16th Annual Mortenson Distinguished Lecture

Alex ByrneAlex Byrne

Can International Organizations Deliver the Information Society?
October 16, 2006


Listen to the lecture here

“Can International Organizations Deliver the Information Society?” was the topic addressed by Alex Byrne, president, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. IFLA is the leading international body representing the interests of library and information services and their users and is the global voice of the library and information science profession. IFLA has 1,700 members in 150 countries around the world.

Alex Byrne is the 2005-2007 president of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, and pro-vice-chancellor for teaching and learning and vice president for alumni and development at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia. Dr. Byrne’s publications are primarily in information management, community empowerment, and human rights, with particular regard to freedom of expression and access to information.

Lecture Text
“Can International Organizations Deliver the Information Society?”

In February 2002, a meeting was convened by UNESCO at its Paris headquarters. The meeting brought together representatives from a great variety of organisations including UNESCO and its sister organisations in the United Nations family, professional bodies such as IFLA (the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions which I have the honour to lead) and many activist bodies concerned with a tremendous range of issues such as gender, disability, education and the environment. We came to assist UNESCO to develop its agenda for the World Summit on the Information Society. Most of us had barely heard of the Summit but we knew that we wanted to ensure that our issues would be on UNESCO’s agenda. For IFLA, that meant the issues relating to information access for all, intellectual property and bridging the digital divide.

IFLA was well placed to advance its issues. The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions had been established in 1927 and had developed close relations with the International Office for Intellectual Cooperation, UNESCO’s predecessor in the League of Nations system. IFLA had worked closely with UNESCO since that body had been established and had the highest level of accreditation with it as a non government organisation. Despite that long and close relationship, the two IFLA representatives found ourselves in an unfamiliar place, as representatives of one organisation among many, in a cacophony of voices raising their issues, all seeking to make sure that their issues got on the agenda. We had to start to learn how to develop alliances, how to formulate arguments which would gain wide support, how to be influential in that international forum.

From that meeting, the World Summit on the Information Society – WSIS as we came to call it, or SMSI (Sommet Mondial de la Société d’Information) among the francophones – dominated my life for the next four years. During that time I learnt about square brackets and non-papers and about how a professional body like IFLA, the global voice for libraries and information services, might influence the development of the information society despite very limited resources. My colleagues and I had no doubt that we needed to be involved. If the peak body for libraries and librarians internationally is not to be involved in an endeavour to determine the shape of the information society then we are implying that we are irrelevant to its development, and thus that that our profession, a profession of information specialists, is irrelevant. We could not let that happen. Nor could we ignore the views of our members that the information society should be founded upon values which we hold dear.

Engagement with the World Summit on the Information Society

Promoted by the United Nations and its agencies, the World Summit on the Information Society was initiated to interrogate the global issues and challenges resulting from the widespread use of ICTs and the growth of the information economy. It was the latest in a series of United Nations sponsored summits and conferences to highlight major global issues including: the World Conference on Women (Beijing, China – September 1995); Millennium Summit: “The role of the United Nations in the 21st century” (New York, 6-8 September 2000); World Conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance (Durban, South Africa, 31 August – 7 September 2001); World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg, South Africa, 26 August – 4 September 2002).

WSIS was proposed by the Government of Tunisia and was initially understood to have a focus on information and communications technologies and their global extension to all regions and all peoples. Thus, at the inception of the Summit, its scope emphasised the digital divide which was considered to be essentially a technological and economic problem. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) was consequently understood to be the appropriate host organisation in the United Nations system. However, from the outset this Summit was different to its predecessors in two key respects: it was planned to be held in two phases with summit meetings at the end of each phase; and, three main interest groups were recognised – governments, business entities and civil society.

