The United Nations (UN) has invested increasing levels of effort in recent decades to cultivate a more effective, diverse and democratic institutional culture via the inclusion of and interaction among international civil society organizations (CSOs) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to supplement the traditional role of states as the primary transnational actors. The principle vehicle for the UN-civil society dynamic is the consultative status (CS) program within the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), wherein a diverse range of nearly 5,000 transnational organizations ostensibly participate.
This research examined patterns of participation and the nature/level of CSO/NGO involvement within the UN, with particular focus upon ECOSOC. In examining participation patterns, the research identified patterns related to geographical/proportional representation among developed and developing regions and world regions in general and also as related to policy/issue areas represented. In terms of involvement, the research sought to assess the types and degree of contributions being made by CSOs/NGOs in association with the UN. To address both areas, the research employed a two-prong methodology including (1) a detailed analysis of the UN’s online integrated Civil Society Organizations (iCSO) database and (2) a comprehensive survey questionnaire mailed to a randomly-selected sample of 10% of all organizations holding consultative status with UN-ECOSOC.
The findings challenge the assumption that UN association with international civil society has realized pluralist ideals in that substantial variations were found to exist in the representation of policy/issue areas, with some areas far better represented than others. Perhaps more importantly, the research revealed that only a minority of organizations in the ECOSOC-CS program appear to be actively/regularly engaged with the UN, with a large minority of CS-accredited organizations engaged only periodically or to a more limited extent, and a substantial minority not participating/interacting in any way. Rather than exemplifying pluralism within the constructivist tradition, findings imply support for liberal institutionalist theories in that decades-long expansion of IGO influence has facilitated a corollary expectation of expanding international civil society and an associated expectation of linkages between transnational governance and democratic institutions on the one hand and transnational civil society on the other as a standardized norm.