Past political efforts of achieving large-scale global systemic change have been successful if they have been rooted in and supported by large alliances of non-governmental and civil society organizations. The examples of the movements for banning land mines and for the establishment of an International Criminal Court, the Jubilee 2000 campaign and the Make Poverty History campaign are some of the more recent examples. The fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany caused by a grassroots citizen movement, supported by Christian communities in the former East Germany, as well as the Solidarnosc trade union movement supported by the Catholic Church in Poland, are among the best known examples of recent history where citizen movements and religious actors joint forces.
Given that the pre-eminent global forum, where regular interactions of NGOs, transnational civil society networks and governments take place is the UN System and given the importance of citizen movements and religious actors for sustainable global change, a closer look at how civil society and religious actors engage with the UN System can make an important contribution both to analysis and strategic planning when responding to contemporary global challenges.
In this article, I will look at religious actors in the wider context of global civil society and in the context of the UN System, then look at the pioneering programs for engaging with religious actors that have been developed within UNESCO, and finally reflect on the crucial contribution that religious actors are making to development cooperation and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Alliances between grassroots movements, non-profit organizations, religious communities, and spiritual organizations, supported by religious and spiritual leaders, can have an immense global impact. The Jubilee 2000 debt relief campaign for poor countries is one example of such an alliance across a great diversity of participating groups that had won the support of many religious leaders and communities. Other less well-known examples of the influence of global movements of religious NGOs are, for example, the participation of religious and spiritual organizations in the UNESCO led Global Movement for a Culture of Peace and the support of religious and spiritual organizations for the 2001-2010 UN Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World (Boehle, 2001, p. 217-218). NGOs often start the initial initiatives that result years later in changes in national and international law, in (re)forming international values and norms, and in (re)shaping international institutions and their programs. For example, seen from a long-term perspective, it can be argued that it was the over 100-years-old international interreligious movement with its countless events and activities throughout the last century that prepared the ground for the major international interreligious events during the last decade like the Millennium World Peace Summit held in New York in 2000 or the "High-level Dialogue on Interreligious and Intercultural Understanding and Cooperation for Peace" of the UN General Assembly in 2007 (http://www.un.org/ga/president/62/issues/hld-interreligious.shtml).
The "Millennium World Peace Summit" (28-31 August 2000) brought together more than 1,000 senior religious, spiritual, and indigenous leaders from over 50 countries at the UN to address together major world problems and increase interreligious understanding and cooperation (Boehle, Josef 2001, p. 230ff). In Development and Faith, a book of case studies from around the world of religious organizations engaging with development and peace issues, Marshall and van Saanen point to the Millennium World Peace Summit and its impact:
Yet since that meeting in 2000, faith groups have steadily
intensified their engagement in the MDG framework, and religious
actors are now poised to play even more significant roles. …