The Conscience of the World: The Influence of Non-Governmental Organisations in the UN System

The Conscience of the World: The Influence of Non-Governmental Organisations in the UN System

The Conscience of the World: The Influence of Non-Governmental Organisations in the UN System

The Conscience of the World: The Influence of Non-Governmental Organisations in the UN System


Private groups, such as Amnesty International and Save the Children Fund, have had a formal consultative status with the United Nations since its founding. Such groups--known as nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs--have come to exert considerable influence on the UN's agenda setting, decisionmaking, and policy implementation. This book examines the role of the NGOs in world politics and the accomplishments of selected groups dealing with the environment, women's rights, children's problems, human rights, and refugee and famine crises.

Although these organizations and the UN generally act as partners and collaborators, there are also some tensions, as the NGOs do not have voting status and must remain independent and innovative. In the area of human rights, in particular, the NGOs have applied slow but steady pressure to force the UN to institute real sanctions against individual governments, thus earning the title "conscience of the world."

Contributors are Seamus Cleary, formerly at the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development; Jane Connors, senior lecturer in law at London University and specialist in women's rights; Helena Cook, former legal officer of Amnesty International; Richard Hoggart, former assistant director-general of UNESCO; Michael Longford, UK representative to several international groups; Sally Morphet, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Angela Penrose, Save the Children Fund; John Sankey, former UK representative to the UN in Geneva; John Seaman, Save the Children Fund; Bill Seary, formerly at the National Council for Voluntary Organizations; Henry Steel, leader of the UK delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission; and Douglas Williams, former deputy secretary of the UK Ministry of Overseas Development.

Copublished with the David Davies Memorial Institute of International Studies

Available through Brookings in North America only


Bill Seary

This chapter examines the coordinating structures that developed among international NGOs, largely in response to the growth of intergovernmental organisations, and discusses their relationship to those intergovernmental bodies up to and including the United Nations Conference on International Organisation held in San Francisco in April-June 1945.

Much of what follows concerns European-based organisations and activities. The only other continent with a significant number of independent states was Latin America. The United States, almost a continent by itself, saw the development of nation-wide NGOs, but its international activity in the field appears, from a European perspective anyway, to have been centred on Europe. The same is true of NGOs in the British Dominions which, over the period, took an increasingly independent line in international matters.

The growth of international non-governmental organisations

Leaving aside the religious and academic networks that date from the middle ages (and which, strictly speaking, were more cosmopolitan than international), NGOs first appear on the international scene in the nineteenth century. The date of the earliest of them is a matter of opinion. White favours the World Alliance of YMCAs which was founded in 1855 with member associations in Belgium, England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland, Switzerland and the United States of America. Lyons believes that four had already been established by 1849. The difference is probably due to varying ideas about what constitutes an international NGO. It is clear however that their numbers remained low until the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

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