The term ‘civil society’ was the Summit organisers’ shorthand for ‘civil society organisations’ and was used in a fashion consistent with the European Union definition: “Non-governmental, non-profit making organisations, networks and voluntary associations” . This covered a very broad range of organisations, extending from international professional bodies like IFLA to activist organisations such as Greenpeace and gender networks. WSIS was the first time that civil society had been formally recognised to have a role in a United Nations summit process although civil society organisations had participated in large numbers in previous summits, including the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg at which IFLA was represented but with very little preparation and, in consequence, to very little effect. The acknowledgement of the role of civil society was noted in the Summit documents and reflected in the provision of meeting rooms and other facilities and limited opportunities to address plenaries. The Swiss Confederation’s considerable logistical and moral support for WSIS was of particular benefit to civil society organisations.

Besides the three groups of stakeholders mentioned above – governments, civil society and business entities – there was a fourth, the international intergovernmental organisations themselves ie the United Nations, Bretton Woods and other international organisations. In the event the hierarchy of influence was governments first, international intergovernmental agencies a close second, civil society a distant third with business entities bringing up the rear.

The process consisted of a series of formal preparatory committee meetings (PrepComs in UN-speak) which were supported by regional meetings held in Africa, Latin America and other regions of the world and focal meetings held by agencies such as UNESCO. The formal PrepCom meetings for the first phase focussed on developing the two documents, the Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action, often breaking into subcommittee meetings to discuss the details of issues and the precise terminology to be used. New participants, including IFLA representatives, learned about the labyrinthine modes of international negotiation including the startling concepts of “square brackets” and “non-papers”. “Square brackets” are put around any sentence or phrase which is not agreed to signal that it is still subject to negotiation. And, of course, the whole of a text is in square brackets until all the internal square brackets have been removed. Stranger still is the “non-paper”, a paper written and circulated for discussion which does not formally exist in the record of the meetings since it was created solely to break a deadlock.

The actual Summit meetings in Geneva (December 2003) and Tunis (November 2005) were the culmination of those years of negotiations and each consisted of set piece speeches by leaders of government and United Nations agencies together with an exhibition and presentations by governments, international agencies and advocacy groups. Opportunities for civil society leaders to speak were very limited: I was fortunate to be given a three minute slot in the plenary session at the Tunis Summit to speak on behalf of IFLA and its constituencies.

Interventions on behalf of libraries and information services

Reflecting the role of libraries and information services at the heart of the information society, IFLA strove to highlight the sector’s concerns including freedom of access to information and the digital divide. IFLA worked with cognate peak professional bodies such as the International Publishers’ Association (IPA), participated in consultative meetings, formed delegations to the preparatory committee (PrepCom) meetings and the Summits, and organised pre-Summit conferences for both Geneva and Tunis. Many statements and documents were produced including a database of library success stories and formal submissions to the Summit. Perhaps the most important statement was produced at the pre-Summit meeting before the Tunis Summit, a meeting held in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the Alexandria Manifesto on Libraries, the Information society in Action.

IFLA and its members were pleased with the results of the sustained lobbying over so many years. The Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action, both agreed in Geneva and reaffirmed in Tunis, include the issues of concern to the sector and identify actions to address them . This success was achieved by the combined action of key IFLA staff, members of the Governing Board and other colleagues, a team of Swiss librarians and students in Geneva and those who raised issues with their own governments. Also important was the strong support provided by a number of national delegations, especially the delegation from New Zealand, which articulated our concerns in preparatory meetings in which civil society representatives, including those from IFLA, were not permitted to speak. The campaign was exhausting and stretched IFLA’s resources considerably. It demonstrated the need for IFLA to establish an effective advocacy capability while still drawing on the knowledge, persuasiveness and contacts of our members. This is a challenge that we are currently taking up.

In our campaign, we expressed a shared vision of an inclusive Information society in which everyone can create, access, use and share information and knowledge and which is based on the fundamental right of human beings to both access and express information without restriction. We noted that libraries and information services provide access to information, ideas and works of imagination in any medium and regardless of frontiers; they are key nodes in the information infrastructure which serve as gateways to knowledge, thought and culture, offering essential support for independent decision-making, cultural development, research and lifelong learning by both individuals and groups; they assist people to develop lifelong literacy -the range of competencies necessary to engage fully with the Information society; they contribute to the development and maintenance of intellectual freedom and help to safeguard democratic values and universal civil rights; and, consequently, they are committed to offering their clients access to relevant resources and services without restriction. We went on to assert that international understanding and dialogue is supported through access to information and knowledge from other nations and cultures. We added that IFLA and its members are committed to addressing the digital divide and the resulting information inequality. And we highlighted the need to improve the information infrastructure by strengthening and extending library and information services as well as improving connectivity and bandwidth. This might all seem obvious to those of us in the library and information game but many of the participants in the Summit processes were oblivious to it.

