Monthly Archives: July 2018

What’s On Online? Current Issues for Libraries in Internet Governance and Policy

The core mission of libraries is to provide people with access to information. With flows of information increasingly taking place online, our institutions have a major interest in the way the Internet works.

In December of this year, the world will celebrate 50/50 – the point at which the share of the world’s population with Internet accesses passes 50%. This will be a success to celebrate, but also a reminder of how many people remain unconnected.

Moreover, serious concerns remain about the way in which the actions of governments and private actors can affect this access, and whether people themselves are equipped to make best use of the possibilities.

In short, if people do not have access, or if this access is subject to restrictions, then the mission of libraries cannot be achieved. This blog lists a few of the issues currently on the agenda.


Delivering Access – New Tools?

As highlighted in the introduction, the celebrations around giving half of the world’s population access to the Internet will be clouded by the fact that the other half remain offline. While the unconnected are concentrated in developing countries, there are still minorities in richer countries who are cut off.

New technologies and techniques are emerging for getting people online. Major Internet companies have their own projects for giving access, through satellites, balloons and other tools. While Facebook, for example, has apparently given up on its plans to use drones, it is now investing in satellites.

One technology is TV White Space (TVWS), promoted by its supporters as a particularly smart means of bringing Internet to remote areas. It works by using frequencies which currently are not being used for television, and dedicating them to WiFi. A number of projects using this approach are at work in the United States and Colombia.

There are also efforts by cities and wider communities to set up new networks. Sometimes these are run by local governments who recognise the value of faster connectivity (‘municipal broadband’). Sometimes, it’s residents themselves who come together to establish ‘community networks’.

In both cases, they bypass traditional Internet Service Providers (ISPs), often accused of doing too little to invest in higher speeds.

However, such projects need favourable regulation to work. With radio spectrum usually ‘owned’ by government, there are ongoing questions about who can access this for TVWS projects. There are also stories of restrictions on use of telegraph poles being used to prevent municipal fibre projects.

In addition, there have been some signs of renewed interest in Universal Service and Access Funds (USAFs). These collect funds from taxes on telecommunications providers in order to support connections to poorly served areas and populations.

However, they are frequently under-used, and can be subject to the same risks of corruption and bureaucracy as other parts of government. A recent report from the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) underlines how, if properly deployed, they could make the difference for women in Africa for example.

Libraries are both beneficiaries of better connectivity, and potentially drivers of new projects. To do this, they will need the right regulations and financial support to be able to give their users – and their communities – effective access to information.


Delivering Content – New Threats?

Yet not all connections are equal. Even when the cables are laid, or the masts turned on, what a user can see online will depend on the rules and practices in place.

The role of government is a key concern. Governments continue to engage in complete or partial shutdowns, as well as in focused censorship.

AccessNow’s monitoring of shutdowns shows that these are depressingly frequent, with everything from national security to school exams offering an excuse. The collateral damage caused by these moves – to businesses, to medicine, to citizens’ daily communications, is significant.

Censorship continues to be a problem. At the end of April, the anniversary of Turkey’s ban of Wikipedia was marked. Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom on the Internet report showed record levels of online censorship and blocking. Steps in Tunisia, for example, to oblige bloggers to ‘register’ are also worrying.

Meanwhile, concerns about ‘fake news’ have served as an excuse for some governments to take dramatic action against both writers and websites. Cambodia, Azerbaijan and Vietnam provide some recent examples. In parallel, as Freedom House (mentioned above) underlines, governments are also more than ready to share disinformation themselves using the same tools.

Yet it would be a mistake to focus only on government. As technology advances, and with it the possiblity to use data to make new connections and offer new services, the risk to personal information grows.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, as well as other cases of dubious practice by major Internet firms, have shown what can be done with personal data. Data ethics has become a new area for discussion, closely linked to the explosion in the volumes of information collected online (including by the Internet of things).

The entry into force of the General Data Protection Regulation in the European Union offers a response, but much will depend on how effectively people take up the new possibilities it creates. Similar rules appear to be spreading to California and Brazil, and data protection is an increasingly high-profile issue in trade discusisons.

Furthermore, net neutrality remains on the agenda. In the United States, the resistance to moves by the government to allow companies to discriminate continues at federal level. Individual states are passing their own laws to guarantee equal access to all content as far as possible.

Elsewhere, the news is better, with India underlining its support for net neutrality, and steps in some countries at least to do away with zero-rating offerings (i.e. allowing users to access some services without this counting towards their data caps).

An additional issue arises where private companies are pressured to take steps that governments themselves cannot.

