“The doors of the UN are open in your country”

By Roberto Bissio*

During the Summit on the Least Developed Countries (Doha, 5-9 March 2023), the UN convened a meeting of UN Resident Coordinators (RCs) of all 46 LDCs. UN reform measures to provide better in-country agency coordination and convening started with getting the RCs to report directly to the Secretary-General, DSG Amina Mohammed told the accompanying Civil Society Forum.

“Now you need to engage,” she emphasized. “Those doors will be opened to you, ask them to convene around the issues, but please don't do it in your silos.”

As an example she cited the case of Afghanistan: “When I went there I heard the local NGOs saying that international NGOs are stopping at the national level, and they're not working with the local level, because they don't have the capacities. Well, they'll never get the capacities if you don't work with them. So we are pushing for those to come together and keep pushing us.”

Mohammed called the coming September 2023 Summit on climate an opportunity to do this:  “This will not be top down. We've asked everyone to do that, whether it is a shadow report or otherwise, find the mechanisms where you would like to get your voices in. How far off track are we? How do you see us making the 2030 Agenda? What should we put in place to make that happen? “

Her final advice: “Work back from 2030 and not towards it, because I think that gives us a tighter frame around which we can demand actions that need to happen.”

Knock on our doors

In one of the Forum’s most intense dialogue sessions**, thirteen RCs in LDC countries met with civil society.

Hanna Singer-Hamdy explained their new mandates: “After the UN reform that started in 2019, we became the representatives of the Secretary-General on the ground. We try to coordinate all the UN work in the country, so that it becomes under one umbrella, under one vision, under one strategy. Usually the Cooperation Framework binds the UN together. The RC has become the most senior UN official in the country, a bit like a prime minister, while each UN agency is still like a ministry, with its own budget, but their plans are derived from the cooperation framework that we all agree on every five years.”

Amanda Mukwashi explained how civil society contributes to her work. “I joined the UN in January 2022. Prior to that, I was the chief executive of Christian Aid Global. So I am from civil society. And coming from civil society and in the context of the Doha Programme of Action, I believe we need the whole of society to actually accelerate the implementation of the sustainable development agenda.”

“The whole of society means that the UN, Government, civil society, the private sector, religious organizations, much as we don't want to accept it, we are all at the same level. We are differentiated, but we are actually coming into the conversation with value added.  Each one is very different. Civil society organizations are very diverse and have a high level of expertise in their area of specialization. They reach areas that, as the United Nations, were not able to. So if you really want to, for example, understand the conversations and the policy areas around people with disabilities, we might come at it from a very technical perspective, but civil society organizations working in that area will come at it from a lived reality and a lived experience.”

Beyond consultation

Mukwashi called the process “beyond consultation: Having been in both civil society and the UN, I sometimes felt that civil society is brought into the room to tick particular boxes. And yet what we need is not just consultation with civil society, but actually working for development together. In developing the common country analysis in Lesotho, we sat down with civil society and said, what do we need to do?”

“We went together to the ten districts in Lesotho, so that we could have those conversations. What we found was that, actually, when you engage with civil society in a way that is substantive, from creation to co-creating, what you see is that civil society is in a better place to actually advocate, lobby and influence. When you need to talk to the College of Chiefs, the traditional leaders, for example, civil society organizations are much more engaged at that level. When you're talking about community policing, civil society again. When you're talking about trafficking….

She ended with a challenge: “In Lesotho, we find that the capacity of civil society is not very strong. And yet, when we look at democratic principles, when we look at governance and accountability, mechanisms for checks and balances, what we know is that wherever you have a very strong civil society you have societal agency….because when civil society is very strong, they can hold governments to account, they can speak up for the voiceless, they can really bring into play the bottom 40 or the bottom 20 or the bottom 10 percent.“

José Barahona referred to his previous work with Oxfam and Action Aid. “When I crossed the line from civil society into the UN, having worked in Afghanistan, in DRC, in South Sudan, I found that the UN need NGOs, national and international, to engage as many people as possible, as soon and as fast as possible,  especially in humanitarian crises. That is very straightforward, very contractual.

“The second part, which I think is more interesting and more difficult, is influencing policy and advocacy on human rights in the countries where we work. And this is where civil society and the United Nations, I think, could work even better.”

“Use the UN to influence”

Barahona said that “when I was in the NGOs, we were often criticizing the resident coordinators, because they were too close to the government. We NGOs get harassed, expelled, illegalized and the resident coordinators say nothing. But [the RC] role is precisely to be close to the government. We have to be a bridge with the government, regardless how the government is. We not only get there to get along and work well with cool and nice governments. We are there to work with any government that is there, no matter how hard the situation.”