Our consistent and persistent advocacy in the WSIS process over the four years achieved very significant recognition by the governments of the world to the important role played by libraries and information services in the global information society. The importance of our role and the positive contribution that we made to the Summit were recognised when I was invited, on behalf of all IFLA members and those we represent, to give a plenary address at the Tunis Summit. That invitation represented very significant recognition because few outside governments and intergovernmental organisations were allowed to address the plenary sessions.

Conscious that I would be speaking to representatives of governments and organisations with limited knowledge of libraries, I said:

We are concerned with the young child who opens his first book or clicks on her first website, with the student who researches a topic, with the professional building a career, with the farmer trying to be more competitive, with the researcher using e-journals to investigate a new material or prevention of a disease and with all the people whose lives are changed through ready access to relevant and reliable information in any format.

… libraries and information services are essential to the roll out of the inclusive Information society. Their impartial operation helps to safeguard universal civil rights and intellectual freedom. The unique feature of libraries and information services is that they respond to the particular questions and needs of individuals, complementing the general transmission of knowledge by the mass media. They build capacity and provide support and training for effective use of digital and other information resources. Libraries are critical to the development agenda and help to realise the Millennium Development Goals, including reduction of poverty.

To enable access to information by all peoples, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions is committed to the fundamental human rights to know, learn and communicate without restriction. It opposes censorship and supports balance and fairness in intellectual property regulation. IFLA is also vitally concerned to promote multilingual content, cultural diversity and the special needs of Indigenous peoples, minorities and those with disabilities.

And I concluded by urging national, regional and local governments as well as international organisations to invest in library and information services as vital elements of Information society strategies, policies and budgets, to promote open access to information, to recognise the importance of information literacy and to support vigorously strategies to create a literate and skilled populace which can advance and benefit from the global Information society.

WSIS outcomes from the library and information perspective

As I mentioned, IFLA and its members were well pleased with the outcomes of the World Summit. The important role of libraries, information services and archives in the Information society was recognised in the Declaration and Action Plan of the World Summit. However, even more significant, was the recognition accorded to the issues of concern to the library and information sector, including:

  • The inclusive vision of an Information society in which everyone can create, access, use and share information and knowledge
  • Freedom of access to information and freedom of expression
  • Cultural and linguistic diversity
  • Lifelong literacy
  • Support for the disadvantaged and disabled
  • Protection of the public domain and balance in intellectual property legislation
  • Open access to knowledge, including scientific and technical knowledge
  • Preservation of cultural heritage
  • Standards to ensure interoperability
  • Capacity building and enabling provisions
  • Equitable access to the Internet and ICTs.

This list offers an operational definition of the information society that we wish to achieve. In the first place, it must be for all which of course means for the peoples of all countries and for all the peoples of those countries. This is what the governments of the world signed up to achieve when they endorsed “an inclusive vision of an Information society in which everyone can create, access, use and share information and knowledge”. And the motivation is obvious: the most prosperous nations in the world – those that can offer their citizens freedom from want and the broadest opportunities – are those that create and use information to gain advantage. Information is used to promote the well being of society through better government, health services and education. It enables agriculture and other primary industries to be more productive and internationally competitive. It also enhances manufacturing industries, business and the other service sectors and allows the development of post industrial knowledge industries. And it helps us to recognise and try to tackle challenges such as global warming. All peoples, in rich and poor nations, and in urban, rural and remote areas, face such challenges and can benefit from such opportunities.

