Expert voices Vol 23, No. 04 - April 2019

Traditional knowledge – an answer to the most pressing global problems?

Traditional knowledge is the foundation of indigenous peoples’ identities, cultural heritage, civilizations, livelihoods and coping strategies over several centuries. Its promotion, protection and preservation is fundamental for the sustainability of the livelihoods of indigenous peoples, their resilience to human-made and natural disasters and the development of their communities. It is also at the core of the rights of indigenous peoples. 

The crucial role of indigenous knowledge for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and for addressing the most pressing global problems is gaining international traction. Ahead of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues later this month, we spoke with Chandra Roy-Henriksen, Chief of the Secretariat of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

What are some of the threats for traditional knowledge? What can be done to protect it?

“Centuries of history of discrimination, exploitation, dispossession and colonization have led to the loss of traditional knowledge. Traditional knowledge is under threat and is being misused and misappropriated.

While scientific studies have investigated the tremendous potential of indigenous knowledge, few indigenous communities have gained from this. Innovations in science, technology, medicine, and pharmaceutics are often based on ages-old indigenous traditional knowledge and genetic resources. Yet the proceeds from these breakthroughs rarely find their way to the communities that originally made them. It is essential to promote the right of indigenous peoples to maintain and safeguard their traditional knowledge, as enshrined in the 2007 UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

How can the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples benefit everyone? How can it help us achieve the Sustainable Development Goals?

“Indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge has been developed over generations through daily life practices and a close understanding of local environments. It can offer valuable responses to climate change, food insecurity, reducing inequalities and other challenges that we are trying to resolve through the Sustainable Development Goals. Traditional knowledge offers tremendous opportunities in such areas as land management, conservation, and scientific, technological and medical research.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development makes six specific references to indigenous peoples. These include a commitment to double the agricultural output of indigenous small‑scale farmers and a commitment to ensure equal access to education for indigenous children. Countries have also committed to empower and engage indigenous peoples in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

How is traditional knowledge generated and transmitted through generations?

“A product of learning through experience and oral traditions passed over centuries, indigenous traditional knowledge is generated, transmitted, and strengthened through rituals, metaphors, proverbs, songs, oral history, human interactions, ceremonies, languages, experiences and practices.

Protecting indigenous languages is fundamental to preserving traditional knowledge. It is through indigenous languages that this knowledge is generated and transmitted. Yet today, close to 2,700 languages are estimated to be in danger of disappearing forever. If we lose them, we also risk losing invaluable knowledge that could have provided answers to some of the world’s greatest problems.

Paradoxically, modern technology can help us preserve and revitalize indigenous knowledge and languages and pass them on to future generations. Partnerships between indigenous peoples and Governments, the UN system, businesses and, increasingly, the communications sector, can help to harness modern technologies to preserve the priceless ancient knowledge.”

What can we expect of the upcoming UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues?

“The theme of the 2019 session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is: ‘Traditional knowledge: generation, transmission and protection.’ Countries and indigenous peoples will come together to identify and share good practices that advance indigenous peoples’ rights. It will also be an opportunity to recommend actions that promote and protect indigenous peoples’ rights and preserve their traditional knowledge.

Partners from all over the world will be present and I would like to invite UN agencies and Member States to engage actively with indigenous peoples to make the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples a reality. The UN DESA-led 2015 UN system wide action plan on the rights of indigenous peoples is a road map for the UN to support its Member States in this regard.”

For more information: 18th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII)


Do you have to be counted to count? How strengthening gender data can empower women and girls

Most of us are aware of the gaps that separate women from men, when it comes to opportunities, earnings or access to education. But not everyone realizes that even the data that we use to measure these inequalities have gender gaps. As the UN Statistical Commission holds its 50th session, we ask Francesca Grum, Chief of the Social and Gender Statistics Section at UN DESA’s Statistics Division, how gender data gaps are formed and what can be done about them. 

Are women and girls visible in the data we use to make decisions?

“Women and girls, and men and boys, are becoming more visible in official statistics thanks to the growing demand for reliable, inclusive, disaggregated and open gender data. New methods help us better capture gender issues through population censuses, administrative records and surveys. This provides researchers and policymakers with evidence for gender analyses and allows to create and promote better policies on women and girls’ advancement and gender equality.”

