In Praise of Information
Clear, Concise, and Easily Accessible Information is Essential for People-Centered Multilateralism
The UN General Assembly is a forum for recognizing the global challenges that we face, and for catalyzing broad action to confront them. As governments that were once leading proponents of the global system retreat from it, and as speakers at events both within and beyond the Secretariat walls urged greater multilateralism, it is clear that the impetus for addressing global problems and creating a better world no longer lies (if it ever did) with states. It is contingent upon each of us to take action, both personally and politically, to ensure a better future. As Inger Andersen, Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, stated at the conference on the Global Pact on the Environment, “clearly the era of top-down agreement is over… These things have to have the robustness, have to have the buy-in of the people.” And for that, we need clear, concise, and easily accessible information.
This was particularly evident in the dialogue at two recent events: ‘Modern Slavery in Our Lives’, a conference on modern slavery organized by a coalition of anti-slavery groups in New Jersey and hosted by Seton Hall University, and the conference on the Global Pact on the Environment, hosted by Columbia University. Both slavery and climate change are global problems that stem from chains both near and far on the global supply chain, and are driven by our consumption patterns and our own ignorance. The demand for cheap goods drives production that is both environmentally and ethically unsustainable, but even those who wish to practice responsible consumption often find it difficult to verify that products were produced in a sustainable way. If we are to exercise our power as consumers, we need transparent supply chains and clear markers regarding the origins of products. This will allow consumers not only to recognize the impact that their consumption has on people and the environment, but also allow them to respond by targeting their consumption in a responsible manner.
At the Global Pact on the Environment conference, I had the pleasure of sharing a table with about ten intelligent and socially-conscious women from a variety of fields, including one who (say it softly) works for a petroleum company. She spoke about how currently, we have two options for making energy companies behave in an environmentally responsible manner: either we can wait for all the profit-minded leaders to retire, or we can use our power as investors and shareholders to push for change now–a course of action that has already proven to be effective. Several at the table were involved in this growing trend of socially responsible investing, but the current absence of clear, concise information about the social and environmental performance of companies means that they have to investigate each company individually before investing. While they are to be commended for their commitment, insights from behavioral economics suggest that people are more likely to make better decisions when information is easily accessible, concise, and easy to compare. The development of a concise grading system for the environmental and social impact of companies would not only help us become better consumers, but also more powerful investors.
We also need easily accessible information about the results of our actions, both responsible and irresponsible. Another participant at the Global Pact on the Environment conference, when researching refugees’ knowledge about climate change, found that refugees were often not aware of the impacts of human action on global climate patterns, and instead tended to think that natural disasters, such as droughts, were divine punishment. If the connection between personal behavior and global problems is not made salient, it is unlikely that we will take action to change our behavior. We also need better data about the results of positive behaviors: the recent finding that environmentally friendly behavior actually promotes economic growth is a crucial evidence in favor of better environmental policies, especially when confronted by governments that are only concerned about the bottom line. In the field of financing for women entrepreneurship, as discussed as a recent high-level side event, we need more data on the viability of women’s funds, both for profit and for women’s empowerment. People cannot adequately advocate against poor policies and in favor of better ones if the full consequences of these policies have not been quantitatively studied and broadly made available. This requires both better research and better education.
Clear information also requires clear standards–clear standards on supply chain responsibility and global labor laws, clear standards on measuring and assigning responsibility for environmental harm—clear standards like those found in the Global Pact on the Environment and the Global Goals. These comprehensive agreements can help provide a framework for measuring behavior and progress, and provide a coherent norm to which people can hold businesses and governments accountable. However, these agreements are only valuable if people know about them. One study found that while awareness of the Global Goals is on the rise, just over one in ten Europeans know what the SDGs are.
If we truly are to use people-centered multilateralism to create a better world, people must be aware of the factors that influence their world, the current and potential impact of their own behavior, and the frameworks that governments have agreed must shape future goals and current action. Accomplishing this requires strong empirical research, widespread education, and clear standards. This will create clear, concise, and easily-accessible information that will empower people to make better decisions and to advocate for their communities and their leaders to do the same.
Kendra Brock is a Research Assistant with the Center for UN and Global Governance Studies. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in International Relations and Diplomacy at Seton Hall, and is specializing in International Economics & Development and Foreign Policy Analysis. She also works as the Deputy Editor-in-Chief at the Journal for Diplomacy and International Relations.