However, as soon as we think for a moment about ‘all’, we recognise the enormity of the project to achieve “an inclusive vision of an Information society in which everyone can create, access, use and share information and knowledge”. As the WSIS documents note, this cuts across nations including the poor, island and landlocked as well as the well off. And it cuts across all sectors of society including the educated or not, those with disabilities, ethnic and religious minorities, Indigenous peoples, and so on. These considerations take us immediately into the big questions of language and culture because we all want to access information which we find relevant and useful in topic, treatment, context and language. Farmers in Timor Leste [East Timor] producing spices, as they have done for hundreds of years (and the reason that their island was colonised 500 years ago by the Portuguese), need information which relates to the particular crops they produce, their wet/arid climate and extremely difficult topography and information which is available in Tetum or another local language and presented in a form which looks useful and is useable. But they also have a great deal of knowledge, gained through years of experience and passed on from elders, which provides information which may be useful to others in Timor Leste or elsewhere.

So, we now find ourselves considering questions of culture, language and education. Literacy becomes important because achievement of literacy opens doors of opportunity, especially for women and the young, and enables ready access to information from elsewhere. But, even more important is information literacy because we are lost in an information driven world if we cannot decode the signs, just as we would be at great risk in a desert if we didn’t know how to read the topography and the weather. Becoming information literate in the areas of relevance is vital even for those whose primary literacy is orality. In Christine Bruce’s phrase, it is “the overarching literacy essential for twenty-first century living”.

But all of this is for nothing if we can’t share information, including speaking our mind and hearing the opinions of others. Without those key freedoms, we cannot have an information society because some of the information we might wish to access or disseminate is proscribed. For example, if we cannot talk freely about sexuality and sexual practices we cannot deal effectively with the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Nor can we say that ‘the emperor has no clothes’ when the powerful – in government or elsewhere – abuse their power. Nor can we challenge scientific or other orthodoxies, which just might lead to a breakthrough in the discovery of new knowledge. Consequently, intellectual freedom – the freedom to form and hold opinions, to express them and to receive them from others – is vital to a genuine information society. Equally important is the public domain because, without it we inevitably have the information haves and the information have-nots.

Finally, from the list I mentioned, we need the infrastructure – the boxes and wires – the bandwidth, hardware and software that enables use to achieve so much. And pricing regimes need to be fair, not implicitly subsidising the already rich.

IFLA’s work to create a just information society for all

Creation of an information society with these characteristics is a daunting task but all must be addressed if we are to create an information society for all. We need to identify concrete programs and results which show that libraries and information services know what to do to create an inclusive and just Information society. The programs might not be enormous but they should return real results so that we can tell the international community what could be achieved with a little more assistance.

IFLA and its members have been working for many years on many of these issues including support for the disadvantaged and disabled, standards to ensure interoperability, capacity building, open access to knowledge and preservation of cultural heritage. We have a fine track record in these areas. Our body of standards enables the global library and information sector to function effectively with data interchange across borders and through languages. And we are continually refining and reconsidering those standards so that they will meet contemporary needs. The fine work of libraries for the blind and other specialised services, supported by initiatives such as the DAISY consortium, provide considerable support for people with disabilities even in very poor countries. The former IFLA program on Universal Access to Publications (UAP) in many ways anticipated the concerns of the Open Access movement of today and the invaluable work of eIFL even though UAP operated before the technological possibilities that are currently available. IFLA’s Preservation and Conservation Program (PAC) addresses the major challenges of carrying forward not only the paper, papyrus, parchment and other physically recorded heritage of the past but also the evanescent Internet accessible resources we are now creating and continually modifying. The Action for Development through Libraries Program (ALP) has worked on capacity building for libraries and information services since 1984.

Over the last decade, IFLA has had a special focus on two of the domains identified in WSIS: freedom of access to information and freedom of expression; and protection of the public domain and balance in intellectual property legislation. Vibrant core activities address the major challenges of each and have achieved much despite limited resources. They are considered to be vital elements of our strategy and are strongly endorsed by members. The Free Access to Information and Freedom of Expression (FAIFE) program works on issues of intellectual freedom – on of the most contentious topics of discussion during WSIS – and advocates that all peoples have a right to both impart and receive information which must not be compromised by censorship, propaganda, intimidation or in other ways. It sees intellectual freedom to be at the heart of library and information service. The Copyright and other Legal Matters (CLM) program tackles the thorny issues of maintaining balance in intellectual property regimes and defending the information commons, the public domain. The debates in this area have become more intense and the focus for much negotiation has shifted to trade talks in the World Trade Organisation as well as the continuing debates at the World Intellectual Property Organisation meetings.

