SDG Success as an Information Problem?

IFLA has engaged strongly around the Sustainable Development Goals, both in their preparation in the run up to 2015, and in their delivery in the years that have followed.

In this, we have worked hard to show how libraries contribute to success, and – more importantly – to help library associations and libraries around the world to do the same, in their own contexts.

We have identified the SDG targets – 20 of them! – which implicitly or explicitly refer to the need for access to, and the ability to use, information. We have collected stories and examples on the Library Map of the World, and have a growing collection of expert insights into how information and libraries contribute to individual SDGs in the Development and Access to Information Report.

This approach may work with policy-makers focused on getting success on the individual goals for which they are responsible. But it can often feel difficult to bring this all together at a more general level, and avoid a situation where access to information questions are only viewed, separately, from many different angles.

This is an issue for libraries, given that if there is a better understanding of the cross-cutting importance of information, this could lead to support for institutions focused on equitable, cross-cutting providers of access to information – libraries.

Without it, information (and so libraries) risks falling between stools as an issue, and ultimately being forgotten or neglected.

How to response? One angle could be to work to help decision-makers to understand better how the challenges they face are, at least to some extent, information issues, or information problems.

The idea of ‘information problems’ is not new of course. It is at the basis of work on information literacy in general. It also shows up in economics (where it is seen as a source of market failure), and in health (where it underpins a lot of work on public health), just to give a few examples.

But how to apply this to policy issues, and to encourage governments, in their work towards the SDGs, to think clearly and holistically about the information issues?

Governments themselves – at least in some situations – are already fortunately beginning to understand the information problems that they face in terms of good governance. As set out in an IFLA paper a couple of years ago, the notion of ‘evidence-based policy-making’ is a recognition of just such an information problem.

What about in implementation? How do we encourage policy makers to focus? One approach could be to encourage them to ask the below questions, across their action to implement the SDGs:

  1. Does success depend on individuals being able to find out about new opportunities?
  2. Does success depend on behaviour-change among individuals?
  3. Does success depend on the possibility to respond to change, from the local to the global levels?
  4. Does success depend on innovation improving on existing knowledge?

These questions, hopefully, are not controversial. Yet each one touches on the importance of access to information as a basis for better decision-making, and so policy success, at all levels.

They are all areas where libraries make a difference, as a place to find out about new openings and programmes, to learn about new ways of doing things, to organise and better use information, and to power research.

And in almost every area of policy work, the answer to at least one of the above questions will be yes. For health policy makers, it will be all of them. For employment policy makers, it will be at least questions 1 and 3. For climate change policy, it will be questions 2 to 4.

The same exercise works for policies to deliver other SDGs, at all levels of government. When asked at the top level of policy-planning, this has the potential to make it clear how important information is as a cross-cutting issue, and so to justify action, including by supporting libraries.


Clearly, information alone cannot solve all problems. Indeed, it would be unfair to place all the responsibility for policy failures on individuals making the wrong decisions.

But at the same time, ignoring the information problems that exist in almost all overall policy challenges is to take a restricted perspective, and one that risks reducing success.

IFLA will continue to work at the global level to underline the transformative potential of comprehensive solutions to information problems in achieving the SDGs. We welcome your ideas here!