As highlighted by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, platforms are not independent. They can be pressured, for example, to block certain types of content (‘fake news’, explicit content, extreme content), or apply rulings such as the European Union’s right to be forgotten principle.

In doing so, they take on similar powers to governments or courts, but with less oversight or control. Moreover, when governments pass laws that only create incentives to block content, there is no guarantee that legal content will be defended. Laws such as FOSTA and SESTA in the United States and anti fake-news laws in Germany and France risk doing just this.

For libraries, this is an issue of growing importance. The content to which libraires give access is increasingly online, rather than on-the-shelf. And libraries are committed to broader access to information as a driver of development.

While there is a case for acting against specific content that genuinely poses a threat, indiscriminate restrictions imposed by governments or companies, including the chilling effect that surveillance and data-collection can create, are bad news for libraries.


Delivering Skills – New Focus?  

A final area of focus is on individuals themselves. Even where there is connectivity, and the connection is not subject to unjusitified restricitons, citizens themselves need the skills and confidence to get online.

As Pew Internet Centre research showed recently, a falling share of people see the Internet as only having brought benefits for society. Other surveys suggest growing levels of distrust and concern about about the risks encountered on the Internet.

There is a risk, when faced with such worries, that governments will feel empowered to take more restrictive stances (i.e. banning non-mainstream content). As a result, the need to give citizens themselves the confidence to deal with what they find online themselves is growing.

Digital skills training, however, remains minimal in many cases. This can be down to a lack of equipment, a lack of capacity among teaching staff, or simply a failure to update teaching. Moreover, digital skills cannot only be a task for formal education.

Meaningful digital skills training, as highlighted in IFLA’s statement on digital literacy, needs to be about more than just coding (important, but for now unlikely to be relevant to everyone in their future lives), and focus on a broader range of competences.

This should include, notably, an updated version of media and information literacy, adapted to a digital age. It may well also require a renewed focus on some of the ‘soft skills’ which are also important in the offline world.

A number of countries are adopting more holistic curricula, and the OECD is already incorporating concepts such as ‘problem solving in a digital environment’ into its own work. But we are likely to see more moves among governments to develop more comprehensive packages of skills and training in coming years.

Libraries are natural partners for delivering such skills, at least when they are suffficiently equipped and staffed. As welcoming places open to all of the community, regardless of age, they can complement the work of formal education.

With a focus, also, on providing the information (and information literacy) to meet real life needs, they can play a real role in shaping digital skills training for all.


The Internet’s potential to accelerate development is high, but not inevitable. As this blog indicates, there is a regular stream of questions, of doubts. How to make full use of all possibiities to get more people connected? How to avoid overreacting to ‘fake news’ and concern about certain content? How to give people the confidence they need to use the Internet effectively?

All are questions with a real importance for libraries, and to which libraries can help provide solutions.

Words of the SDGs: Sustainability

As highlighted in our previous blogs about #WordsOfTheSDGs, the vocabulary that marks discussion on the UN’s 2030 Agenda if often obscure or jargonistic.

A shared understanding of what these words mean does of course help governments and others communicate with each other in the corridors and meeting rooms of the United Nations. A key task for libraries, in getting into advocacy around the Sustainable Development Goals, is to ‘join the club’, to become familiar with these terms, and use them.

To end this series of blogs, we will tackle ‘Sustainability’. This is perhaps one of the most central ideas behind the 2030 Agenda, not least as it appears, more or less, in the name of the SDGs. It is also familiar from daily life within own institutions – ts a particular activity sustainable? A strategy?


The word is particularly charged in the UN context. Already in 1992 at the time of the original Rio Earth Summit, the Brundtland Report opened a new era of thinking about development at the global level.

This thinking took lessons not only from the environmental movement, but also new ways of thinking about economic and social policies. In bringing these elements together, it called for a way of living today that would not risk or limit the ability of future generations to do the same.

Within this, the idea of three ‘pillars’ of sustainable development remain. These are environmental (are we leaving enough resources – from natural resources to things like air or a favourable climate – for those to come), economic (are we putting tomorrow’s economic wellbeing at risk?) and social (are conditions within society sufficient to ensure cohesion).

It is worth noting some debate about the difference between sustainable development and sustainability. Some argue that true sustainability may need to come at the cost of development (i.e. growth). Others (including this blog) take ‘development’ in this context to mean the broad set of policies and actions taken by governments and others which can impact sustainability.

So how does this apply in the library context? This blog highlights how libraries contribute to sustainability in its three dimensions.

