Our Common Agenda is the United Nations’ Secretary-General’s response to the Declaration made by Member States on the UN’s 75th Anniversary in 2020. It marks an important step from defining priorities to defining concrete actions that can strengthen both the UN, and broader efforts to achieve its objectives.
It complements key existing texts, not least the 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, both by highlighting areas where there is a particular need for action, and proposing ways of ensuring that countries, together, can promote development more effectively.
The Agenda both has implications for libraries, and creates opportunities to underline how our institutions and profession contribute to global policy goals. As decisions are taken, and more detailed plans are put in place, there should be chances to contribute experience and perspectives, and seek recognition for our work.
IFLA has produced a briefing on Our Common Agenda that sets out in more detail the ideas and issues it covers. In this blog, we highlight ten key points that are relevant to libraries. You can draw on these points in your own engagement with local UN offices, or even in your advocacy, given how much support the Agenda offers for many library priorities:
1) Renewing the social contract: Our Common Agenda emphasises the idea of a new social contract – a set of shared rules and values that provide a basis for government, and for relations between members of society. This, the report argues, needs to be founded on respect for rights (and access to justice), and on solidarity between the more and less fortunate. Crucially, such a social contract should offer a basis for quality public services.
Arguably, libraries (public and national libraries in particular) are part of such a social contract, provided by governments in order to provide opportunities for all to realise their rights, and their potential.
2) Combatting the infodemic: The report makes addressing the infodemic – the spread of misinformation – into a major priority, not just as concerns health, but across the board. It calls for steps both to ensure stronger scientific inputs into policy making, but also a code of conduct on the integrity of public information. There is blunt language about politicians and others who spread false information, with the Secretary General calling for it to be clear that it is wrong to lie.
For libraries, a greater focus on quality information and use of evidence vindicates the role of our profession, and will hopefully create new opportunities to ensure that this is recognised by decision-makers.
3) Universal connectivity: the Secretary General has also made universal internet connectivity a key part of Our Common Agenda, recognising how vital this is both for access to public services, and to wider economic, social and cultural opportunities. Connecting schools represents a particular priority, with more effective digital taxation seen as a way of paying for it.
Libraries have a long-standing, recognised role in supporting public access to the internet, as a stepping stone towards private access, or as a complement to it. It will be important to work to ensure that libraries are included in initiatives taking place under this heading.
4) Protecting rights, online and off: the report reiterates how central respect for human rights should be to all that governments do, echoing the 2030 Agenda. In particular, it calls for a Global Digital Compact, in order to find solutions to the challenges created by the behaviour of private and public actors alike. In particular, it warns about the impact of internet shutdowns, as well as more targeted blocking or filtering of content.
The need for the internet to work in support of human rights is a long-standing priority for libraries, and we bring important insights and perspectives. Libraries can also be key players in more community-based initiatives around information and connectivity, such as community networks or local archives.
5) Thinking to the future: a large segment of the report is dedicated to making the future more present in policy discussions taking place today. One way of doing this is through intensifying work to draw on evidence and expert viewpoints in order to identify what the years to come could look like. In addition to doing this more at the UN itself, Our Common Agenda also advocates for boosting listening exercises, as well as those focused on envisioning the future.
Libraries are not only crucial players in ensuring that decision-makers have the information needed to think about the future, but can be important venues for involving communities in collective reflection. In many cases, public libraries already fulfil this function, giving an opportunity to share good practices and spread them further.
6) Literacy matters: a further step in order better to integrate the future into present planning is by focusing on children, and giving everyone a better start in life. A key element of this is universal basic literacy, with it clear that many schools still don’t have the resources needed to provide this, even if children are able to attend. The answer will need to be a new drive to deliver skills, including through better focusing of aid budgets.
Globally, libraries have a key role in promoting literacy, both within schools and wider communities, that is often recognised in national literacy and reading strategies. It will be important now both to ensure that this is reflected at the global level, and to see how we can increase the impact of libraries’ work in this area.
7) A universal entitlement to lifelong learning: Our Common Agenda’s emphasis on education is not limited to children, but also recognises the situation and needs of adults faced with a world and employment market for which their previous education and experience may not have prepared them. Yet lifelong learning is too often under-supported compared with other policy areas – this needs to be corrected if everyone is to be able to play their part in sustainable development.
Libraries are both providers of, and portals to lifelong learning opportunities. We have a strong interest then both in promoting the idea of a universal entitlement as a goal, and contributing to efforts to define how it is delivered.
8) A more networked multilateralism: Our Common Agenda underlines that for success in delivering the goals of the United Nations, not least the Sustainable Development Goals, a full range of actors needs to be involved, including business, academics and civil society. Crucially, development cannot just be a top-down thing, but needs to mobilise different strengths and capabilities.
Beyond the work of library associations in engaging with discussions around implementation of the SDGs, this priority may support efforts to promote models of SDG delivery that mobilise libraries more effectively, drawing on their strengths in terms of collections, spaces and staff.
9) Dedicated focal points for civil society: As part of the drive to ensure stronger participation of different stakeholders in delivering on policy goals, Our Common Agenda includes proposed steps to make it easier for civil society organisations to engage with UN agencies. A key one is the suggestion to name dedicated focal points who can organise opportunities to input, and make it easier to find out how to get involved.
For library associations, as civil society organisations, this development would be a helpful one, especially in more specialised or regional UN agencies. Once these are identified, it will be possible to focus advocacy more effectively, through understanding better what is possible.
10) The role of parliaments and local and regional governments: as part of its emphasis on the need to work with a wider range of stakeholders, the report highlights in particular the need to work more with Parliaments and regional governments, both of which have key roles, respectively, in designing and scrutinising policy, and in taking many of the actions needed to achieve development.
Libraries and research services have a particularly essential role in helping parliaments to do their jobs, while local and regional governments often have libraries under their direct responsibility, making them more aware of what our institutions can achieve. The focus on parliaments and local and regional governments offers new possibilities to demonstrate, and advocate for, the importance of libraries.