Fostering civil society

Nurturing citizen movements
Reclaiming power of civil society
Strengthening non-governmental leadership
Advocating activity by the non-government sector
Encouraging non-governmental organizations
Promoting non-government associative activity

Encouraging and incorporating popular participation and good governance as a vehicle for building sustainable societies.


Non-government activities can significantly contribute to the welfare of society. Their contributions may not only be essential but may need to be strengthened in order to tackle issues such as global sustainability.

A definition of civil society was set out in decision GCSS.VII/5 of the seventh special session of the Governing Council/Global Ministers of the Environment Forum. Civil society encompasses major groups, namely farmers, women, the scientific and technological community, children and youth, indigenous people and their communities, workers and trade unions, business and industry, non-governmental organizations as well as local authorities.


There are many emergent citizens' efforts to redefine the relationship between citizens and ruling states. Unlike the revolutions of the twentieth century which involved contests for state power, these revolutions seek to secure from the state the right of all people to govern themselves within the borders of their own communities. Their goal is to reclaim the power of civil society that distant corporations and governments have co-opted.

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development – also known as the Earth Summit – legitimized NGOs as vital players in the environment and development dialogue and marked a turning point in their efforts to become part of international policy-making. UNCED marked the largest gathering – and the widest range – of NGOs ever to attend a UN event. More NGOs than in any previous conference were formally accredited and recognized as legitimate spokespersons for citizen concerns, in effect becoming the emissaries of civil society.

The decision to hold a special dialogue with environmental NGOs during the 1998 Ã…rhus European Environmental Ministers Conference marked a recognition of their essential role, and the commitment of European governments to strengthen lines of communication between governments and NGOs, including in international fora. The conference recognized the new role played by NGOs in the Conference; appreciated their leadership in organizing and taking responsibility for the NGO session, and in actively participating in Conference preparations. The Conference encouraged European governments to to provide practical and financial support to environmental NGOs, noting at the same time that part of the role of such groups can be to question government policy.

The International Council of Voluntary Agencies held a global forum [inter alia] to identify NGO modalities and strategies to promote the development of strong, viable and active civil societies.

Civicus is a global organisation dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. Formally organised in Barcelona, Spain in 1993, Civicus was borne out of discussions among the Independent Sector, the Council of Foundations in the US and the European Foundation Centre who were seeking to develop a framework so non-profit organisations throughout the world could work together. At present, Civicus has a membership of 507 organisations and individuals in over 92 countries.


In order for NGOs to fulfil their role as guardians of civil societies which can be strong, viable and active, they should be guided by a necessary set of ethics and recognize that poverty, being a political issue, places them on the side of the struggle for justice.

Type Classification:
C: Cross-sectoral strategies
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 7: Affordable and Clean EnergyGOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic GrowthGOAL 10: Reduced InequalityGOAL 13: Climate ActionGOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong InstitutionsGOAL 17: Partnerships to achieve the Goal