Libraries and Economic Development

There are many concerns today about whether we can expect continued growth in income per person, especially with a rising population, or even if this is desirable.

Yet for countries where many people are still in poverty, the idea of giving up on growth – and what this makes possible in terms of accessing healthcare or education – is absurd.

Fortunately, the key underlying factor behind growth is productivity. How can we get more out of the resources (both human labour, and physical resources) that we already have? This increases thanks to finding new and more efficient ways of doing things. In short, innovation.

This is an area where libraries have something to add. Ready access to research and other materials, as provided by libraries, can stimulate and support research. New efforts to connect collections, as well as new techniques for making use of them, promises a lot for science.

The result is just the new products, processes and ways of doing things that allow people to produce and earn more. Without libraries, research is weaker. As such, sustainable economic development relies extensively on libraries.

Libraries and Social Development

Social development is a question of maintaining cohesion – this is key to promoting cooperation and wellbeing.

Societies which are highly unequal risk losing this, with those at the wrong end of the scale resenting those at the other. Similarly, societies which are intolerant risk creating tensions, and missing out on opportunities to renew and refresh.

Equality (in provision of service) and equity (in the results achieved) both help provide for social development. They ensure that everyone has the possibility to move within society, and to feel confident in building networks and contacts. They do not have to feel trapped.

Libraries help with this too, and in one of the most powerful ways – through providing access to information. This opens up possibilities to learn and earn, as well as take better decisions about issues such as health or agriculture. When there is an information gap, there is a risk of a development gap.

Not only are libraries, in most places, a free service, available for all in an area, but they also have specific mandates to reach out to those hardest to help. In this way, no-one need feel excluded, or without the possibility to learn and move ahead, regardless of the initial challenges they may have faced.

Libraries and Environmental Development

Unlike many other sectors, libraries are fortunately not classed among major producers of CO2 or other gases. However, they have a dual role in promoting environmental sustainability.

The first has already been mentioned – the role of libraries in supporting research. As we look to help farmers, manufacturers, transporters and others find new ways of doing things, this will help significantly.

But libraries can also, crucially, act as exemplars. IFLA’s Green Library Award, coordinated by the IFLA Special Interest Group on Environment, Sustainability and Libraries, highlights great examples. Even recently, the nomination of an environmentalist in residence at Toronto Public Libraries highlighted how much attention this is getting internally. We need only to share this role externally.

The same Group is planning further work on education on sustainability at the 2018 World Library and Information Congress too – come along to hear more if you are interested.

Sustainability is therefore a useful term to bring up when advocating for libraries, both in terms of how libraries deliver it, but also how they can become exemplars and teachers for others on the subject.

Happy advocating!






The Robots are Coming? Libraries and Artificial Intelligence

RobotArtificial intelligence (AI) systematically tops popular lists of the most important emerging technologies. With a mix of fear and excitement, commentators seem to agree that it will shape the future, although not always on how.

To borrow a definition, AI is ‘programming computers to do things, which, if done by humans, would be said to require “intelligence’ (MIT Press Essential Knowledge Book on Machine Learning, cited by Chris Bourg).

To do this, it draws on analysis of (often large amounts of) data in order to find connections and draw conclusions. In this way , it can search for information, detect medical conditions, interpret from one language to another, or write books, for example.

Just as previous information-related technological revolutions have marked libraries – printing, electricity, the Internet – it’s worth asking how AI might do so. This blog runs through a number of the dimensions already highlighted by others.

It covers both those that directly impact libraries, and those affecting the broader information – and social – environment in which libraries work. Finally, it asks what scope there is for libraries to bring their resources – and values – to bear to shape this new world.


Robot Librarians, Robot Books?

Perhaps the most regularly voiced concern is that AI will accelerate the evolution in the way people look for information, at the expense of librarians.

Search engines have already gone a long way to replicating the traditional role of libraries in helping find basic information – capitals, dates etc. As AI becomes smarter, the argument goes, it becomes better at some of the more nuanced, smarter searching that librarians have long performed for users.

It is true that computers can ‘read’ literature far faster and more comprehensively than any individual can. Nonetheless, it remains the case that a search is only as good as the search terms put in. A good librarian, through working with a user, can provide a much better tailored service, potentially using up time freed up by using AI.

Moreover, of course, it opens up some truly exciting possibilities to do more with works already in collections (as long as they are digitised, open access, and ideally have the right metadata to be used across institutions). In effect, it can make libraries, and librarians, more valuable, rather than less, as Catherine Nicole Coleman underlines.

