Looking ahead to the Summit of the Future: the UN Secretary General’s Policy Briefs and libraries
05 July 2023
Following our two focused analyses of the UN Secretary General’s Policy Briefs on the Global Digital Compact and Information Integrity, this article takes a look at the next six, and how they relate to libraries and information.
These Briefs are a key milestone in the preparation of the Summit of the Future, due to take place next year, and which in turn aims to boost the UN’s capacity to deliver, both on the 2030 Agenda and its wider missions.
In each case, we provide a short summary of the what the brief covers and aims to do, and then reflection on relevant angles for libraries as well as desirable changes. The article therefore provides background for library associations and librarians in engagement around UN issues.
Going beyond GDP
This Brief looks to advance long-standing efforts to complement Gross Domestic Product as a measure of progress. It sets out the much-discussed weaknesses of this, including over-simplification, a tendency not to reflect negatives such as air pollution and biodiversity loss, little insight into inequalities, and little ability reflect new economic phenomena. Crucially, a new approach would complement the SDGs, which themselves look at much more beyond growth, but are arguably too extensive to be easily understood.
The Brief therefore calls for a new framework covering wellbeing and agency, respect for life and the planet, reduced inequalities and greater solidarity, participatory governance, innovative and ethical economies, and a shift from vulnerability to resilience. It argues that achieving this will also require capacity-building among national statistical agencies.
Library angles: Libraries of course have never measured their impact in terms of GDP, and so any approach that takes more account of positive impacts on people’s lives, as well as the fulfilment of their rights (in particular to access to information) is welcome. Given how vital information access is to enabling people to exercise free will, it would be powerful to see reference to this in any future framework.
Beyond this, of course, there is likely to be a strong need for information and data managers to gather the sorts of data required, meaning demand for the skills that librarians can offer.
Another core principle in the SDGs is the idea that we need to integrate the needs and interests of future generations into our own planning. However, decision-making all too often focuses on the short term. The Brief argues that there does not need to be a trade-off, and that we can gain now from addressing issues such as climate change, pollution, backsliding on rights, exclusion and more.
To do this, the Brief suggests that there needs to be a structural way to ensure better attention to the interests of future generations, both through an envoy for them, and more focus on foresight at every level of government. There would also be a forum bringing together everyone involved in this work in order to share ideas, experiences, and ensure higher global profile.
Library angles: libraries by their nature are institutions built for the future, and indeed the Brief underlines that it is often in the culture and heritage sector that a focus on future generations is strongest. Libraries will clearly also benefit from approaches that make life in future easier and safer than it would be otherwise. The focus on foresight, drawing on insights across disciplines, is also very interesting, given that it is librarians who are best placed to help bring together the evidence base for this work. The results of this work could therefore underline the value of gathering and giving access to evidence through libraries.
The third Brief also links to questions about how to reorientate the work of the UN better towards the future by doing more for youth today. It underlines a concern that too often youth engagement is uneven or not meaningful, leading to young people having little sense of involvement, and ending up the victims of poor decisions today. Stronger inclusion will realise the potential of young people to promote and protect rights and drive change.
It sets out principles for young engagement across the UN system, as well as to promote youth consultative bodies in every country, a monitoring framework, and a plan to support this work going forward.
Library angles: in addition to the points above about the focus of libraries on the future, there is also the extensive experience of librarians in working with youth. Libraries have long had a role as places where young people can explore the world through access to a wider range of materials than included in textbooks, and there are many great examples of initiatives designed to build civic engagement. These can be a key feeder for work at national, or even international level. Furthermore, such efforts will also need to draw on evidence to be meaningful, offering another potential role for libraries.
Behind this Brief there is the concern that with a huge increase in the number of satellites, greater private sector activity in space, and new commitments to returning to deep space, there is a need to look at governance. Rules so far have, however, been narrowly focused, looking at issues like communications only.
Keeping space as a safe, shared space is vital, given for example that nearly 40% of SDG targets make use of earth observation and global navigation satellite systems. Space technologies are also likely to play a big role in boosting connectivity, for example through low-earth orbit satellites. The Brief therefore purposes a new regime for space sustainability, with a particular focus on combatting debris, defining norms and rules, and inclusive governance approaches.
Library angles: the emphasis on connectivity in this Brief is particularly welcome, given libraries’ own commitment to universal internet access. There are interesting opportunities, for example, to connect libraries as community centres using satellite technology – this both gives libraries new possibilities to serve users, but also ensures that people can go online with the support of local libraries. This can help ensure that connectivity leads to positive change.
International Financial Architecture
This Brief offers an assessment of how well international institutions and systems have been able both to respond to shocks and provide the investment needed for development. The picture is not positive. The Brief criticises the lack of enough sustainable and long-term financing to combat climate change and achieve the SDGs, with poorer countries at a particular disadvantage. Meanwhile, the governance of institutions like the International Monetary Fund does not support progress enough.
The Brief therefore calls for reforms to governance of institutions, action on debt, a stronger focus on development impacts when taking decisions, and much large sums for development and climate finance. It adds as priorities the need for better bank regulation, tax reform to combat evasion and avoidance, and more emphasis on equity throughout the system.