More recently, IFLA has extended its interest in information literacy because libraries must not only provide access to information, or content as we often call it now, but must also assist our clients to develop and apply the skills to know what they want, how to find it and how to evaluate it.

These continuing programs and their achievements offer a good foundation for addressing the WSIS goals but the world is a big place and one international professional body cannot tackle the challenges by itself. Nor can the library and information sector. The achievement of this ambitious agenda demands concerted action by many organisations.

The challenge to implement the WSIS outcomes

Now is the time to hold governments to the promises they made when they acceded to the Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action. We are all aware that politicians have short memories. Not all are as cynical as the current Prime Minister of Australia, the Honourable John Howard, who gave a name to well known political behaviour when he famously dismissed some election promises as ‘non core promises’ , that is ‘promises’ which he had no intentions of honouring. Nevertheless, both elected representatives and government officials find it difficult to maintain long term commitments to programs which are difficult to achieve. The 2015 deadline for achieving the outcomes identified in the Geneva Declaration and Action Plan, agreed in 2003, is so far ahead that a child starting school at the time of the meeting would have finished before the deadline even if fortunate enough to be able to go through twelve years of schooling. In addition, it was far enough away for most governments to conveniently ignore it while they focus on the issues of the moment. We must continue to remind governments that the need is urgent if we are to have an equitable information society – and the deadline is now only nine years off.

The history of international commitments made in world summits and on other occasions, such as those made in response to disasters, does not give us cause for confidence that governments will vigorously pursue the Geneva Action Plan and Tunis Agenda. IFLA, our member associations and like minded colleagues in civil society must now find and implement mechanisms to keep these commitments before governments and to highlight ways of achieving them. And the creation of an information society which will truly be just and truly be for all is certainly a major challenge. It is a challenge at all levels including infrastructure, education, content, literacy and information literacy, multilingualism, intellectual property regimes, intellectual freedom principles, and so on.

This is a major priority for IFLA, and the global community generally, because it is vital for the world that a just information society for all be developed over the decade between the Tunis meeting in November 2005 and the deadline set by the negotiators, 2015. For its part, IFLA has prepared a plan for our activities during the implementation period to 2015 , has established a President-elect’s follow up committee, and has formed an alliance with UNESCO to maintain and progress our focus on the achievement of the desired outcomes. Announced at the World Library and Information Congress in Seoul last August, the UNESCO/IFLA alliance to implement key action lines from the Plan of Action of the World Summit on the Information Society will help us work with our library associations and other members to advance our most important agendas for libraries and information services and for the peoples of the world.. It is vital that we do not lose the attention to our issues by the governments of the world, that we do not lose the momentum we have built up.

Measurement of that progress demands a tool for monitoring progress towards the goals. Some method of measurement must be available to see which nations are doing well and which are falling behind. It will enable us to identify best practice and, in the world of real-politic, to try to play some off against each other. Such a measure must be sufficiently sophisticated to capture the broad dimensions of the information society while remaining sufficiently bounded to be able to be maintained with limited resources and to report on a regular basis, annually or at least biennially. This means that it must largely depend on data which is already collected since it is impracticable to gather data across more than two hundred countries on a regular schedule without a large commitment of resources. The measure must therefore depend on routinely collected data which is reported to international intergovernmental organisations such as UNESCO and reasonably reliable survey data and estimates gathered by reputable organisations such as Global Reach . Since much of the data is reported by governments or other organisations which may have ulterior motives, such a measure is inherently unreliable. Its reliability may, however, be improved by the use a variety of indicators of contributory factors so that there will be a degree of validation. Thus, in aggregate, such a measure can indicate progress towards attaining the information society for all, at least in terms of ranking.

Formulation of a useful indicator should start with the key aspects of a just and fair information society as was discussed previously. It must take account of both the promise and challenges, identifying progress in terms of the achievement of opportunities and the overcoming of barriers.