A second, and quite different issue, relates to the materials libraries stock. With AI already capable of writing novels, newspaper articles and research papers, there is a question as to the copyright status of these works.

As the monkey selfie case has underlined (more or less, and at least in the case of US law), it appears for now that only human beings can claim copyright. Potentially, the programmer behind the AI could claim an interest, but as highlighted above, may not be able to explain the process that led to the work in question.

Legal clarity on this point will become more and more pressing as time goes on, and AI-generated works take a larger and larger part in the record of works produced.


AI and the Library Environment

Clearly most discussion of AI doesn’t look at libraries, but on the impact on society as a whole. However, as institutions implanted within societies – and with a mission to serve them – libraries will need to take account of, and even deal with, the consequences.

A first issue is what AI will do to our lives and jobs. On the positive side, it does seem likely to free up time and effort for other activities. Given the impact of ‘attention scarcity’ on reading habits, this may be a positive.

Nonetheless, it also seems set to destroy many jobs, and create further divides in the labour market between high- and low-skilled jobs, a point highlighted by Ben Johnson. While it is comforting to think that things like creativity or entrepreneurship are still only possible for humans, there will still need to be support for individuals in realising this.

A second question concerns information itself. As highlighted in the IFLA FAIFE blog on data ethics, there is uncertainty as to how algorithms and artificial intelligence comes up with its answers. When searching for, or making use of, information, it may not be possible to explain how this happens.

While there never was a perfect search, it was at least possible to analyse the process followed. The risk now is that there is a black box, with little possibility to explain the results.

The one thing we do know is that there is a risk of bias and discrimination. Given that AI feeds on data about the present, it is liable simply to repeat this present into the future. Moreover, commercially-run AI brings with it risks of prioritisation (in the case of search in particular), or of course use of personal data (in general), with all the implications this brings for privacy and Intellectual Freedom.

In short, AI seems to be making two key functions of libraries in their work with communities – support for personal development, and information literacy – as important as ever, if not necessarily easier.


Library-Shaped AI?

Yet libraries are not powerless. Our community’s skills and values, as well as our institutions’ collections, have the potential to impact the development of AI. And by getting involved, we also have a chance to underline the importance of libraries to one of the most significant technological developments of today.

The most immediate contribution comes through library collections. Artificial intelligence works by looking at existing materials and drawing new connections and conclusions. Libraries, collectively, contain the richest imaginable resource for the development of AI. Indeed, the GoogleBooks project, for all its critics, made a major contribution to getting AI to where it is today.

The implication of this is, of course, that digitisation projects (at a quality that allows for machine reading), open access, and linked data are more important than ever. So too are efforts to ensure that copyright law does not drag down efforts to advance AI.

Linked to the use of library collections should be the application of library values. As highlighted above, AI (and big data in general) comes with risks of bias and discrimination.

By opening up whole library collections (in particular from a wider variety of sources), libraries can help provide greater balance in the material with which AI works. Moreover, by cooperating with programmers, there is an opportunity also to identify and combat biases that could lead to unbalanced results. Chris Bourg underlines this opportunity – and the challenges it implies, in her blog.


It remains relatively early days for artificial intelligence. But there are already a number of areas where libraries will need to be active. It is worth exploring further the library angle on these, in order not just to be ready for, but to shape the changes AI will bring.


Further reading

Bourg, Chris (2017), What happens to libraries and librarians when machines can read all the books, blog, 16 March 2017

Coleman, Catherine Nicole (2017), Artificial intelligence and the library of the future, revisited, blog, 3 November 2017

International Telecommunications Union, AI for Good

Jacknis, Norman (2017), The AI-Enhanced Library, blog, 21 June 2017

Johnson, Ben (2018), Libraries in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, InfoToday, January/February

Mulgan, Geoff (2018), AI for Good: Is It for Real?, nesta blog, 23 July 2018

Snow, Jackie (2017), Bias already exists in search engine results and it’s only going to get worse, MIT Technology Review, 26 February 2018

Tay, Aaron (2017), How libraries might change when AI, machine learning, open data, block chain & other technologies are the norm, blog, 9 April 2017

Words of the SDGs: Rights-Based Framework

As the 2018 High Level Political Forum moved towards its conclusion, the focus was more and more on the language in the Ministerial declaration.

The choice (or exclusion) of specific words or terms can seem arcane, but it is a powerful indicator of the model of development that the world’s governments are looking to achieve.

HLPF 2018 Ministerial Declaration

One of the most political concepts was that of a ‘rights-based’ framework. This – and what it means for libraries – is the subject of this blog.