“And another thing is that the UN is not a donor. Sometimes, in humanitarian response, the UN agencies provide funding to implement projects. I remember when I was with NGOs, that the UN was a horrible donor….Don't go to the UN knocking on the door expecting funding for your organizations. Funds should come from somewhere else. So we need to work together, and we need you to engage in influencing governments. When I was in Oxfam, at the time the largest NGO, I met a minister maybe once every second month. And now we meet all the time, we have exchanged WhatsApps, we have access that I never thought I was going to have….”

“Government should be accountable to you. You should go directly to your governments, and they have to listen to you, and you have to have the capacity to influence them. Sometimes that is difficult or is not possible. The UN does have that access, and then you can use the UN as an indirect way to influence those policies.

“The second link is that you can keep us very grounded. When I was in the NGOs, I used to go to the field a lot. Since I am in the UN, my role has changed. Now when I go, the visit is super organized, so you don't know to what extent it is real, and I spend a lot of time in cocktails, embassies and things like this. You guys, you can go to the field all the time, and you can see the reality when you go. You see the real situation and can help us to have a second view of what is the real situation in the countries where we work, and not only to see what they want us to see.”

Singer-Hamdy added a concrete example: “As a result of the endemic discrimination against certain castes and ethnic groups based on ethnicity, caste, gender, language and geography, there remain in Nepal certain groups that cannot be accessed. It's really only through the civil society partnership with these groups that they were able to engage with and place their needs and plans into the national plans of action and the UN cooperation framework, so we feel as UN that it's absolutely vital that those CSOs that are working in these particular target groups continue being empowered to play the crucial role in reaching and representing this group. Therefore, UN engagement is critical to ensure that these civil society groups have the operational space and can be identified not only as human rights groups, but really as development groups.”

“As a result of this partnership between the UN and the trade unions and the civil society, the advocacy work led the government to formally declare July 22, the freedom of haruwa-charuwa, which is the freedom of forced labour through a special announcement by the Prime Minister. This is a fantastic example of a very strong partnership on advocacy that led to major change.”

“NGOs are not contractors”

 “My third point is about the strategic partnership. We at the UN sometimes regard NGOs as contractors or implementing partners. This is an attitude that has to end; the UN should not only use NGOs to implement UN programmes. For example, in Nepal, between 2015 and 2022, more than 50 perception surveys were conducted in different disaster events to understand the impact on communities and individuals and their perception of response. The surveys brought voices of people to the decision-making table, shifting the response to be based on needs identified by the community. After the earthquake, for example, the water sources had shifted. Now this was not apparent to technicians, but it came out of these perception surveys that were conducted by the civil society where people were asked about the biggest concern and this advocacy led to increased resources and mobilization for water sources and water programmes.”

“Similarly, during the COVID response, there was a very strong civil society organization which provided support and information about the problems faced by migrant labourers returning from India. As a result, the campaign ensured that guidelines and systems were put in place to prohibit ostracization for returnee migrants and people who have had COVID-19. This shows the power of civil society when they really play a partnership role beyond the contractual role.”

Raising the issue of reliability of information sources, Singer-Hamdy commented that  adequate statistics “is always a problem in many countries, but the UN also does their own surveys. And we accumulate information before we do the cooperation framework, we do something called the common country assessment. In the end, the UN usually has the best reference in terms of the information, so you can count on the UN on that.”

Mukwashi added another point: “At the UN, we have a certain kind of knowledge, certain kind of data. What we don't have is a monopoly on those things. In Southern Africa, for example, there are very high numbers of gender based violence, sexual rape against women and girls. We rely on multiple sources of information, but you have, especially based on case studies, life stories that are happening in communities, you have information that is so critical and so vital. And that's why it's important for us to come together to compare notes in terms of what is there. For those countries that are in the process of designing their cooperation framework that is a moment where you can come together, bring in all these different sources of data …and see what it tells you, because then you know you can get a more accurate picture.”

“On the funding bit, while I agree with my colleagues that the UN is not a donor, there are funding opportunities that as RC I see advertised, maybe from the EU, maybe from other donors, let's actually share this information with civil society. We might not be able to give you the money, but we can certainly share that information. The Democracy Fund, for example, they have approached us, there's been money, and we have identified civil society organizations to receive it.”

The UN as political actor

Jean Pierre, speaking from the floor: “We have been hearing about the role of the RCs as coordinators, but I must note that the situation is different in countries occupied by UN forces, such as Haiti, where the UN becomes a political actor in the field.  We have an RC to coordinate the UN in Haiti, but there is another person that acts as special representative of the Secretary-General, that pushes to change the Constitution, organizes elections, appoints political leaders and I would like to know if the UN is there to follow the Haitian political process or is an actor in it.  We have participated in several meetings with the UN, but as the UN takes a political role, we have decided not to attend any more.”

