Nanette Svenson. The United Nations as a Knowledge System (London: Routledge, 2015), pp 240.

Reviewed by: Kai Chen (School of International Relations, Xiamen University)

The United Nations as a Knowledge System, written by Nanette Svenson, takes a critical look at the UN knowledge system’s provision of knowledge services. The UN delivers knowledge in many fields, including, but not limited to, peacekeeping, nation-building, humanitarian assistance, and human rights. Given the increasing importance of knowledge in global governance, we surely have a need for such a book.

Secretary-General Meets Israel Model UN Students. photo credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas.

In the words of Svenson, the UN knowledge system, as one of the discursive platforms in the world, “represents the world’ s best effort to date for establishing an order to develop and instill global norms for everyone to live by” (p.138). At its bare minimum, the system has three functions. First, the system has been disseminating knowledge to mixed audiences, while developing organizational and social learning opportunities. Second, the system has been utilizing knowledge to shape the global norms and normative agreements. Third, in cooperation with the private sector, the system has been developing client-oriented products and services.

The above-mentioned functions of the UN knowledge system remain unnoticed by many stakeholders, particularly by those in the developing world. The United Nations as a Knowledge System is divided into three parts, which successively explore the three core functions of the UN knowledge system.

Part I (chapters 1-3) of the book reviews the cases of established UN-associated and UN-sponsored programs, initiatives, and institution. The book discusses several of these, including university-level degree-granting, research-generating programs, and shorter-term programs (e.g., the United Nations Academic Impact, the Model United Nations, and the United Nations internship programs). For instance, the Model United Nations (MUN) program aims to broaden “participants’ knowledge on diplomacy, international law and current global politics” (p.54).

Global Classrooms Model UN Conference Opens in Assembly Hall. photo credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe.

In this part of the book, Svenson examines how the system educates the internal, external, and mixed audiences. The system benefits several stakeholder groups at various levels. Some of the beneficiaries of the program are the UN professionals, member-state governments, and NGOs, including, but not limited, to the UNESCO Memory of the World Program, the One UN Climate Change Learning Partnership, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Global Cold War, 1971-1984 project.

As Svenson argues, the programs share several common characteristics. For instance, they have been “employing a combination of technology-based online instruction and face-to-face training and interaction” (p.37). The United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) is a good example of this trend. At present, UNITAR offers “almost half of its training courses online” (p.30). For example, the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) along with the Institute for Economic Development and Planning (IDEP), partnered with UNITAR to offer the instructor-led e-Learning courses in Africa (Anonymous 2016).

In Part II (chapters 4-6), Svenson focuses on the system’s provision of knowledge in the UN-inspired and UN-endorsed norm-setting. In this area, the UN knowledge system “uses data and information to influence the evolution of international agreements” (p.232). Majority of the UN-supported normative base for education rests on a human and children’s rights-based approach” (p.122).

In Part III (chapters 7-9), Svenson highlights that the UN knowledge system has been delivering reliable knowledge products and services to its member countries. For instance, the system has been producing three major types of documentation, that is, official records (e.g., supplemental reports and resolutions of the UN), documents (e.g., provisional records of meetings), and sales publications (e.g., UN yearbooks, conference proceedings, recurrent or periodical reports). The above-mentioned documentation UN knowledge system

It is noteworthy that Svenson stresses out the similarities and differences between the UN and the private sector knowledge-providers. The most obvious similarity, discussed in the book, is that both parties have been “managing their existing knowledge to improve productive work output” (p.183). This would establish a foundation for a potential partnership between the UN and the private sector in knowledge provision.

12th Annual Global Classrooms International High School Model UN Conference. photo credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten.

With regard to the differences, the private sector prefers to “manage knowledge primarily for internal audiences”, while the UN has a mixed audience. In addition, the knowledge produced by the private sector is always “proprietary”, while the knowledge produced at the UN is “universally available” (pp.183-184).

One of the most valuable contributions to the literature on the UN, presented in the book, is Svenson’s evaluation of the three challenges facing the UN knowledge system. First, Svenson suggests that within the UN knowledge system there is “no systematized mechanism for documenting and sharing internal knowledge on training and instruction” (p. 38). In the absence of such a mechanism, there are fewer opportunities to between individual agencies and agency officials.

Second, there is a “lack of coordination and collaboration” within and between the UN entities the UN libraries, the units under a singular UN knowledge services platform, and official UN research and training institutes. In the long run, this will be a challenge for “the system’s cost-effectiveness and efficiency” (p.73). knowledge services would remain largely UN knowledge system.

Third, Svenson is wondering about the extent to which the UN knowledge system would benefit the “lesser-represented populations in rural, indigenous and other ethnic enclaves” (p.121), especially when there are “duplication, conflicts of interest and inefficiencies” within the system (p.122). Although, the UN knowledge system shares internal knowledge, the cost-effectiveness and efficiency of the UN knowledge system is questionable.

In the concluding chapter, Svenson provides helpful recommendations for future development of the UN knowledge system, none of which are “inexpensive or immediately achievable” (p.186). For example, as Svenson suggests, the UN should prioritize goals related to its core interests. At the same time, the UN should focus on its comparative advantages in global coordination and monitoring. More importantly, the UN should have “a collection of strategic partners”, which have “proven strengths in areas where UN organizations are typically less skilled” (p.228).

Secretary-General Attends Chicago High School Model UN. photo credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten.

The United Nations as a Knowledge System raises a question that deserves attention by future research as, after reading the book, one is left wondering if there are any competitors to the UN knowledge system. At the very least, in the reviewer’s opinion, the “deep web” is potentially the most critical rival to the UN knowledge system. The deep web has not been revealed by the search engines for decades. It is accessible by a browser called Tor using a load-time randomization technique. The deep web reportedly distributed unknown knowledge to millions of clients. It is still largely impossible for the governments to track both the clients and the knowledge distributed along the deep web. In the foreseeable future, one cannot exclude a possibility that the deep web would be one of the rivals to the UN knowledge system, particularly in the areas where the UN system is less skilled.

The United Nations as a Knowledge System will be an accessible read for a broad audience, including academics and the general public. The book will stimulate further work in the literature on the UN knowledge system. In the meantime, this volume will provide scholars and policy makers with a valuable insight into how the UN knowledge has been shaping the world.


Anonymous. 2016. “Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and UNITAR Offer Free e-Learning Course on Industrialization through Trade”, M2 Presswire (England), 12 Aug.