Rights-Based Framework

What Does a Rights-Based Framework Mean?

The rights referred to are human rights – not just those set out in the 1948 Universal Declaration, but also the ones which have been defined subsequently. These include the rights of the child, the right to food, or the rights set out in the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The rights-based framework brings with it a number of the principles associated with human rights in general – indivisibility (you cannot prioritise or pick and choose among rights), interrelatedness (that they overlap and are connected), interdependence (the achievement of one depends on the achievement of others) and universality (everyone benefits).

Moreover, they underline that individuals are rightholders, and entitled to rights. In turn, governments, the international community, NGOs, businesses, and other human beings should respect and promote them. In some cases – in particular where they have been adopted by specific additional measures – these rights are legally enforceable, although this is not the case for all rights, in all countries.

Rights-Based as Opposed to…?

The key moment for the application of these rights to development came in 1986, with the agreement on the Declaration on the Right to Development, agreed by the UN General Assembly. This marked a turning point away from a model focused rather on promoting economic growth, with relatively little regard to the fate of individuals or problems within societies.

It can also be characterised as a deal, with richer states accepting a responsibility to help poorer ones deliver development for their citizens. Developing states in turn accepted an obligation to defend all the human rights (both civil and political, and economic, social and cultural) of their citizens.

This is not a tension that has gone away. Just as some argue that fundamental freedoms (civil and political rights such as freedom of expression, association and religion) are essential for a healthy and prosperous society, others suggest that it is more important to focus on economic and social wellbeing, regardless of limitations on freedom.

By adopting a human-rights based approach, the United Nations made an important step both towards reaffirming the responsibility of the world as a whole to deliver development for all, but also underlining that economic and social progress cannot come at the expense of fundamental freedoms.

Moreover, it sets the achievement of rights as the final goal against which governments will be held accountable. Simply delivering programmes is not enough – there has to be meaningful change. And finally, by referring to human rights, it adds a new political strength to the agenda.

The Link with Libraries

The action of libraries itself can be seen as a way of making of a rights-based framework for development happen. As institutions focused on delivering a number of key individual rights (to access to information, to participate in cultural life, to education), they are a key part of the infrastructure for making good on governments’ commitments.

Often working with a mandate to reach out, in particular, to marginalised groups, they regularly make the additional effort necessary to ensure the rights of those who might not otherwise benefit.

The work of libraries focused on people with special needs, those based in less favoured areas, and those providing Internet access to people without other means of connecting are just some examples. Through this access, they allow for the realisation of broader economic and social rights.

Finally, the rights based approach also supports many of the broader advocacy arguments made by libraries, such as the importance of privacy and freedom of expression.

The concept of a rights-based framework can therefore be a very useful tool in library advocacy. Individuals have a right to information, to education, to culture and to science, and libraries deliver these. Moreover, as a demonstrator of the interrelation between fundamental freedoms (such as the of access to information) and economic social and cultural rights, they provide a great example of the principles of the rights-based approach in action.

Further reading:

Words of the SDGs: Leave No One Behind

Continuing our series of blogs looking at the words (and phrases) which mark the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda, today’s edition looks at ‘leaving no one behind’.

Perhaps unlike some of our previous ‘words’ (intersectionality, resilience, participation), this feels like a refreshing step away from jargon. This has also made it particularly powerful as a term, although, as this blog will explore, it is not the subject of complete consensus.

As with our other ‘words’, it also has an impact on how libraries work with the Sustainable Development Goals, and can become a useful part of library advocacy in this area.

Leave No One Behind

A Vital Shift: From Focusing on the Poorest to Leaving No One Behind

At the heart of the Millennium Development Goals – the predecessor to the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals – was the notion that economic and social progress around the world had failed to make a difference to the poorest. Too many lacked education, sanitation, healthcare, or adequate income. The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) therefore focused on the worst-off.

The measures of progress chosen focused on this group, but used global averages. As a result, thanks to rapid growth in countries like China, leading to falls in absolute poverty and improvements in services, it was possible to declare success on a number of the Goals.

This did not mean, however, that all countries or groups saw progress. Many of the most vulnerable – the targets of the MDGs – saw little improvement, or even went backwards.

The 2030 Agenda acknowledged this point head on by asserting that not only were the SDGs an indivisible whole (all had to be achieved, together), but that they could only be achieved if they were achieved for everyone. This is the basis of the concept of leaving no one behind.

