United Nations

Annual UN DPI Conference becoming an important venue for NGO networking

UNITED NATIONS - Despite the disruptions globalization causes, it can potentially provide great benefits to all humanity - and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have a critical role in ensuring that such positive outcomes are reached.

That was one of the main themes voiced by high-level speakers, ranging from Jordan's Queen Noor to former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, at the 52nd annual conference for non-governmental organizations at the United Nations in September, which examined the topic of globalization and its impact - good and bad - on the world.

"The emergence of non-governmental organizations as a major international actor is one of the most important developments of the past half-century," said President Arias, who is now head of an NGO, the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress. "In the new millennium, non-governmental organizations will have to lead the way in the quest to advance … security, democracy and peace."

Bringing together some 1,700 representatives of NGOs from 15-17 September 1999, the conference also offered a glimpse of the ongoing and evolving relationship between civil society and the United Nations.

Held each year by the UN's Department of Public Information (DPI), the conference aims mainly to educate representatives about UN activities and points of view. But it has also become an important place for networking among NGOs themselves.

"More and more NGOs are coming to this conference, which indicates a growing interest in the work of the UN - and it also indicates that more and more NGOs want to meet other NGOs and network," said Helene Hoedl, an information officer for the UN's Department of Public Information.

Ms. Hoedl said preregistration for the conference had risen by roughly one-third in the last three years, from 2245 to more than 3000 (with actual attendance this year at around 1,700). "I believe it is now the largest NGO venue on a regular basis," she said.

In addition to plenary sessions featuring well-known figures in international affairs, the event has for the last three years offered midday workshop sessions sponsored entirely by NGOs. Their topics ranged from the Hague Appeal for Peace to the role of ethics in societal transformation.

These sessions have rapidly grown in popularity, said Carl Murrell, who chaired the conference's Planning Committee this year. "This year, for example, we were contacted by some UN agencies, who wanted to host some of these dialogues," said Mr. Murrell, alternate UN representative of the United States Bahá'í community. "But we said, 'No, we want them for NGOs.' So the word is out about the impact of these workshops, and people really see them as an opportunity for dialogue among NGOs and to build networks."

NGOs and Globalization

The main speakers focused on the new possibilities - and responsibilities - that globalization has given to NGOs.

"Globalization has become the essence of modern life," said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in an opening address. "It must become second nature in our thinking. But as we have seen, this is not an easy task. Many experience globalization not as an agent of progress, but as a disruptive force, almost hurricane-like in its ability to destroy lives, jobs and traditions in the blink of an eye."

Grappling with such force, Mr. Annan said, requires help from NGOs. "Governments need non-governmental partners," he said. "The private sector, as vital and dynamic as it is, cannot by itself give global markets a human face or reach the millions on the margins."

Queen Noor said that while globalization has raised the fortunes of many, it has also left others behind. "It is time to place the human face at the center of the globalization debate and frame comprehensive approaches to the threats to human security posed by marginalization, poverty and human rights abuses," she said. "Globalization holds the potential for unprecedented benefits, but these benefits, to be fully realized, have to be shared equitably."

To do that, she said, will require a new partnership between business, governments and NGOs. "An alliance between governments, NGOs, local firms, and multinational corporations can foster cooperation in the developmental process and promote human welfare everywhere."

UN Development Programme (UNDP) administrator Mark Malloch Brown said that globalization is causing a dramatic power shift in the international system. "It is not a straightforward shift, from the strong to the weak," said Mr. Brown. "It is more between different kinds of institutions, from public to private, from profit to non-profit, from nation states to other organizations of people, to NGOs, to community organizations, to global organizations of people."

"The way we exercise power is also shifting, too, not just from the old fashioned national security regime, with things like missile throw-weights, but also from formal assemblies of people and organizations such as the United Nations, to informal associations of people, through modern technology and tools such as the internet," Mr. Brown said.