A digital bridge to civil society (UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz)

A digital bridge to civil society

“Our times demand (…) a new constellation of international cooperation – governments, civil society and the private sector, working together for a collective global good”. In line with this statement of the UN Secretary-General, DESA and its UN partners continue to enhance their services to civil society and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) across the globe.

Civil society and non-governmental organizations play a vital role as partners to the UN in implementing development goals and assisting people at the local level in countries all over the world. They are also important collaborators and contributors to major UN Conferences and summits. This was last seen in June at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, when some 17,000 representatives registered to participate in the conference.

The relationship between DESA, civil society organizations (CSOs) and NGOs is not a new one. It dates back to the late 1940s, when the UN had 41 organizations in consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). This number has increased considerably over the years and the department’s NGO Branch, which is part of DESA’s Office for ECOSOC Support and Coordination, is now serving some 3,500 organizations around the world in consultative status with ECOSOC.

The NGO Branch provides organizations with information about events and opportunities to collaborate with the UN and it also handles intergovernmental support, servicing the Committee on NGOs, as well as conference registration through the web platform CSONet.org.

“Engaging with the UN system is now less complicated thanks to CSONet. Amidst diverse demands, timely and accurate information gets things done,” says Joseph Cornelius Donnelly, Head of the International Delegation to the UN, CARITAS Internationalis. “We are at UN Headquarters to bring the living voices of those we serve to Member States and UN colleagues. Effective advocacy is strengthened by this tool. Every voice counts! It’s imperative to know clearly where, when, what and how to speak, meet, consult at the UN,” explains Mr. Donnelly.

“We offer a central platform, giving NGOs and civil society the necessary information to be able to connect with the UN, the international development community and other relevant stakeholders,” says Andrei Abramov, Chief of the NGO Branch. “We also have a response system,“ Mr. Abramov explains, “if an organization has an inquiry, it is our goal to respond within 48 hours”.

Mr. Abramov also highlights the online newsletter, reaching 6,000 subscribing organizations every month with relevant information updates. The related Twitter account has some 1,500 followers, many of them civil society professionals with a key interest in the daily meetings at UN Headquarters.

New tools to serve important relationship

It is not only the number of organizations that have changed over the years. With the creation in 2008 of its integrated Civil Society Organizations (iCSO) System, DESA and other UN agencies have considerably developed its services towards civil society. Developed by DESA, this interactive database has been designed to share knowledge with up-to-date information and to provide a powerful communication tool facilitating interaction between CSOs and the UN.

Through the iCSO system, organizations register their information and also access information about other organizations and their projects. They can also sign up for ground passes to access the UN compounds in New York, Geneva and Vienna and the system also allows the organizations with an ECOSOC consultative status to submit their quadrennial reports.

Database represents NGOs from 180 countries

In the beginning of 2009, when the online database had just been launched, there were 12,000 organizations listed. Since then, 14,000 organizations have gone online and registered to participate in the database, making the current number of organizations totaling more than 26,000 from 180 countries. With 6,344 registrations, Africa is the continent with most organizations represented, followed by Asia with 4,438 NGOs listed. The majority of organizations are active within the economic and social fields, followed by sustainable development.

The Branch has a long history of using technology for facilitating NGO access to the UN. In 2002, it launched the Paperless Committee system, the first web-based portal to be used by Member States in official UN events. The initiative earned the Branch a UN 21 Award in 2008. It allows the Committee to review hundreds of applications of reports by NGOs annually. A “2.0” version was introduced last year.

Over the past three years, the event registration system has been further developed and a growing number of UN offices are using it to facilitate the collaboration with civil society and NGOs. As the documentation is now available online, it has also resulted in a paperless work process, in line with the UN’s “PaperSmart” initiative.

Another benefit with this system is that it makes conference preparations easier. “Prior to major conferences like Rio+20, we know how many people to expect and what to prepare for,” explains Andrei Abramov. In 2011, approximately 15,000 representatives registered for some 20 UN events in New York, Geneva and Bonn. The figure for 2012 will be much higher, with over 10,000 participants taking part in Rio+20 alone.

Serving grass root organizations in Africa

In Africa, thanks to an increasing availability of internet access, developing a tool that allows NGOs to register online via a website has become more and more relevant. In the past, the NGO database was in fact just a static directory with irregular updates. The accuracy of the data was a real issue. Having linked its database (2,044 NGOs) to the platform developed by DESA, the Office of the Special Adviser on Africa (OSAA), expects that a growing number of NGOs will register on-line and update their details.

The database is fully operational since 1 September and now requires to be publicized widely. As a result of the partnership with DESA, OSAA has provided the translation in French of all the content of the iCSO platform. That service will be much appreciated by a large number of NGOs for which French is their main language of communication. From what used to be a static directory, OSAA’s new database has been turned into a dynamic and state of the art search tool, helping the most demanding in search of NGOs active in Africa.

“The world is keen to know about the work of civil society organizations in African countries and this system gives access to updated and accurate information about NGOs working close to people’s needs in Africa,” explains Mieko Ikegame, Chief of Coordination of OSAA’s Advocacy and Policy Development Unit.

Ms. Ikegame also underscores that this system gives local African organizations an increased access to the international development community. “When preparing our mandated Secretary-General Reports, we will be able, for example, to use this platform to reach out to stakeholders at the grass root level so that their voices could be reflected in these UN documents, says Ms. Ikegame.

As the world community faces new and emerging challenges, the UN will continue working side by side with civil society across the globe. Developing effective and user-friendly tools for knowledge-exchange and information-sharing is part of this effort, promoting enhanced collaboration for the collective good and for a sustainable future.

For more information:

DESA’s NGO Branch

Daily civil society updates on Twitter


Working with ECOSOC: an NGOs Guide to Consultative Status

United Nations Office of the Special Adviser on Africa