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IFLA Puts Access to Information on the Global Agenda
Posted On September 1, 2015
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The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) bills itself as the “trusted global voice of the library and information profession.” Nothing demonstrates the value of this voice more than the association’s ability to put access to information on the global agenda.

A recent major achievement for IFLA was its success at the United Nations’ (UN) deliberations over the post-2015 development agenda, now known as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The agenda lays out 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) and 169 targets that provide a framework for the very ambitious goals of eliminating poverty, safeguarding cultural and natural heritage, empowering women and girls, and protecting the environment. The actual process of crafting the document took several years and many meetings. As an international organization, IFLA has official status at the UN. Participation was spearheaded by volunteers Donna Scheeder, IFLA’s then president-elect (now president), and Loida Garcia-Febo, a member of the governing board, with help from Stuart Hamilton, IFLA’s deputy general and director of policy and advocacy.

Scheeder traveled from Washington, D.C., to New York on an almost weekly basis to follow the progress of the agenda and to testify on behalf of IFLA. Garcia-Febo had a shorter trip, as she’s based in Queens. Testimony, called “interventions” in UN-speak, is very short—only 2–5 minutes, so being both succinct and powerful matters. Scheeder said in a 2015 IFLA World Library and Information Congress session explaining the process, “IFLA arrived strong. The Lyon Declaration caught the attention of the UN and we were armed with Goal 16, Target 16.10.” The target, in its final form, reads, “Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.” To some, that might sound innocuous, but as Scheeder pointed out, “Not every country is in favor of transparency, accountability, good governance, and access to information.” (See the IFLA presentation slide in the upper-right corner of this article.)

Negotiating Strategies

The Lyon Declaration on Access to Information, introduced at the 2014 IFLA World Library and Information Congress, now has nearly 600 signatures from libraries, cultural institutions, associations, and other organizations. It was the geographical spread, the diversity of organizations represented (33% from outside the library sector), and the large number of signatories that caught the attention of the UN. Negotiating global treaties is time-consuming, tedious, and meticulous. Without the dedication of volunteer leaders, library concerns would have been ignored.

The IFLA strategy was to position libraries for inclusion in national development plans, actively work as part of a coalition, make sure the desired target language stayed as presented or was strengthened, use the Lyon Declaration to establish credibility, and meet with country delegations to get support. Scheeder admitted that the process started off on a high note, but as time went on, “the gloves came off and conversation was less diplomatic.”

Hamilton agreed with Scheeder that the process “really sped up towards the end.” He also commented on the readability of the agenda document. It’s only 29 pages, unlike some other UN documents. These are ambitious goals, he continued, as is IFLA’s vision of “a world with universal literacy.” IFLA advocates for the role of information in ending hunger, improving nutrition, ensuring healthy lives, achieving gender equality, and ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education.

Future of the Agenda

The agenda is short on specifics. One medical librarian commented that it doesn’t mention access to health information or information literacy for the medical field. That’s true, but having the phrase “access to information” in the UN document gives IFLA’s sections the opportunity to explain what it means for their own discipline. Medical librarians might think about access to information in terms of medical treatment pamphlets being written in a language patients understand or in terms of affordability. Similar opportunities exist for other IFLA sections, and they all are now charged with coming up with a document explaining how their sections can contribute to the SDGs and targets.

Although the UN member states agreed to the agenda in August 2015, it will have a formal vote at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 2015 (Sept. 25–27). IFLA intends to provide a detailed analysis of the SDGs and information on how libraries can contribute to reaching them prior to the summit. It will also monitor progress, particularly of access to information, on an ongoing basis.

The 2030 Agenda creates a UN Interagency Task Team on Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) that will examine STI-transfer mechanisms. Collecting this information in one place should encourage access to knowledge, best practices, information, and lessons learned from a global perspective.

IFLA intends for the 2030 Agenda to focus attention—at a national level for the member states—on poverty eradication, climate change, and human development. However, the fact that the member states agreed to the agenda does not ensure follow-up (that is voluntary), and the commitments are political rather than legal. No agenda police oversee meeting the SDGs.

Cape Town Declaration

Also unveiled at the 2015 World Library and Information Congress (by South Africa’s minister of arts and culture Nathi Mthethwa), the Cape Town Declaration commits African governments to 12 actions regarding the status of libraries and the implementation of access to information. These actions include providing resources for library development, supporting the creation of a Pan African library organization, promoting partnerships among African libraries, encouraging fair and balanced copyright laws, supporting increased use of ebooks and virtual libraries, and recognizing library policies on access to information as part of universal human rights. The declaration also addressed concerns specific to Africa, such as developing local content and preserving community stories.

The Cape Town Declaration is very different from last year’s Lyon Declaration. It commits the signing countries—Angola, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Lesotho, Guinea, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, South Sudan, and Swaziland—to the actions but specifies no timetable, imposes no sanctions for inaction, and asks for no additional signatories. It’s a step forward, but whether the declaration will bring about change remains to be seen. It is certainly more library-specific than the 2030 Agenda.

Both the Cape Town Declaration and the more far-reaching 2030 Agenda position libraries as important to sustainable growth and development. They highlight the crucial value of access to information for people’s lives and well-being. Continuing to work from these documents with productive, innovative, and constructive comments and case studies will, as Scheeder put it, give us “the world we want” rather than one foisted upon us.

Marydee Ojala is the editor-in-chief of Online Searcher magazine, chairs WebSearch University, and is Program Development Director for Enterprise Search & Discovery.

Email Marydee Ojala

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