Author: Georgios Kostakos

The United Nations (UN) is the global intergovernmental organization par excellence. It was established in 1945 by the victors of World War II, which still have special prerogatives in its Security Council. Initially an organization of 51 member states, it now has a membership of 193, following the successive waves of decolonization, civil wars and the collapse of the communist bloc. Over time, though, it has become evident that states and their governments are not the sole or even the most important actors internationally. Multinational corporations have risen to prominence with budgets larger than the GDP of many states, financial transactions across borders have intensified beyond any national control, while civil society organizations and on-line movements mobilize more people than many politicians can. To remain relevant and effective the UN has had to incorporate these new, non-state actors in some way in its activities, if not its decision-making processes.

Efforts to that end intensified in recent decades, including such initiatives as the UN Global Compact (UNGC) launched by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in July 2000. UNGC has now grown to include more than ten thousand companies from over 130 countries in its membership. It holds regular high-level meetings bringing together top company CEOs with heads of state and other senior officials from governments around the world, and takes initiatives to advance sustainable behaviours among its members.

Even before that, the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (1992) and the follow-up conference in Johannesburg (2002) identified nine “Major Groups” of non-state actors that governments wanted to involve in partnerships for sustainable development, namely women, children and youth, indigenous people, NGOs, local authorities, trade unions, business and industry, scientific and technology community and farmers. The engagement of these actors took place through the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), with further participation in development-related consultations at the UN via the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA).

The abolition of the CSD by a decision taken at the Rio+20 conference (2012) was followed by the establishment of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), which held its first meeting at the head of state/government level on 24 September 2013. The General Assembly resolution of June 2013 on the “format and organizational aspects” of the Forum “Stresses the need for the forum to promote transparency and implementation by further enhancing the consultative role and participation of the major groups and other relevant stakeholders at the international level in order to make better use of their expertise, while retaining the intergovernmental nature of discussions”.ii The points that will emerge from this FOGGS on-line debate can contribute to optimizing the participation of non-state actors in HLPF consultations and follow-up action to advance sustainable development in practice.

The options available are (a) for the Major Groups to continue, in terms of their identification/composition and engagement rules as in the CSD, (b) to introduce minor adjustments to the current system, and/or (c) to go for a more drastic rethink. This article supports the last option, for the following reasons:
* The current Major Groups include established constituencies like the trade unions, local authorities and the private sector (“business and industry”), along with inadequately defined “NGOs” and pressure/advocacy groups that one would expect to fall under NGOs, like women, children and youth.
* Existing arrangements for representation of the major groups would benefit from increased democratic legitimacy, transparency and accountability, as the representative character of the participating organizations and the group coordinators (“Organizing Partners”) is not always evident at the moment.
* There is a need to connect non-state actor representation at the UN – that takes the form of occasional speeches and submission of documents/written proposals to member statesiii – with real decision-making, accountability and action structures leading all the way to the grass roots, if actual people are to be represented and served in practice. Otherwise the impression is that all is being done by and for a small group of active, dedicated but often unrepresentative bodies and people located around the UN Headquarters in New York. This would not only guarantee the legitimacy of such representation but would also increase the chances of implementation of any decisions taken by relevant bodies.

In light of the above, the following groups could be considered as representing distinct non-state actors worthy of inclusion in the work of the High-level Political Forum and other relevant global bodies:

  1. Civil society / membership-driven NGOs, which can be subdivided according to the nature of their work (advocacy/policy, operational activities) and the specific focus (women, youth, ageing, health, education, etc.)
  2. Private sector, which can be subdivided according to the nature of the organization (multinationals, SMEs, pension funds, sovereign wealth funds) and the focus of activities (energy, chemicals, food and beverages, electronics, telecommunications, vehicles, garments, commerce, banking, etc.)
  3. Trade Unions, including farmers’ and teachers’ unions
  4. Local authorities (Mayors, Governors, possibly also including Indigenous People’s organizations)
  5. Parliamentarians
  6. Scientists, which can be subdivided into social and natural scientists, the latter possibly including engineers, as well as think tanks, policy analysis/development centres and research establishments iv
  7. Artists, subdivided into various fields and including sports people
  8. Religious and spiritual institutions
  9. Philanthropic Foundations

This would keep the number of groups to nine but would change the configuration as well as their representation. The groups would be represented in the HLPF and other discussions through a confederation for each group. Such bodies exist for example for the trade unions (see International Trade Union Confederation) but not for other areas. The General Assembly resolution on the HLPF clearly:
“Encourages the major groups identified in Agenda 21 and other stakeholders, such as private philanthropic organizations, educational and academic entities, persons with disabilities, volunteer groups and other stakeholders active in areas related to sustainable development, to autonomously establish and maintain effective coordination mechanisms for participation in the high-level political forum and for actions derived from that participation at the global, regional and national levels, in a way that ensures effective, broad and balanced participation by region and by type of organization”.v

Such collective representation would help each group find some kind of common voice or way to represent itself, and would increase the interactions within the group membership, for the development of common positions and the implementation of decisions, as a positive “side effect”. Also the statements to be made by the representatives of groups at the HLPF and elsewhere would carry much more weight if they really represented the corresponding sector(s) and had huge numbers of people across borders behind them. Arrangements like the UN Global Compact already help bring together non-state stakeholders around the UN, in the UNGC case the private sector, on a more continuous basis than occasional intergovernmental meetings and consultations.

Similar arrangements could be made for other important sectors too, such as local authorities (there is now only the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues), Parliamentarians and scientists, in cooperation with existing specialized agencies of the UN system, like UNHABITAT for local authorities and UNESCO for scientists. Such arrangements would de facto create a series of consultative “chambers” between the UN and the respective global stakeholder group each time. These “chambers” would hold regular meetings and would feed into the member state bodies through reports and representative speeches at major intergovernmental events. Taken further this could lead to the establishment of one consolidated and more permanent “chamber” of non-state actors that would be meeting in parallel to the intergovernmental bodies and would somehow join them in final decision-making, commitment-making, resource allocation and implementation. Although not directly elected by individuals around the world, this “non-state actors chamber” would be one way of realizing the often talked about in the past “Peoples’ Assembly” for the United Nations, a second chamber co-deciding with the General Assembly of member states.

Looking forward to your comments and contribution of ideas to advance non-state actor representation in intergovernmental consultations for decision-making and implementation. A synthesis of the on-line debate will be produced as a FOGGS policy brief that will be shared with the UN, government officials and stakeholder group representatives.

i  With thanks to Julian Memetaj, for his supportive research and helpful suggestions on earlier drafts. I am also grateful to the other FOGGS Executive Board members for their encouragement and advice.

ii  See UN General Assembly resolution 67/290, paras. 14-16 (

iii  The aforementioned General Assembly resolution provides for the following ways of involvement of major groups and other relevant stakeholders in the work of the HLPF: (a) attend all official HLPF meetings; (b) have access to all official information and documents; (c) intervene in official meetings; (d) submit documents and present written and oral contributions; (e) make recommendations; (f) organize side events and round tables, in cooperation with member states and the UN Secretariat (see ibid., para. 15).

iv  The recently established UN Scientific Advisory Board, supported by UNESCO, has an integral role in providing advice to the UN Secretary-General and the UN system on a regular basis and should not be confused with the representation of scientists et al as a group in the context of our discussion here.

v  UN General Assembly resolution 67/290, para. 16 (see also notes 1 and 2 above).