Foreign Policy Blogs


Last week I attended the annual meeting of the UN Development Program (UNDP)’s Civil Society Advisory Committee. The significance of this committee for UN accountability merits attention.

The UN – and most donor countries, for that matter – spends a good deal of time preaching the importance of civil society. As the line goes, civil society is the way in which ordinary citizens organize themselves in order to review the activities of their government and hold them accountable for wrongdoing. Without civil society, individuals would be too weak to take action against the powerful interests in charge.

But who holds the UN accountable? There is certainly a clutch of civil society groups with offices around UN headquarters, writing reports and lobbying for change (not to mention some diehard anti-internationalists in Congress). But the UN has operations in every country of the world; UNDP has offices in 166 countries: who is holding them accountable?

After some civil society criticism at the end of the 1990s for its private sector strategy, UNDP decided if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Thus, it created the only civil society advisory committee in the UN system. To this day, for all the UN’s talk about how crucial it is to have strong civil society (and this goes up to the Secretary-General level), no other UN agency actually gathers civil society together in order to hear their input. Incidentally, major government donors aren’t much better.

It was refreshing to observe the two-day meeting, at which the civil society representatives there had the opportunity to challenge a series of UNDP representatives on why they are doing certain work, what alternatives they have considered, how they are reflecting the interests of vulnerable populations, how they are confronting vested interests, etc. When UNDP displayed flashy PowerPoints detailing their successes, the committee asked them to reveal their failures. When UNDP said they have abandoned controversial policies and have a clean record, the committee said, In that case let’s rewrite your official strategy together. No one got off easy, although certainly the private sector team had the toughest session.

The civil society advisory committee is a model for any organization that is interested in how the public is viewing its activities, whether it represents government, an international organization, or a company. While they might hear things they would rather ignore, it gives them an opportunity to engage and respond. Maybe we could start with BP gathering environmental, human rights, labor rights, and other non-governmental organizations together in the Gulf region to hear what they think. Not a public hearing: individual representatives around a table, in a closed room without the media, having a rational conversation. Would that be possible?