“For example, women spend on average about three times as many hours in unpaid domestic and care work as men. Analyses of time use data with a gender lens may lay the foundation for policies that would recognize the tremendous value of unpaid work, reconcile paid and unpaid work and foster the ability of women and girls to engage in other activities, such as education. UN DESA’s Statistics Division is working to modernize time use surveys to improve the collection and use of time use data.”

“Gender statistics not only make women and girls and men and boys more visible, but they also help bust myths and stereotypes drawn with unfair social norms and attitudes.”

Why do we have such a large gender data gap and what can we do to close it?

“Gender data gaps persist due to lack of national capacity in producing and using gender statistics. Insufficient coordination among data producers and the dearth of financial resources are also major problems. However, thanks to improved and new data collection methods that better capture gender issues and by progressively eliminating gender bias in the existing data collection tools, we are narrowing the gaps.”

“For instance, if we use the household as a unit for data analyses and dissemination, we assume that there is homogeneity among all household members. However, this traditional approach fails to highlight potential disparities among the members of a household, let’s say, when measuring asset ownership. The Evidence and Data for Gender Equality (EDGE) project, implemented by UN DESA and UN Women, developed the UN Guidelines for Producing Statistics on Asset Ownership from a Gender Perspective to measure asset ownership at the individual level by using self-responses instead of proxies. The data analyses resulting from these guidelines are expected to shed light on policy issues around empowerment of women and their well-being, reduction of poverty and vulnerability and women’s entrepreneurship.

“Furthermore, the updated international classification of status in employment (ISCE-18) is a positive development that will result in better gender data, as it covers all forms of work, paid and unpaid, and additional details about types of employment, including those where women predominate, such as contributing family members. The International Labour Organization data collection guidelines for ISCE-18 are expected to further minimize possible biases in the instruments used to collect employment statistics. This way, questions will be asked in a way that should not elicit structurally different responses from women and men.

For more information:

Statistical Commission, Fiftieth session

More than words: International year kicks off to protect indigenous languages

Languages play a crucial role in our daily lives. They also make up our unique cultural identities. Yet, of the about 6,700 languages spoken in the world today, 40 percent are at risk of disappearing. Most of them are indigenous languages. And when a language dies, it can mean the end of a community’s values and traditions. This is where the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages comes in. UN DESA Voice spoke with Mirian Masaquiza in UN DESA’s Division for Inclusive Social Development (DISD), about the year and its mission to protect and preserve the world’s indigenous languages.

How many indigenous languages are out there and how can we keep track of them?

“At present, 96 per cent of the world’s approximately 6,700 languages are spoken by only 3 per cent of the world’s population. The vast majority of the languages that are under threat are indigenous languages, and most of them would disappear.

States are the ones called to keep track on indigenous languages by recognizing the linguistic rights of indigenous peoples and developing language policies to promote and protect indigenous languages. Also, States should ensure that indigenous languages are adequately reflected in censuses and other data collection tools, such as questionnaires, surveys and participatory assessments.”

The UN has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages. What makes them so important?

“The 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages is very important as it will inspire speakers of indigenous languages to use it in a daily life with pride. Member States and other stakeholders will understand the need to include indigenous languages into specific programmes and activities to promote and protect them. Most importantly, the world will see a revival of a movement that is fighting for the right to use the language of their ancestors.

This international year will continue to raise key issues and concerns associated with indigenous languages on an ad hoc basis. Further, it will be an opportunity to compile and share good practices and tools for language revitalization, considering the different needs based on the different situations of indigenous languages.”

What is threatening the indigenous languages?

“I think that globalization, non-recognition of indigenous peoples and the rise of a small number of culturally dominant languages has led to a situation in which, some indigenous peoples do no longer use their indigenous language or no longer transmit it from parents to their children.

We as human beings should care about indigenous languages in the same way as we should care about the loss of the world’s variety of plants and animals, its biodiversity.”

What can we do to protect them?

“Article 13 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures and that States shall take effective measures to ensure that this right is protected.