The Internet and associated ICTs have the potential to deliver global access to information. This offers numerous benefits for such fields as education, health, government and commerce. Provided the many barriers can be overcome, it offers the potential to support the provision of sophisticated health care in all the countries of the world, the capacity to enable small producers to compete in the global economy and the chance to empower all citizens to demand good governance in their countries.

The barriers are many. Among others, they include:

  • lack of reliable and affordable information and communication technologies
  • lack of money to purchase access to quality information (or no affiliation with organisations which have the money and skills to obtain access)
  • lack of skills to use the technologies and obtain needed information effectively
  • lack of a range of literacies, including computer and information literacy as well as basic literacy
  • lack of command of the major languages of commerce and scholarship (English in particular).

The International Telecommunication Union has made a start with a limited ‘Digital Access Index’. The Index is a weighted summary of five categories: infrastructure, affordability, knowledge, quality and usage. It is useful in that different levels among its elements indicate varying levels of achievement in such areas as phone and broadband access or Internet usage. However, it is limited as a global measure because only one category comes close to dealing with societal factors, the knowledge category.

That category has two elements: adult literacy and combined primary, secondary and tertiary school enrolment, both taken from the UNDP Human Development Index. While both are essential to using knowledge, neither represents knowledge. Adult literacy is defined as “The percentage of people aged 15 and above who can, with understanding, both read and write a short, simple statement related to their every day life”. It falls well short of the command of literacies necessary to fully engage with the information society. School enrolment indicates the opportunities for people to reach their potential but does not measure access to knowledge.

Online Language population chard

Figure 1. Global Reach Global Internet Statistics (by Language)
September 2004.

Neither of these measures begins to address issues of content which are so important to the information society. They do not provide an indication of the linguistic dominance of English, other major European languages and a few East Asian languages (see Figure 1). They do not highlight the very limited amount of content in Arabic, let alone South and Central Asian, African and all Indigenous languages. They do not indicate that the readily available content is essentially the information and knowledge of the rich, Westernised world and that it ignores the richness of local and specific knowledge. It favours information which has a commercial value, either inherent marketability or in attracting consumers to use services which will support advertising and other commercial activities.

The Digital Access Index reflects a special sort of success: the success of standardisation, globalisation and commodification. This approach marginalises local variation, reducing it to the quaint and curious which can be the entertainment of the rich. Because it emphasises indicators of technological access – such as bandwidth, users, access price – while it begs the question of “access to what?” In a world in which most Internet content is still in English and a few other major languages, for many people the answer must be “access to nothing I can use”.

Standardisation has many benefits. Standards based systems can interconnect effectively. Standards for presentation of information, such as the W3C Disability Accessibility Guidelines, can make it much easier to find and use information. Globalisation can create mechanisms for worldwide access to the research literature, health information and entertainment. Commodification can provide some of the financial resources to enable worldwide access. But, uncontrolled it is a juggernaut which rolls over local needs and opportunities. It marginalises minority, especially indigenous, languages and cultures and ignores the poor. We need to adapt these mechanisms to respect and promote the interests of all peoples. For example, the Internet can link up scattered language groups into stronger virtual language communities. It can offer opportunities to address economic disadvantage and to promote cultural diversity. But only if there is the global will to make it happen.

A community access point to the Internet sitting in a post office – the only access points proposed in early drafts of WSIS documents – can be useful but only if it provides access to relevant information in languages which the users can understand and if they have the skills to use it. A community access point in a library is quite a different matter. It not only provides access but offers assistance and training. Its staff put the information in context, drawing attention to that which is important to the community. They develop programs to create local content. They run literacy programs to improve reading and writing skills but also computer and information literacy – they develop the full range of literacies which are so important in the information society. They assist children and the old, those with disabilities and those in special circumstances. Through mobile library services, they reach out to the housebound and the isolated, using such means as the camel library services in Kenya.

