In the third and final story in our series focusing on reviews of implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2021, we hear from libraries in four countries about their experience of engaging in this process.

The presence of references to libraries in Voluntary National and Voluntary Local Reviews provides a welcome affirmation of the role of our institutions as partners for development.

As highlighted in the two previous stories in this series, focusing on the national and local levels respectively, we are seeing a growing share of official reports do just this. Moreover, they highlight clearly the range of ways in which libraries contribute.

However, almost equally important is the possibility that Voluntary National Reviews in particular play in providing an opportunity to engage with new parts of government and other potential partners.

Through this, there can be the possibility to build new contacts and alliances that strengthen library advocacy into the longer term.

To find out more about this, we asked libraries in Denmark, Norway, Zimbabwe and Iraq about their experiences.

Not every VNR is alike

First of all, it is clear that each country will tend to make its own choices about how to run its Voluntary National Reviews. As highlighted in IFLA’s guide, the United Nations does produce a handbook setting out best practice, but countries remain free to decide how far to implement this.  

As such, it will not always be the same type of ministry in charge. In Denmark, the Finance Ministry was responsible, while in Zimbabwe the Ministry of Social Welfare was in charge. Meanwhile, in Iraq, the Ministry of planning led the process.

Interestingly, in Norway, engagement with civil society organisations (such as libraries) took place through an NGO platform which coordinated all inputs.

Furthermore, a different process may be followed in each case. In Denmark, the ministry simply made a call to all organisations around the SDGs, while in Norway, the coordinating NGO platform reached out directly to specific organisations.

Similarly in Zimbabwe, there was no public call, and in fact libraries needed to approach the ministry proactively, building on contracts made previously at the 2020 African Regional Forum for Sustainable Development.

In Iraq too, it was possible to access the process because of previous meetings between libraries and the ministry in order to talk more broadly about the SDGs.

Finally, the type of contribution expected also varied from country to country. In Denmark, Zimbabwe and Iraq, libraries submitted full papers, highlighting examples of how libraries are contributing to achieving the SDGs. In Norway, however, a much shorter summary paper was requested.

A chance to expand networks

At least in some cases, engaging in VNRs did open up new contacts within government. For example, in Denmark, the coordinating ministry is not a regular partner of libraries, but is one that could usefully be contacted in future.

In Zimbabwe also, the coordinating ministry was a new contact for the library association. Thanks to this engagement, the association has been able to create new synergies and receive key new information.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, given that links already existed, the preparation of the VNR served rather to consolidate this relationship.

Looking beyond government contacts, work around VNRs appears to be paying off in Zimbabwe, where other NGOs are starting to understand the potential of libraries.

VNRs have also helped mobilise wider networks of libraries. In Denmark, the DB 2030 Network brings together institutions committed to working towards the SDGs, while in Iraq, the VNR helped bring together a number of university libraires.

Early signs of impact

The work of libraries in each country to engage around Voluntary National Reviews, and the wider SDGs, does seem to be paying off.

The most obvious indicator is the inclusion of references to libraries in Reports. For example Zimbabwe’s report celebrated the work of the association around open data, while Norway’s cited libraries’ contribution to inclusion.

In Denmark in particular, the government even announced a new initiative, through its VNR, to strength libraries’ work to disseminate information about the SDGs, and run a Global Goals certification programme.

There is also evidence of closer links with governments, with officials in Zimbabwe and Iraq alike underlining how much they welcome library engagement, and looking forward to further cooperation.

Lessons for the future

Clearly, the diversity in the processes implemented by governments means that libraries in each country will need to do the detective work necessary to find how best to engage.

Sometimes this will be a case of making sure that you are checking the right websites or are on the right mailing lists. Other times, it will be a case of ensuring that you are well known in general in the NGO community.

Nonetheless, making the effort to identify and get to know the team responsible in general for implementing the SDGs clearly helps in general, not least in ensuring that even if there isn’t a public call for contributions, you will not be trying to engage as strangers.

A second lesson is around the value of having evidence and case studies already prepared in order to submit. This work isn’t just helpful at the time of a Voluntary National Review, but can also support your advocacy at other moments.

Finally, as seen in Iraq and Zimbabwe in particular, working around the SDGs – and in particular VNRs – can be a great way to expand networks, ensuring that a wider range of ministries know about the work of libraries, and so – ideally – can be ready to support our institutions when decisions are made.

With six countries already having expressed an interest in carrying out a VNR in 2022 (Djibouti, Eritrea, Philippines, Senegal, Sri Lanka and Tuvalu) – and likely around forty in the end again undertaking one – these are helpful experiences for libraries in each to bear in mind.

We are grateful to colleagues from the Danish Library Association, the Norwegian Library Association, the Zimbabwe Library Association and the Al-Abbas Holy Shrine Library and Manuscripts in Iraq for their support in writing this article.

Read IFLA’s guide to Voluntary National Reviews.