For instance, indigenous peoples should highlight that indigenous languages are intrinsically valuable to their speakers and their cultures, not only as methods of communication but also as repositories of traditional knowledge that are important for understanding and sustaining biological diversity and providing important contributions to sustainable development. Further, promote the cognitive benefits of multilingual and bilingual speakers. These benefits are enjoyed not only by indigenous communities but also by all of society.

States should support the use of indigenous languages by developing incentives for speaking and disseminating indigenous languages beyond schools and language revitalization centres.

The United Nations system should intensify efforts to promote indigenous language preservation and revitalization, as well as education in the indigenous mother tongue.”

For more information: International Year of Indigenous Languages

Diving into the blue economy

Can humans use the ocean as a tool for lifting people out of poverty, all the while protecting its valuable ecosystems? Certainly, say proponents of the growing sustainable blue economy movement. The first-ever Sustainable Blue Economy Conference, held in Kenya in November 2018, brought together thousands of ocean experts and activists to discuss how to sustainably use our ocean.

The concept is gaining momentum , including at the highest levels of decision making. In September, 12 heads of state from around the world and the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, Peter Thomson, launched the High-level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy to catalyse bold solutions for ocean health and wealth. We asked Madhushree Chatterjee, Chief of the Natural Resources and Interlinkages Branch of UN DESA’s Division for Sustainable Development Goals to give us her impressions of this growing movement.

What do we mean by a “blue economy”?

“The blue economy comprises a range of economic sectors and related policies that together determine whether the use of ocean resources is sustainable. An important challenge of the blue economy is to understand and better manage the many aspects of oceanic sustainability, ranging from sustainable fisheries to ecosystem health to preventing pollution. Secondly, the blue economy challenges us to realize that the sustainable management of ocean resources will require collaboration across borders and sectors through a variety of partnerships, and on a scale that has not been previously achieved. This is a tall order, particularly for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) who face significant limitations.”

How can building a blue economy help us achieve the SDGs?

“The blue economy concept seeks to promote economic growth, social inclusion and preservation or improvement of livelihoods while at the same time ensuring environmental sustainability—all issues integral to the 2030 Agenda. So, to build a blue economy, we will need to put sustainability at its centre. This will require careful attention to all decisions and their cross‑sectoral implications. We will need to ensure that policies do not undermine each other and that interlinkages are leveraged for the benefit of people, planet and prosperity.”

Why is a healthy ocean so important for current and future generations?

“The world’s oceans – their temperature, chemistry, currents and life – drive global systems that make the earth habitable for humankind. Our rainwater, drinking water, weather, climate, coastlines, much of our food, medicines and even the oxygen in the air we breathe, are all provided and regulated by the sea. Living oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and reduce climate change impacts. The oceans also provide convenient transport routes for everything from food and fuel to construction materials, chemicals and household items.  Moreover, UN Environment estimates the cumulative economic impact of poor ocean management practices is at least $200 billion per year.”

What can we do to improve our ocean’s health?

“The declining health of our ocean shows that the world is simply not doing enough. However, as part of the 2017 UN Ocean Conference, a diverse range of stakeholders, from local grassroots organizations to governments, NGOs and the private sector, committed to reversing the decline of ocean health through saving our mangroves, alleviating the impacts of ocean acidification, halting plastic pollution and more. Those 1,400+ commitments are now grouped into nine Communities of Ocean Action, and UN DESA is providing a platform for them to work together. Now, it is time to ramp up the implementation of such initiatives, identify gaps, exchange ideas, find creative solutions, scale up where possible and, most importantly, to work together to implement Sustainable Development Goal 14 – life under water.”

What did the recent Sustainable Blue Economy Conference achieve?

“As Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in his remarks at the Conference, it provided an international forum for advancing global conversation on the two important pillars of the Blue Economy: on one hand, sustainability, climate change and controlling pollution; on the other, production, accelerated economic growth, jobs and poverty alleviation. Discussions at the conference emphasized how oceans, seas, lakes and rivers can help us achieve our common objective of sustainable economic growth, thereby contributing to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. With about 18,000 participants, 184 countries, and more than 300 events and 200 speakers, the conference proved to be an important stepping stone towards the next anticipated UN Ocean Conference in 2020.”

For more information:

UN DESA’s Sustainable Knowledge Platform


Follow Us