Libraries convey ideas through time and space. As Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer and human rights activist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, has noted: “The cult of heroes has always taken this country backwards. Heroes die, betray or run aground. Not ideas.” [Le culte du héros a toujours ramené ce pays en arrière. Les héros meurent, trahissent ou échoent. Pas les idéaux.”] We are committed to ideas – those of the past, present and future – to sharing, testing and applying them. As it states in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone has the right to freedom of expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Can international organisations deliver the information society?

As I mentioned above, governments are unlikely to keep focussed on continued progress towards the WSIS goals. If we are to hold governments to the difficult to achieve commitments they made, we need to be committed ourselves and to keep reminding them of their promises over the next decade. So, to return to the question posed in this address: can international organisations deliver the Information society?

Over the past five years we have seen a tremendous effort by a variety of international organisations to explore the implications of the information society and to promote as special kind of information society, an information society for all. Those international organisations have included the international intergovernmental organisations – such as the ITU, UNESCO, UNDP, UNICEF and World Bank – which promoted, coordinated and supported the World Summit on the Information Society. They also included a range of international intergovernmental organisations that operate in more specific areas of activity and particular parts of the world. In addition there was great variety of civil society organisations, extending from the radical, activist groups to the ‘men and women in suits’ from professional bodies such as IFLA, and some peak bodies for business and industry.

That plethora of organisations, an alphabet soup of acronyms, has delivered a clear exposition of the requirements of a just and fair information society for all as is documented in the WSIS Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action, both agreed in Geneva in December 2003, and the Tunis Agenda, agreed in November 2005. Working together with some like minded and sympathetic governments and in opposition to some governments with other agendas, the international organisations thrashed out the issues and proposed measured actions to address them. Along the way, we had to contend with governments which did not want to endorse unqualified support for human rights or to accept more broadly based governance of the Internet, among many points of contention. But we now have a well considered agenda which owes a very great deal to the commitment and work of international organisations.

It is abundantly clear what we must do to achieve the desired information society for all. But international organisations cannot make it happen by themselves. Like all organisations they have plans and priorities, among which achievement of the WSIS goals may not be the highest. They are also divided both internally and externally. Internally, international intergovernmental organisations have many ‘silos’, programmatic areas which are internally focussed and unable or unwilling to work with other program areas. An agenda as broad as WSIS which involves technology, culture, education and many other areas does not fit easily into one or other program. Its specific goals, as well as achievement of the whole agenda, demands collaboration across programs which is not easy to achieve. Likewise, each of the major international intergovernmental organisations has its areas of operations and so the ITU focuses on communications technology and policy, FAO on agriculture, UNICEF on children and so on. It is very difficult to initiate, let alone pursue, agendas which run across so many large, global and rather bureaucratic organisations.

For example, a desirable goal would be to enable poor farmers to benefit from the opportunities offered by the information society to improve the productivity of their agriculture and to reduce their vulnerability to exploitation by merchants. Achievement of this goal demands not only connectivity to the regions in which they live but also access points and assistance. It requires relevant information to be available in languages and formats which they can use. They or their children need to be literate and to develop their information literacy. This brief sketch of one opportunity identifies possible roles for FAO, ITU, UNESCO, UNICEF, UNDP and the micro-financing programs of the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and similar bodies. Such collaboration would almost impossible to achieve from within the international intergovernmental organisations.

Furthermore, international intergovernmental organisations are creatures of governments, of the governments that are parties to the international agreements and conventions which established them. They can only work within the plans and priorities and budgets which governments have approved for them. The non governmental organisations which characterise civil society are much less constrained by governmental policies (although still subject to the law, of course) but they have very limited resources beyond their moral authority and capacity to inspire volunteer effort. Business entities, which often have considerable resources, are by and large profit driven and therefore will not pursue agendas just because they may be desirable, except around the margins when they are swayed by triple bottom line arguments.