Ulrika Richardson responded: “Thank you for your intervention, which is very important. There is a peculiarity in the situation in Haiti, where the UN has a political mission, with Madame Lalime as Special Representative. So it is a bit different from the role described for Nepal, with the RC compared to a “prime minister”, I am the RC, but I am a deputy to the Special Representative.

The political mission in Haiti was mandated by the Security Council, she explained, while the RC has a humanitarian and development mandate. “We try to coordinate, and it will be easier in the future, but the point made is one of the peculiarities of the UN as an intergovernmental organization. We have ECOSOC that deals with development, and the Security Council that deals with security and peace. In Haiti, and in other countries like Mali, where there is a peacekeeping mission, we have this peculiarity, but that doesn’t mean we cannot work together.”

Issa Sanogo said: “In Madagascar there are two projects being implemented by the Democracy Fund and by UNDP that fund capacity building, education and media promotion in view of the coming elections. What has not been decided is the direct funding of the elections, because we are in a preparatory phase. Regarding the participation of NGOs, for the Democracy Fund, organizations such as yours can participate on equal terms with UN agencies and be partners and not competitors.

Barahona clarified that “depending on how we define politics, yes, of course we do politics, in the sense that we try to influence politics in countries to make sure that they respect human rights, the UN Charter and that they are leaving no one behind. If there is legislation about something, we try to influence that legislation, to make sure that women’s rights are respected, minority group rights, and so on. That's political work. What the UN never does, and if it does, it's by mistake, is to go into politics regarding who gets power, who participates, who is involved…. We don't influence who rules a country. That's for the citizens of each country.

Singer-Hamdy elaborated:  “I believe that the UN RC has a very critical role in mediating between the government and the NGOs. I played this role in Sri Lanka when there was a big rift between them. It took a long time, six months, to be able to finally have a meeting between the President of the Republic and the NGOs. So I think it's a very important role. So do call on your RCs to play this role and push. It is part of the responsibilities that we can do.

Now to the question of my colleague from Nepal, on registered and non-registered associations. In terms of financial transactions, the UN can only work with registered entities. However, partnership could be also with the non-registered NGOs, and the power of the UN in Sri Lanka is that it has presence in every single district, more or less. So the UN is very well present there, and you can access and speak to them in this regard.”

Mukwashi noted that there is often a “conundrum”:  “If we're saying that we need civil society to have more capacity and at the same time we're not supporting them to have that capacity, then they will continue to excluded and the whole concept of ‘leave no one behind’ becomes challenging. So there are many different ways in which we can work together to try and ensure that you're engaged.

In the cooperation framework and in the process of delivering, you can ask your RC to do training on the issue of funding, for example.

Second, we can try to couple stronger NGOs with slightly smaller NGOs that can learn through them. I don't have all the answers. But let's think outside the box because the current situation we're in as LDCs, we can't just do things in a straight jacket. We have to think very creatively.

In Lesotho, we have a Stakeholders Forum. Every year we bring civil society together with the private sector, farmers, trade unions, and say “this is what we committed to do at the beginning of the year together with government”. And civil society will ask what if something didn't happen.”

My last comment is that the RC is there to coordinate, to convene and to represent. And for each of those things, I invite you to knock at our doors and see how we can improve. We don't have a monopoly on knowledge, so if you have better ideas on how we can improve, please knock at the door and let's co-create and think together because this is the only way we can begin the conversation around graduating from LDCs.

See more about the LDC5 Civil Society Forum (Doha, Qatar, from 4 to 9 March 2023) here.


* This summary is based on notes and recordings. It has been edited for clarity and conciseness; subtitles emphasis and clarifications were added. Karen Judd contributed to the final editing.

** Dialogue between UN Resident Coordinators (RCs) & civil society:
Challenges and opportunities for implementation of the DPoA at country level
Doha, 8 March 2023
Moderator: Chee Yoke Ling (TWN)
Resident Coordinators’ panel: Hanna Singer-Hamdy, RC Nepal; Amanda Mukwash RC Lesotho; José Barahona, RC Djibouti
Other RCs participating: Eric Overvest, RC Sao Tome and Principe; Karla Hershey, RC Bhutan;  Jaap Van Hierden, RC Micronesia; Aminata Maiga, RC Senegal; Lila Pieters, RC Mauritania; Christine N Umutoni, RC Liberia; Sara Beysolow Nyanti, RC South Sudan; Beatrice Mutali, RC Zambia; Gwyn Lewis, RC Bangladesh; Issa Sanogo, RC Madagascar, Ulrika Richardson, RC and Humanitarian Coordinator, Haiti.

Jean Pierre.