The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations assists the General Assembly in promoting international economic and social cooperation and development. ECOSOC's broad mandate charges it with promotion of higher standards of living, full employment, identifying solutions to international problems of an economic, social or health nature, facilitating cooperation in the arenas of culture and education as well as fostering universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. This broad authority touches over 70 percent of the human and monetary resources of the whole UN system.
ECOSOC has 54 members, elected by the General Assembly for staggered three-year terms. ECOSOC coordinates the work of fifteen specialized agencies, ten functional commissions and five regional commissions. In addition the Council receives reports from eleven UN funds and programs. Also, ECOSOC consults with representatives from private sector, academics and over 2,800 registered nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
ECOSOC meets once a year in July for a four week session, alternating between New York and Geneva, Switzerland. Since 1998, it has held another meeting each April with finance ministers heading key committees of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) known as the Bretton Woods Institutions. The purpose of these meetings is to strengthen partnerships for achieving development goals. The General Council of the World Trade Organization and the Trade and Development Board of the UN Convention on Trade and Development are now also participating in the meetings.
Viewed separate from the specialized bodies it coordinates, ECOSOC’s functions include information gathering, advising member states, and formulating and making policy recommendations to the General Assembly and the member states. In addition, ECOSOC is well positioned to provide policy coherence and coordinate the overlapping functions of the UN’s subsidiary bodies. It is in these roles that it is most active.
The 2007 president of ECOSOC is Dalius Čekuolis, of Lithuania. The president is elected for a one-year term and chosen from among the small or midsized powers represented on ECOSOC.
Amendments to the United Nations Charter expanded ECOSOC from 18 to 27 members in 1965, and to 54 members in 1971.
Through much of its history, ECOSOC has served primarily as a discussion vehicle for economic and social issues. ECOSOC had little authority to force action. So a number of member states were concerned that its utility was marginal. However, beginning in 1992, the US and other nations began an effort to make ECOSOC more relevant by strengthening its policy responsibilities in economic, social, and related fields, particularly in furthering development objectives.
The resulting reform made ECOSOC the oversight and policy setting body for UN operational development activities. The reform also established smaller executive boards for the UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN Population Fund (UNFPA), and UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) The executive boards provide these agencies with operating guidance and promote more effective management. In addition, the reform gave ECOSOC a strong hand in ensuring that all relevant UN agencies coordinated their work on issues of common interest, such as narcotics control, human rights, poverty eradication and HIV/AIDS prevention.
One positive impact of this reform was that the UN development system began to respond more coherently and efficiently to humanitarian crises around the world. Former Secretary General Annan's recent reform initiatives made strengthening coordination among relief agencies a high priority.
Another constructive reform was the 1994 ECOSOC decision to authorize creation of a new joint UN program on HIV/AIDS. This program (UNAIDS) unified the existing AIDS-related resources and expertise of the World Health Organization, UNICEF, UNDP, UNFPA, UNESCO, and the World Bank into one consolidated global program, eliminating duplication of effort and enhancing the ability of member states to cope with the AIDS pandemic. It began operating in January 1996.
Typically, the Functional Commissions of ECOSOC meet formally on an annual basis and focus their work on a multiyear plan to face issues that are relevant to their sphere of activity. Members of the Commissions work hard to negotiate consensus on the official hoped for solutions to problems the world faces related to their sphere of work. During the annual meetings, nongovernmental organizations affiliated with ECOSOC are invited to attend the Functional Commissions, give input on topics the NGOs have special knowledge of, lobby the delegations to the Commissions and sometimes hold parallel events.
Following are the Functional Commissions:
The Regional Commissions meet within their specific region to deliberate on problems and issues unique to the respective regions. This gives the Regional Commissions opportunities to bring forth knowledge, experience and realities, seek solutions themselves but also communicate to ECOSOC and the Functional Commissions regarding matters within the regions.
The Specialized Agencies are autonomous organizations working with the United Nations and each other, inter alia through the coordinating machinery of the Economic and Social Council.
Beginning in 1946, nongovernmental organizations had an avenue to participate in formal dialog with the Economic and Social Council by seeking consultative status. Forty one NGOs received consultative status in 1946. The numbers of NGOs in consultative status with ECOSOC have steadily grown, numbering in mid-2007, nearly three thousand. Applications for consultative status are reviewed by the nineteen Member States of the ECOSOC Committee on NGOs. The committee then forwards its recommendation to ECOSOC.
In order to be eligible for consultative status, the nongovernmental organization must have been operating for at least two years and officially registered with government authorities as a nonprofit and nongovernmental organization. Other eligibility requirements include having an established headquarters, a democratically adopted constitution, a representative structure, authority to speak for its members, mechanisms of accountability, and democratic and transparent decision-making processes. The resources of the organization must be derived mainly from its national affiliates or individuals (not from government funding). International, regional, subregional or national nongovernmental, nonprofit public or volunteer organizations are eligible to form consultative relationships with ECOSOC.
The three categories of consultative status are general, special and roster. Large international NGOs whose work embraces most of the ECOSOC agenda are eligible for general consultative status. Women's Federation for World Peace International has enjoyed general consultative status since 1997. Special consultative status implies that the NGO focuses on a much narrower range of issues in the ECOSOC agenda. International Interreligious Federation for World Peace has special consultative status. NGOs with a narrower technical focus who do not fit into the other categories are given roster status.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in consultative status have the opportunity to attend relevant UN conferences and meetings. NGOs with general consultative status can offer written and oral interventions at the meetings and recommend agenda items.
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