The charter empowers ECOSOC to make arrangements to consult with international organizations of private citizens, known as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and distinguished from intergovernmental organizations. Consultations with NGOs bring informed opinion other than that of governments and their officials before the council and provide it with a source of special experience and technical knowledge. NGOs granted consultative status are divided into two categories. Those in Category I are organizations with a general interest in the work of the council, and their activities are particularly germane to it and to the UN as a whole. Those in Category II are organizations with an interest in some particular aspect of the work of the council. In May 1987, 35 NGOs were listed in Category I and 299 in Category II. Another 490 were listed on the NGO roster for consultation as the occasion arises. By the late 1990s, more than 100 NGOs were listed in Category I, more than 600 in Category II, and more than 800 were listed on the roster for occasional consultation, for a total of more than 1,500 NGOs in consultative status. In 2002 there were 2,143 NGOs in consultative status with the ECOSOC. All such officially recognized organizations may send observers to the public meetings of the council and its commissions and may submit memoranda for circulation. Representatives of Category I organizations are entitled to participate in council debates and propose items for the agenda. Representatives of Category II organizations may, with the permission of the chair, make oral statements at council meetings.
Consultative status in Category II has been granted to nearly all important international business associations, cooperative societies, farmers' organizations, trade unions, and veterans' organizations; to leading professional groups, such as associations of architects, engineers, lawyers, newspaper publishers and editors, social welfare workers, tax experts, and many others; and to various women's and youth associations. Many associations formed along denominational lines—Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, and Roman Catholic—also have consultative status. Most organizations that enjoy such official UN standing are international, in that they have members in more than one country. An organization whose membership is restricted to one particular country may obtain consultative status in the council only with the consent of the country's government.
The participation of NGOs in the work of the council took a historic turn during preparations for the Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. More than 1,400 NGOs participated in UNCED, and their contributions to the historic conference were acknowledged to be invaluable. In view of this remarkable participation, the Secretary-General recommended that relevant and competent NGOs be accorded unusual participation in and access to ECOSOC's new functional commission, the Commission on Sustainable Development, which will monitor the progress of implementation of UNCED's Agenda 21 action plan.
Since many delegations expressed the need to transform the United Nations into a forum that was more accessible to NGOs, ECOSOC established a Working Group on the Review of Arrangements for Consultations with Non-Governmental Organizations in 1993. The Working Group held its first session in June 1994 with a mandate to review the arrangements for consultation with nongovernmental organizations, arrangements which had not been revised since they were first adopted by the council in 1968.
In his 1994 Agenda for Development Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Gali noted that NGOs undertake development projects valued at more than US $7 billion annually. He stated: "The time has arrived to bring NGO and United Nations activities into an increasingly productive relationship of consultation and cooperation." In 1996 ECOSOC adopted a resolution regarding consultation with NGOs that recognized the growth of national and regional NGOs, the broadening role of the Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations, and the adoption of standard rules for the participation of NGOs in UN international conferences. ECOSOC recommended that the General Assembly examine the question of participation of NGOs in all areas of work in the UN.