More Complex than it Sounds

While the idea of achieving the Goals for all appears simple, it also raises questions. What does this mean about where governments – and the global community – should focus efforts? Does ‘no one’ refer to countries (i.e. developing countries), groups within countries or individuals? How does this relate to sustainability? All came up in a civil society debate on Sunday, as well as in previous research on the topic.

Fortunately, there is a relatively simple answer to the first question – the primary focus should be on those who need it most. This follows a concept known as ‘progressive universalism’ (for which the model was a Mexican healthcare reform that specifically served the most vulnerable before anyone else).

Yet debate remains as to ‘who’ is left behind. With the 2030 Agenda explicitly focused on the whole world, the implication is that it is citizens and groups within countries who run this risk. Nonetheless, there is also a strong argument that countries with low national income are also vulnerable, and so need support.

A further evolution in the 2030 Agenda is the recognition that being left behind is also a question of where you stand relative to the population as a whole. Even in a rich society, inequalities can have significant impacts on life chances and general wellbeing. The SDGs even include a focus on inequality (SDG10), underlining that even when (if) we can put an end to absolute poverty, there is still much work to do.

In turn, these inequalities are often the result of discrimination. This can come both in social and cultural forms (racism, sexism, etc), but also discrimination through lack of access to the same services as others. People living in rural areas do, arguably, run a higher risk of being unable to access health and education than those in towns and cities. The focus on fighting discrimination – a key notion from human rights – is also a novelty in the SDGs.

Finally, an ongoing debate surrounds whether bringing everyone up to the standard of living of the best off is a good idea as far as the planet is concerned. It seems clear enough that if all pollute as much as the highest polluting, climate change will only get worse. To avoid this, those lucky enough to live in richer societies either need to find much more energy and resource-efficient ways of living, or accept having to share.

What Impact for Libraries

As a universal public service, libraries can already make a strong case, within their communities, to be realising the concept of leaving no one behind. Given the importance of information, as highlighted across the SDGs (19 targets), this is a role worth championing.

In many countries, libraries have a specific mandate to reach out to those populations who are more at risk of being left behind, such as those with special needs. Evidence from the Pew Research Centre suggests that groups seen as minorities rate libraries as more important than others.

In effect, through providing a universal service, paired with additional support to those who need it, libraries both provide targeted assistance to those most at risk, and act as a force for equality in general.

Clearly there is still progress to make in some parts of the world. The idea of leaving no one behind provides a strong argument for investment by governments in libraries.

This is the case not only in terms of promoting physical accessibility (both for people with disabilities, and a wider network of libraries in rural areas), but also as concerns financial accessibility (where there are fees for access), and socio-cultural and legal accessibility (ensuring that citizenship status is not a barrier, as highlighted by the Mayor of Montreal in a session on Monday, and overcoming the belief in some communities that the library is not for them).

Libraries can be key players in fighting both information poverty and information inequality. The concept of leaving no one behind provides a valuable tool for advocacy to make this a reality.

Find out more about IFLA’s presence at the 2018 High Level Political Forum, as well as our broader work on libraries and the UN 2030 Agenda.

Further reading:

Words of the SDGs: Participation

With more than 2500 non-State actors registered, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) are a crucial part of the High Level Political Forum (HLPF). They contribute ideas, reflections, experience, inspiration – and sometimes criticism – making HLPF into a varied and dynamic event.

Transparency, accountability, measurement, monitoring, reporting, implementation, involvement, engagement, contribution, responsibility, accessibility, ownership: just a few of the keywords that have characterised CSO participation so far in New York this year.

But it is the concept of ‘participation’ itself that will be the focus of this blog. Because the possibility for non-State actors to engage and make their voices heard is not a given.


The 2030 Agenda itself underlines the importance of participation, and across sessions and side events at HLPF 2018, this idea continues to be high on the agenda. Three perspectives in particular have been discussed in relation to civil society participation: the country level, the regional level, and the international level.

A reflexion on the participation of CSOs at each of these levels follows:

Participation at the Country Level

One big question is: To what extent CSOs are involved at a national level?

Have they been invited to participate in commissions or workshops to discuss monitoring or implementation? How has this participation been formalised? Have CSOs been invited to give input or review documents and provide comments? Were these comments incorporated or considered at all? How about marginalised or most vulnerable groups? Is there an outreach strategy or mechanism in place by the government?

In the first week of the HLPF, we’ve heard and seen it all. There are cases of countries involving stakeholders to reach a consensus from the word ‘go’. This is the ideal situation! In some countries governments have taken comments from CSOs, but only incorporated them partially into their planning and reporting. Nonetheless, this is also a good advance. However, in other cases CSOs really want to voice their concerns or ideas, but they find no proper mechanism to give feedback.

