NGOs map out strategy for next millennium

by Thalif Deen

United Nations, June 17 -- A coalition of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is planning a mass gathering of civil society to assess the status of global development and map out a strategy for the new millennium.

The meeting, which also will discuss the role of NGOs in the 21st century, is scheduled to take place in Seoul, South Korea from October 10-16.

"We expect more than 2,000 NGOs to participate in the conference," says Elaine Valdov, chair of the NGO Executive Committee. "It is going to be one of the biggest."

Valdov says the meeting will be held at a time when NGOs and civil society are taking an increasingly important role in the global decision-making process. Subjects to be discussed include peace and security, human rights, education, health, productive ageing, the environment, gender equality, children and economic and social justice and development.

Decisions taken at the meeting will be relayed to the UN Millennium Summit, scheduled to take place in New York in September 2000.

Titled 'The 1999 Seoul International Conference of NGOs,' the meeting is being hosted by Kyung Hee University, one of Korea's leading private universities with an enrolment of more than 36,000 students.

The convenors of the meeting are: the Conference of NGOs (CONGO) at the United Nations, the Korea-based Global Cooperation Society International and the Executive Committee of NGOs associated with the UN's Department of Public Information.

Valdov says that the conference will review the status of commitments made by member states at eight major UN conferences, and also find ways to help implement some of these commitments.

There has been widespread criticism in the UN system that most of the "declarations" and "action plans" adopted at UN "talk-fests" remain unimplemented - either due to lack of funds or absence of political will.

Since 1990, some of the major UN conferences include the Children's Summit in New York, the Earth Summit in Rio, Human Rights in Vienna, Population and Development in Cairo, Advancement of Women in Beijing, Social Development in Copenhagen, Human Settlements in Istanbul and Food Summit in Rome.

Valdov describes the 21st century as a NGO era which will be characterised by a widespread role for civil society operating at the grassroots level.She says the Seoul conference is "a wonderful opportunity" for an East-West, North-South meeting of minds because NGOs from all regions of the world will be present.

The meeting also will seek to strengthen NGO partnerships with the United Nations and its agencies and provide an opportunity for enhanced communications and collaboration among diverse groups.

Addressing a news conference here earlier this week, former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said he envisioned a major role for civil society in global decision-making in coming years. Perhaps in the next decade or so, he said, NGOs may have as strong a voice as member states in the UN system.

Last year, Secretary-General Kofi Annan praised NGOs for their dedicated humanitarian work in the world's political hotspots. "The NGOs are often there on the ground even before the international community gives the United Nations the mandate to act," Annan said. He pointed out that NGOs have become "indispensable partners" of the UN - in preventive diplomacy, in humanitarian work, in development and in human rights.

In some of the world's battle zones, the United Nations is working in close collaboration with several national and international NGOs, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Doctors without Borders, Save the Children, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Red Crescent.

Sadako Ogata, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), says her organisation had a mandate to protect and find lasting solutions for nearly 23 million people. More than 5,400 staff were posted in 246 offices in 122 countries. Many of her colleagues worked in high risk security areas alongside NGO workers.

But in most situations, NGOs are the organisation's key partners, with some 400 NGOs implementing 1,200 projects in more than 120 countries at a cost of 264 million dollars in 1997.

Ogata says NGOs were among the UNHCR's most important partners, and called for an enhanced and continuous dialogue with them.

Ambassador Razali Ismail of Malaysia, a former President of the 185-member General Assembly, said the participation of NGOs in UN work is a healthy development and should be deepened.

"Even if I sound extreme, I will make the point that not too many ambassadors will readily acknowledge the expertise and contributions of NGOs," he said.

"But truly, not only do NGOs deliver more development assistance than the entire UN system (excluding the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund) but they also provide development, education, and health care services in areas that government and the private sector fail or neglect to reach," he added. (IPS)

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).