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Civil Society and Social Movements Programme Paper 18: UN World Summits and Civil Society: The State of the Art

28 Oct 2005

  • Author(s): Mario Pianta

The United Nations world summits have had a pervasive impact on the international community. From the pioneering initiatives of the 1970s, to the intense activity of the 1990s, to the follow-up events and new challenges of the present, UN world summits have addressed global issues, engaged national governments, and opened up a complex and important relationship with civil society organizations. Investigating the link between UN world summits and civil society is the objective of this state-of-the-art paper by Mario Pianta.

After setting the scene in section one, in the second section Pianta discusses definitions, concepts and typologies. The third section summarizes the history of interactions between UN world summits and civil society. What emerges is a special relationship between institutional and social dynamics on global issues. The author contends that the summits have provided challenges and opportunities for the emergence of global identities and initiatives within civil society, and have stimulated a wide range of developments within national civil societies.

Some evidence on civil society organizations active in global events is provided in the fourth section. Pianta presents the results of a recent survey of 147 CSOs involved in global events, half of which participated in at least one UN world summit. The survey shows that an attitude of active dialogue with UN world summits is dominant, followed by policy criticism from the outside, and efforts at integration in official summits. Pianta also discusses a range of alternative policy proposals, with an emphasis on those given importance by CSOs.

In the fifth section, Pianta proposes a framework for assessing the impact of UN world summits on civil society. Given the experiences of civil society involvement in UN world summits, what are the lessons to be learned for implementing change? The conclusion assesses the strengths and weaknesses of four types of strategies used by global civil society and social movements: the protest model, the pressure model(with lobbying for reforms), the proposal model(developing policy alternatives and demands for radical change), and the model of alternative practices(with the self-organization of civil society outside the state and market systems).

Mario Pianta is Professor of Economic Policy at the University of Urbino, Italy. This paper was initially prepared as a background document for the UNRISD research project on UN World Summits and Civil Society Engagement.

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