Awareness is a big issue. How can you participate if you don’t know what is going on? How aware are CSO stakeholders of the actions taken by government in relation to the SDGs? How aware is the government about their responsibilities to achieve the SDGs? More efforts are needed to raise awareness across the board.

One of the challenges faced by CSOs is the lack of information on who is really in charge of SDG planning and implementation. With fragmented governance of delivering the 2030 Agenda in many cases, it is very hard to find the right people, and this gets even harder when administrations change or after elections have taken place. Even official HLPF country pages are somewhat incomplete or outdated. This can mean a lot of time spent and lost opportunities for CSOs.

Considering the multiplicity of topics in the 2030 Agenda, having a national coordinating body, usually at the highest level in the government organisational structure, and assigning focal points from all ministries and specialised agencies to be part of a steering committee for planning and reporting is considered a good practice.

Multi-stakeholder commissions, across all areas and involving crosscutting issues, are definitely a good way forward. A space for dialogue between government, private sector, academia, and civil society is key, but this needs to have an impact on public policy to be truly worthwhile.

In some cases, CSOs have presented reports, sometimes called “shadow reports”. These reports can have several approaches: they can point out what is missing, they can use the same data and do another interpretation, or they can provide new evidence. But interrogations remain about these: How to ensure that CSOs are considered partners in monitoring progress? What should these reports look like? How and where should they be submitted for consideration?

Those countries that have placed the SDGs in the legal framework or have ensured that access to information laws that are enforced, have an advantage. But unfortunately, it’s not that common. Informal engagements are usually well received and there are relatively positive efforts to open processes. However, the lack of methodology or an established process makes it harder to become a reality.

Since CSO involvement is recommended but not mandatory for Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs), the situation varies a lot from country to country. Some countries are really struggling to find the right process or methodology. In some cases, they have open mechanisms, with key stakeholders involved and included in validation stages. In others participation is ad hoc, and only small groups are consulted, often on an arbitrary basis.

Bringing less frequently heard voices to the mainstreaming process is key in the hopes of leaving no one behind. Still it is mostly well organised and well-funded NGOs that are the ones at the table. Even within CSOs some take the leadership and it is very hard for small ones or those outside of the mainstream to convey their messages.

CSOs coalitions are a possible solution to secure civil society participation. Since space for participation is shrinking in some countries, given the political climate, consensus and group representation through creating coalitions sounds like a good way to go.

Participation at the Regional Level

This year, preparatory meetings took place in 5 regions before the HLPF for: Europe (ECE), Arab countries (ESCWA), Asia-Pacific (ESCAP), Africa (ECA) and Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

These meetings have been a good opportunity for civil society to participate, get to know each other and foster collaboration in preparation for the HLPF, particularly through side events and the creation of Civil Society Declarations and, the much needed, CSO Participation Mechanisms.

Session: “Thematic review: Implementing the SDGs: lessons from the regions”

Session: “Thematic review: Implementing the SDGs: lessons from the regions”

As mentioned during the session “Thematic review: Implementing the SDGs: lessons from the regions” the regional and sub-regional levels are recognised as a good environment for discussion and peer-learning, with more space for dialogue than the international level. However, even though there is a mechanism for CSOs to engage at different moments during these fora, the inputs are usually missing in the Ministerial declarations.

As indicated by the NGO Major Group, the regional forums need to be a space to monitor progress, and there should be more space for thematic discussions in the regional level, since the HLPF has proven to be not enough.

Participation at the International Level

The High Level Political Forum (HLFP) is undoubtedly a unique event for countries to present on their progress to a global audience, to learn from other members states from all regions, as well as to interact with government, UN officials and civil society. However, there is a certain level of shared criticism about the level and modalities of participation across the board.

Particularly for CSOs, opportunities for participation on an equal basis with governments are still scarce. As a new development, some countries are bringing CSO representatives to present along with governments, at the VNRs, notably Switzerland and Latvia. However, time for presentations is very limited (1-2 minutes) and it is very hard to send the message of so many stakeholders across in such little time.

Even though CSO have limited opportunities to take the floor and formally interact with their countries during the HLPF, according to a survey prepared by the UN Foundation on the HLPF, some member states surprisingly perceive that CSO has too much space at these fora. This shows how important perceptions are, how these can affect reality.

In addition to this, there is the problem of capacity, funding and language barriers, that make participation at the international level a challenge for most CSOs. Mostly international NGOs are seen at these forums, instead of national or local organisations.

