Barriers to UN–Civil Society Collaborations: An Exploratory Study of CSOs Within the UN–ECOSOC Consultative Status Programme

Date01 October 2021
AuthorB. D. Mowell
Published date01 October 2021
Subject MatterResearch Articles
International Studies
58(4) 466 –490, 2022
© 2021 Jawaharlal Nehru University
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DOI: 10.1177/00208817211056751
Research Article
Barriers to UN–Civil
Society Collaborations:
An Exploratory Study
of CSOs Within the UN–
ECOSOC Consultative
Status Programme
B. D. Mowell1
In recent decades, civil society organizations (CSOs) have ostensibly attained
increased access to the United Nations (UN) and other intergovernmental
organizations (IGOs) and, in turn, increased opportunities for collaboration
with IGOs. However, in most cases, CSO access to IGOs remains limited and
highly regimented. Little scholarship has been undertaken to examine barriers to
effective CSO–IGO collaborations. Virtually, no empirical research has examined
the degree or nature of the interaction between the UN and international civil
society via the dynamic of the flagship programme designed to facilitate such
collaborations—the consultative status framework. This exploratory study
partially addresses the latter gap in the scholarship by undertaking a qualitative
macro-scale examination of CSOs within the UN Economic and Social Council’s
(ECOSOC) consultative status programme, the primary vehicle in the UN–civil
society dynamic. Specifically, the study sought to identify barriers to UN–civil
society collaboration within the consultative status programme as perceived by
participating CSOs. Findings of a survey sent to a random sample of 10% of CSOs
holding UN–ECOSOC consultative status revealed that barriers to participation
in the programme varied with some obstacles far more common than others.
The degree of barriers reported by CSOs also strongly reflected the level of
accreditation they held within the programme. Additionally, survey respondents
offered insight as to how impediments in the collaboration could potentially be
1 International Studies, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University, Charles
Town, WV, USA
Corresponding author:
B. D. Mowell, International Studies, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military
University, Charles Town 25414, WV, USA.
Mowell 467
Civil society, CSOs, ECOSOC, IGOs, intergovernmental organizations, NGOs,
United Nations
Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), including the United Nations (UN), have
pursued increasing degrees of collaborative interaction with a diverse range of civil
society organizations (CSOs) since the mid-twentieth century, and this collaboration
has been described as one of the most significant recent developments within the
UN (Algar, 2002). Around one-third of IGOs have some form of consultative status
or other formal programme in place to facilitate interaction with international civil
society (Vabulas, 2013). One of the primary manifestations of formal UN–civil
society collaboration is the consultative status programme for CSOs within the UN
Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The UN, the world’s pre-eminent IGO,
has sought to facilitate a more diverse, effective and egalitarian organizational
dynamic via the expanding relationship with international CSOs. Among the chief
goals of the collaboration are movements towards pluralism and democracy via
increasing the number and diversity of perspectives represented within the UN and
also to augment the traditional role of state actors in the solicitation of input and
provision of services like distribution of aid. In 1946, when the UN first initiated
the practice of formal association with civil society, only 41 such organizations
were afforded consultative status, but the collaboration has grown exponentially in
recent years with the accreditation awarded to a diverse range of over 5,000
organizations at the time of writing (USAID, 2019). Yet many aspects of the UN–
civil society collaboration remain unclear.
Organization of the Consultative Status Programme
The UN–ECOSOC consultative status programme formally accredits civil society
organizations using a three-tier system: general status, special status and roster
status. The consultative status level determines the ability of CSOs to circulate
documents, gain access to preparatory meetings, and observe or participate in
certain UN functions (UN, 1999). General status is the highest accreditation level
and is awarded to the relatively small number of CSOs that are global in scope, have
an operational range directly relevant to most areas of ECOSOC activities and that
are regarded as capable of making ‘substantive and sustained’ contributions to the
UN. At the time the study was undertaken, only 147 or 3.1% of CSOs in the
consultative status programme held general status. General status permits
organizations to submit written statements of up to 2,000 words on subjects in
which the organization has expertise. Many general status organizations are among
the largest, most respected and most well-known CSOs in the world, including Care
International, Doctors without Borders, Oxfam International and Save the Children.

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