So the achievement of a just and fair information society for all demands concerted action by all parties. International organisations, governmental or non-governmental, cannot do it by themselves; they need the sanction and support of governments and the resources of business and industry. But the formal organisations desperately need civil society because it us, in our joyful heterogeneity, who can create the relevance which will truly make it an information society for all. We need great universities like the University of Illinois, professional organisations like IFLA, activist organisations and community based organisations like READ in Nepal (which was recognised this year by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Access to Learning Award for its tremendous work in establishing libraries and extending literacy). We need to have that knowledge of the specific needs of particular countries and regions as well as the capacity to support and promote a joyous kaleidoscope of languages, cultures and lifestyles. We need to remember to keep hold of localism and particularity while we advance this great global agenda.

What we need to do

Thus, we need to encourage a grand global alliance focussed on creating the just and fair information society for all – a society in which we hope some of the causes of hatred and violence will atrophy. There needs to be a sense of momentum, of shared progress towards common goals because advancing their achievement is cause from which we can all benefit. If we learn from IFLA’s experience with WSIS, the key elements of a sustained advocacy campaign must include:

  • early preparation
  • key policy documents always at hand
  • strong and focussed delegations
  • high level expertise in advocacy which can be dedicated to the project
  • dedicated staff to prepare documents, make appointments and travel arrangements, etc
  • strong representation on the ground in key locations
  • well prepared and consistent logistical support
  • working in partnership with other organisations with similar or related goals
  • relationships with sympathetic and influential governments.

For our part in the library and information sector, we need to implement an advocacy campaign which will get IFLA or library association representatives into the offices of every government which might take action or influence others. Once inside the door, we need to have a succinct message to give: that the global library and information network is the key to achieving the vision of an Information society. The message needs to be supported by real examples and clear statements of local needs.

Achievement of a just and fair information society for all is a worthy goal, especially in a world in which we see the results of poverty and inequality acted out through division, despair and terrorism. It is an aim whose achievement has benefits for all of us but which is most challenging to achieve, especially in a time frame of less than a decade. But it is something to which we in the library and information sector must be committed and to which we must gain the commitment of governments, international organisations and others in a grand alliance focussed on global benefit.

References & Notes

  1. Local Government International Bureau (2005), Glossary of EU jargon, http://www.lgib.gov.uk/european_work/glossary.html (Accessed 1 October 2006), https://www.local.gov.uk/glossary-eu-jargon-c-0 (Accessed 23 September 2017)
  2. IFLA and Byrne, A. (2005), Libraries the Information society in Action: Address to Plenary World Summit on the Information Society, http://www.ifla.org/III/wsis/Byrne-Plenary-Address.html .
  3. International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (2005), Alexandria Manifesto on Libraries, the Information society in Action, http://www.ifla.org/III/wsis/AlexandriaManifesto.html (Accessed 1 October 2006).
  4. IFLA and Byrne, A. (2004), Promoting the global information commons: A commentary on the library and information implications of the WSIS Declaration of Principles “Building the information society: a global challenge in the new millennium” (Document WSIS/PC-3/DT/6), The Hague, IFLA, http://www.ifla.org .
  5. Bruce, Christine (2002). Information Literacy as a catalyst for educational change: a background paper, White Paper prepared for UNESCO, the U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, and the National Forum on Information Literacy for use at the Information Literacy Meeting of Experts, Prague. https://eprints.qut.edu.au/4977/1/4977_1.pdf .
  6. Urban Dictionary (2005), http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=non-core+promise ( Accessed 1 October 2006): After winning the 1996 Australian Federal election John Howard slashed spending on Education, Health, Social Welfare blaming a budget deficit left by the previous government. When it was pointed out that he had promised not to cut spending on these areas as part of his election platform and that he had lied, he claimed that these were “non-core promises”.
  7. IFLA and Byrne, A. (2004), Libraries Building the Information society: A plan to implement the WSIS Declaration and Plan of Action, The Hague, IFLA, http://www.ifla.org .
  8. Global Reach (2004), Global Internet Statistics (by Language), http://www2.ups.edu/faculty/velez/240/html/cap1/Usuarios.htm ( Accessed 1 October 2006).
  9. International Telecommunication Union (2003), ‘Gauging ICT potential around the world: ITU releases the first global Digital Access Index’, ITU News (10), pp 6-17.
  10. Ebadi, S 2003, ‘Interview’, Le Temps, Genève, 9 December 2003, No 1747, p. 7.