For this, it is very important that international CSOs engage with the local and national levels to bring in their perspectives (particularly in countries where the UN doesn’t have local offices), work with them and give them a voice. A positive added benefit of participating of the HLPF is that there are  many opportunities to meet national representatives. In some cases, meeting a representative at the HLPF helps in getting a better response back in the country too.

Side event: "An NGO Toolbox to Enhance Implementation of the 2030 Agenda: Towards Sustainable and Resilient Communities" (Photo of the NGO Major Group)

Side event: “An NGO Toolbox to Enhance Implementation of the 2030 Agenda: Towards Sustainable and Resilient Communities” (Photo of the NGO Major Group)

Conclusion and Next Steps

The good news is that there have been improvements, and the fact that there are complaints of the lack of space is a good signal that shows a great interest in the process, from all actors.

The reality is experience of enabling the participation of CSOs is still limited, and it is evident that governments, the UN and CSOs are learning as they go. It is good to know that 2019 will bring a formal opportunity to review the modalities and devise other methodologies.

Learning from the first 4 years of HLPF experience in order to find better ways towards SDG implementation is key. A more operational approach, a bigger space for sharing best practices and recommendations, and a stronger commitment and follow up are some of the improvements people are looking for in this next stage.

For CSOs, the most valuable change would be to foster better discussions and open dialogue with governments. The effective recognition of the multi-stakeholder principle at the country, regional, and international levels is imperative.

One thing is clear, the 2030 Agenda cannot be achieved without civil society. An open and inclusive approach is the only way to go.

Words of the SDGs: Resilience

As highlighted in a previous blog, the United Nations 2030 Agenda can seem jargon-heavy. As in any big, institutional process, certain keywords emerge, and take on a power they may not have in the outside world.

While it may not seem natural, being able to use these words in library advocacy can be a great way of gaining attention among the people in government whose job is to work on the SDGs.

One such word is ‘resilience’. In the world of the SDGs, this is an important concept reflecting a shift in thinking about development from dealing with the consequences of change to helping people, communities and nations prepare and respond to it themselves, as far as possible.


This stems firstly from the idea that we need to defend everyone’s right to development – i.e. that everyone should have the resources and possibilities to improve their own lives. It also comes from the acceptance that at a time of rapid technological, economic, social and environmental change, it is no longer enough to try and determine solutions that last for a long time, but to build in the ability to evolve at all levels.

Resilience is an important word for library advocacy around the SDGs for three reasons highlighted during discussions on Day 4 of the High Level Political Forum.

Libraries as Critical Community Assets to Protect

A session on the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction focused on how best to prepare for and respond to disasters, both natural and man-made. It provided an opportunity to set out the place of libraries, both as critical community institutions that need to be covered by risk reduction plans (in order to limit damage), but also as part of recovery efforts.

Shoko Arakaki, UNISDR Chief of Branch, Partnerships, Inter-governmental process and Inter-agency cooperation

Shoko Arakaki, UNISDR Chief of Branch, Partnerships, Inter-governmental process and Inter-agency cooperation

As set out in the IFLA briefing on the Sendai Framework, libraries often contain materials which are invaluable to their communities. With heritage an important driver of community cohesion, identity and potentially jobs, its loss can mean serious long-term damage. Libraries therefore need to be covered by government planning and investment, a point welcomed by the panelists in the session at the UN.

Libraries as Secondary Emergency Service

Yet libraries can also be crucial in the days and weeks after a disaster hits. There are many examples of libraries acting as refuges in times of crisis, providing electricity, connectivity, or simply a space of calm for people in situations of extreme stress.

While food and healthcare are clearly priorities, libraries are arguably a secondary emergency service, helping people move back towards normal life. As such, they can be key to the process of rebuilding.

Libraries Building Resilience for the Long Term

Libraries also contribute strongly to longer-term resilience through providing access to information. By this, they provide an answer not just to sudden disasters or crises, but to the trends and evolutions that are changing the way we live, learn, earn and interact with each other.

As highlighted in the Lyon Declaration and the Development and Access to Information report, information can empower people, giving them the tools not only to respond to change, but also identify and realise new opportunities. When everyone is a lifelong learner, and that communities, with access to information, can find ways to adapt and thrive, we are a long way to having achieved resilience.

‘Resilience’ is therefore a great concept for libraries to use in their own work around the SDGs, both in order to safeguard our own institutions in times of crisis, but also to highlight their role in creating sustainable cities and communities into the future.