Library angles: with libraries themselves dependent on government or other third party funding in order to deliver on their missions, we as a sector have a major interest in ensuring that decisions about investment are driven by the desire to maximise development impacts above all. We see too often the impact of badly though-through budget cuts on libraries, but also the benefits that increased spending can bring on our ability to deliver. As a result, actions taken in line with this brief stand to benefit libraries and the people who rely on them.
The final Brief that is currently available looks to learn the lessons of the COVID pandemic and cost of living crisis, and upgrade the UN’s ability to respond to complex global crises. With the world more connected than ever, as well as worrying global dynamics around climate change, biodiversity loss, geopolitical competition and socioeconomic inequalities, such crises are likely to become more common in future.
The Secretary General doesn’t propose a new permanent structure, but rather a protocol that can be used to bring together efforts effectively, drawing on the UN’s convening power. This should allow for stronger political leadership, decisions based on stronger evidence, accountability, and consideration of equality in order to ensure that no groups are disadvantaged in responses, as was the case with unequal vaccine distribution against COVID for example.
Library angles: first of all, libraries and the communities that they serve will benefit from more effective and inclusive responses to crises. However, libraries are not just passive in such situations – as we saw in the case of COVID, effective crisis response depends on rapid access to as complete an evidence base as possible. The references to multistakeholder engagement and multidisciplinary engagement in any emergency platform would therefore be strengthened by underlining that it should be based on well-supported evidence teams, including of course librarians.
This brief builds on the Transforming Education Summit that took place last year, and in particular the idea that in order to be a factor for progress, it is necessary to address the dual challenges of equity (i.e. how to make sure that education benefits everyone), and relevance (that education is suited to the world of today, and in particular does not just reinforce old and negative attitudes and behaviours). It highlight the need to boost spending, and to digitalise in a critical and responsible way as part of the solution, as well as repositioning the role of teachers, better integration across the lifespan and internationalisation.
Library angles: the brief includes a number of very positive aspects for libraries, notably the explicit focus on education and lifelong learning from the start, as well as talking about learning societies. Indeed, much of the vision it presents of education is very similar to the way in which we talk about the role of access to information as an enabler of development and factor of equality in society in general. The main thing that is missing is arguably a clear recognition of libraries as a key part of the lifelong learning infrastructure!
A new agenda for peace
The final brief that is currently available aims to address concerns about ongoing and increasing conflict, both between and within countries. Given the basic mission of the United Nations to promote peace, this is clearly a major issue for the organisation. The brief worries that there is a breakdown of trust and an increasing focus on individual security, which poses a threat to collective security. It makes a link between the situation inside countries and that between them, arguing that greater equality, a healthy civil society and success in delivering the SDGs will bring benefits in this space.
In response, the brief argues that we need a new agenda for multilateralism, with a greater emphasis on prevention, strengthening peace operations and enforcement, to encourage novel approaches to peace, and have stronger international governance. Overall, it makes a call for more work to ensure that international cooperation is valued, in parallel with tackling sources of conflict within societies.
Library angles: clearly at a general level, libraries have long made the argument that they can be factors in building and sustaining peace through promoting understanding, providing spaces where communities can come together, and encouraging decision-making based on evidence rather than politics. Beyond this the brief also makes a welcome reference to the need to tackle mis- and disinformation and hate speech as part of any wider effort to promote peace, although this remains narrowly focused on social media platforms. This work would benefit from talking about wider efforts to build understanding and communication between communities, for example through libraries.
The final Policy Brief looks at the United Nations itself, and what it needs to do itself in order to deliver on the goals covered in the other Briefs. It recognises both the reach and potential of the UN system, but also its complexity and the urgency of adopting new tools and ways of doing things in order to deliver. Across two broad themes – promoting a forward-thinking approach and advancing culture change – the Secretary General sets out what he calls his ‘quintet of change’ – actions around data, innovation, digital, foresight, and behaviour change.
Under each of these, there is an assessment of the current state of the UN system, a view of what could be possible, an idea of how this could change things on the ground, and practical steps forwards. It also shines a light on examples of transformative actions that have already been carried out by different parts of the UN, as evidence of what is possible, and encourages everyone else to join them.
Library angles: in each of the aspects of the quintet of change, there is an important knowledge aspect. The data section is all about better collecting, managing and using this, while innovation, foresight and behavioural insights all rely on meaningful use of existing information. The ideas about digital refer to areas where libraries already have strengths, notably around connectivity and promoting digital literacy. Is is particularly welcome that the work of the UN Library in Geneva is already cited as an example of a transformative action, and knowledge appears in eight instances overall – we can hope that this means ongoing recognition of the value of libraries across the UN. Nonetheless, it would help to make these connections between issues clearer.
Across the briefs, the role of information, as well as of the goals that libraries seek to achieve, in delivering on the wider objectives of the UN is already clear across the issues addressed.
Nonetheless, to ensure work in the areas covered is as effective as possible, there is still plenty of scope to make recognition of this role and these goals stronger and more explicit.