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The United Nations and Civil Society: Legitimating Global Governance-Whose Voice?

In The United Nations and Civil Society: Legitimating Global Governance – Whose Voice?, Nora McKeon takes a close look at how the relationships between the United Nations system and civil society have evolved from the early days of the UN until the food crisis of 2007–08. She examines these linkages particularly against the backdrop of the summits of the 1990s and in relation to the implementation of the international agenda set by Millennium Development Goals.

The first part of this very readable book presents a wide-ranging and fascinating review of the changing nature of the interface between the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and civil society, drawing heavily on the author’s insider knowledge The book then expands the field of analysis to cover the relationships between civil society and the UN system as a whole. It concludes with proposals for additional areas of research.

McKeon has penned a really interesting story of two sets of institutions that know that they will be all the better off by deepening their interactions but that find it hard to overcome the mutual suspicions that stand in the way of arriving at genuine partnerships. The heart of the problem is that the United Nations institutions derive their legitimacy from their intergovernmental nature, whereas civil society organizations—or some representatives of the very mixed bag of CSOs—enjoy considerable moral authority. Moves towards engaging civil society in dialogue and opening the door to them having an influence—other than through their presence on the delegations of individual governments—in UN decision-making processes, are seen by many within the system as inconsistent with the underlying, but often discredited, assumption that governments are the legitimate representatives of their citizens.

What emerges is a picture of a hesitant and painfully slow opening of the door to the involvement of civil society in UN discourse but one that still stops far short of genuine and mutually valuable engagement. The need for dialogue is increasingly accepted within the UN system in principle, but then NGO forums are set up at a safe distance from official meetings, accreditation processes exclude the most vocal CSOs, and speakers’ slots for NGOs are few and scheduled late at night when government delegations have retired to their hotels. Sometimes legitimate representatives of NGOs are harassed by national security services and by the guards employed UN institutions themselves.

Among the most valuable insights in the book are those that relate to the rapid and continuing evolution that has been taking place within civil society organizations as the world becomes increasingly globalized. The book traces the shift in the relative weight of Northern and Southern NGOs, the emergence of people’s movements and of more narrowly focused campaigns, and the recent appearance on the global scene of philanthropic foundations as major non-governmental players, often better endowed with resources than the UN agencies within whose terrain they operate.

On putting the book down, I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that, although there has been some progress since 1945, we are very far from having effective international institutions in place that are able to get to grips with the major issues now facing humanity. Few governments have shown that they are able to view issues from the truly global perspective that is so badly needed, knowing that their survival requires them to respond to a domestic constituency, including the powerful interests of their private sectors. Civil society organizations may command some moral authority, but they still remain essentially a spectator in global decision-making processes. As we have seen in the recent food crisis, what spurs long-delayed actions are the riots of the desperate in the capitals of developing countries, and the pinch of rising prices on the wallets of politically vocal middle-income consumers. But, when the moment of crisis is past and new issues rise to the top of the international agenda, the danger is that commitments will be quietly forgotten, the interminable meetings will go on with more or less civil society engagement—and over 800 million people, in a world of plentiful food supplies, will still not know where their next meal will come from.

Nora McKeon's work spurs the thought that perhaps the greatest contribution that global civil society can make to a better world is to cease knocking largely in vain on the doors of the UN. Instead they might use their growing weight to call for the creation of a new international system of governance that combines political legitimacy and moral authority, and is endowed with the ability and resources to take serious and urgent action to address the most serious problems now facing mankind and the future of the fragile planet on which our children deserve to live in peace and tranquillity, enjoying the rights that the UN system has sought to defend.

Andrew MacMillan
Former Director, FAO Field Operations Division
September 2008