the planning process other groups of NGOs, from those groups that have been accorded recognition by the UN's Department of Public Information (DPI), known as DPI-NGOs, to the ad hoc coalitions, such as the Millennium People's Assembly Network, that have been interested in such a convocation.

"The way it is now evolving, where there are multiple goals and a number of groups that are going to try and integrate and interlink their common goals into a millennium NGO forum, is the right route," said William Pace, director of the World Federalist Movement, who has been following the process closely. "Techeste was able, I think, to help integrate a number of different initiatives that normally would have competed and probably cancelled each other out."

According to Mr. Pace and others, the next major hurdle in the process of organizing an all-encompassing Millennium NGO Forum will be to ensure the inclusion of a wide range of NGO representatives from well outside the usual circle of UN-oriented NGOs, especially from Southern countries, as well as groups whose focus has been on specific issue areas, such as NGOs focusing on the issues of women or environment.

"In the past, some of the organizing committees for NGO forums have not been effective," said Anita Nayar, the associate director of the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), which has been one of the most active and effective NGOs at recent UN world conferences. "They haven't really created a process that is flexible and open, particularly for Southern participation."

The plan seeks to ensure inclusive participation by having the interim steering committee create a "Planning Consultative Council" by "nominating" representatives from as wide a range of respected and active NGO groups and networks as possible. This Council would "elect" a much smaller "Millennium NGO Forum Executive Committee," which would be charged with actually organizing the Forum.

Members of the interim steering committee, as elected on 15 July, are: Mr. Ahderom; CONGO President Afaf Mahfouz; DPI-NGO Executive Committee Chairperson Elaine Valdov; Robert Wheeler of the Millennium People's Assembly Network; and Esmeralda Brown and Felix Dodds, co-chairs of the Commission on Sustainable Development NGO Steering Committee.