International Conference on the SDGs: Listening to the Cry of the Earth and of the Poor

By: Katherine Marshall

March 21, 2019

"It is about marshalling the moral force of religion behind the implementation of the SDG goals. We need to work together; for no source of wisdom can be left out, just as no one can be left behind!” Cardinal Peter Turkson

The idea of a joint Vatican/United Nations event centered on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was first discussed by the leaders of the March 2019 conference back in 2015 (when the United Nations General Assembly approved the Global Goals and framework), and it culminated in this ambitious three-day event, held at Vatican City and attended by some 500 people. The joint leaders were Cardinal Peter Turkson and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and Michael Møller, director-general of the United Nations Office at Geneva. Various presentations should be available on the website shortly; a highlight was a March 8 address by Pope Francis.

Tragically, one participant was on the Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed, on his way home, alongside so many others working on the topics that were the focus of the conference.

The program essentially fell into five parts: (a) Formal opening speeches focused on Abrahamic tradition perspectives: Rabbi David Rosen; Rev. Martin Junge, Lutheran World Federation; Sheikh Mohamad Abou Zeid, Islamic Sunni Court in Saida, Lebanon; (b) Alternating perspectives on the SDGs by UN agencies (FAO, WHO, UN-Habitat, and UN Global Sustainability Index Institute) and religious voices (Vandana Shiva, as a Hindu; Fung Ying Seen Koon, as a Taoist; Marcivana Sateré, as indigenous), with a synthesis by Kitty Van der Heijden, World Resources Institute; (c) More action-focused sessions looking respectively at bonded labor, migration, energy, and peace (with UNDP); (d) Explorations of partnerships, with notable reflections from various religious traditions and illustrations through specific programs; and (e) A brief working session broken down by major SDG focal areas (the 5 Ps that were a conference theme): peace, planet, people, peace, and partnership. Cardinal Turkson and Michael Möller concluded the event. Msgrs. Bruno-Marie Duffé and Augusto Zampini Davies from the dicastery were also very much involved. Youth representatives participated at different points, including a group of pre-kindergartners at the opening. Dr. Maria Flachsbarth, the German deputy minister of economic cooperation and development, was the most prominent representative of a government.

The participants were a mixed group, with representatives from various faith-inspired organizations and of religious communities, and (a few) scholars of religion and development. Not surprisingly, Rome-based people and from elsewhere in Europe predominated. Among the speakers, noteworthy presentations included Bishop Gunnar Stälsett (Religions for Peace, Europe) on the significant Rainforest Initiative and Ulrich Nitschke on the role of the International Partnership for Sustainable Development (PaRD). Swami Agnivesh spoke twice, especially passionately on the topic of bonded labor and the evils of the caste system. Vandana Shiva was as always a forceful presence, arguing for the special evils of multinational companies and focusing on the environment crisis. Two people who were present but without formal speaking roles were Adama Dieng, UN undersecretary for genocide prevention, and Faisal Bin Abdulrahman Bin Muaammar, secretary general of the King Abdallah bin Abdulaziz Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID).

The opening message offered by the young children was that it is their future that is at stake.

Pope Francis’ address on March 8 focused on the importance of listening to all voices (though somewhat surprisingly, on International Women’s Day he mentioned the poor, migrants, indigenous people, and the young, but not women or gender justice as a major challenge in implementing the SDGs). He highlighted the SDGs as a new, universal solidarity. Development, he stressed, is a complex concept, especially when it focuses exclusively on economic growth. He called out stubborn adherence to the “myth” of unlimited growth and consumption. Human development is not only for experts: it is a call and a vocation for all. He called for concrete solutions and commitments. One striking comment: “While it is certainly necessary to aim for a set of development goals, this is not sufficient for a fair and sustainable world order. Economic and political objectives must be sustained by ethical objectives which presuppose a change of attitude: what the Bible would call a change of heart.” He concluded on a positive note, saying “I encourage you to continue to fight for that change that present circumstances demand, because the injustice that brings tears to our world and to its poor is not invincible.”

A Few Personal Observations

  • I was struck by the strong focus on climate change and the sense of urgency (indeed emergency) around it. That clearly is well justified, but a seemingly inescapable implication is that the passion for “those left behind” came through less clearly.​
  • Likewise, the focus on peace and conflict resolution was somewhat muted.
  • Michael Møller’s active participation was striking. He was there from beginning to end and made clear his appreciation for the significance as well as the complexity of religious roles. Among his comments was expression of concern about the erosion of human rights and a need to focus on revitalizing commitment to that framework and those ideals. He made a strong plea for multilateralism.
  • There was a thread throughout of concern about consumerism and the “throwaway” culture. Likewise there were references (not always precisely defined) to misguided development practices.
  • Martin Junge’s presentation was striking in its focus on those left behind and strong and specific statement on gender equality; for example, he used the pay gap between women and men as a symbol for existing inequalities. 
  • Dr. Maria Flachsbarth’s presence and sharp focus on the importance of government attention to religious communities in their development work was significant—as was the otherwise lack of government involvement in the event. 
  • Roland Schatz made an interesting call (not always easy to answer) to make the SDGs “sparkle.” In short, communication is a vital part of the challenge.
  • There were some challenges to religious bodies and thinking, but most centered on the broader community, and especially governments and the “secular community.”
  • Discussions about partnership were, as is often the case, more in the form of admonitions than specifics. But an honest sense was voiced by some that partnerships are complex and, in their many forms, not working as well as they should.
  • I was impressed especially by the presentation from Bishop Paul Tighe of the Pontifical Council for Culture. Among other points, he focused on the vital need for dialogue with non-believers and the need to look to various forms of cultural expression as part of the challenge and solution./li>

Goals for Religious Actor Gatherings

I and other participants discussed at several points what is needed if an ambitious meeting like this one is to achieve the objectives set out: these clearly will have genuine and lasting impact. Some ideas that occurred to me of ways to think about how religious actors (individually and collectively) contribute to global goals like the SDGs fit roughly into eight goals for such gatherings:

  1. Help in recognizing and channeling outrage and fear: in this case, hearing the cry of people and planet. The Vatican conference was striking in the urgency of the calls to act on climate change. I suspect that many left more convinced and fearful than when they arrived.
  2. Leave a real sense of hope that much has been achieved, and that there are workable, bold ideas and avenues for potential action. This conference seemed less clear in highlighting global achievements and the idea that ending poverty, saving the planet, and achieving peace are possible and within our grasp.
  3. Convey an individual and common understanding that it is our duty to act. It is important to instill a sense of what can and needs to be done, but also the real sense of responsibility and urgency.
  4. Help make the SDGs “sparkle” and emerge as a clear and compelling map. This was a clear goal, but its difficulty was apparent. Beyond conveying that the SDGs are a meaningful global architecture and common commitment, there is a need also to ensure that all are open to authentic dialogue about what they involve. We need to keep questioning and refreshing, to improve and amplify. If SDGs come across as too rigid there is no sparkle.
  5. That leads to a need for work to identify and discern problem areas: e.g. inequality, gender, action on corruption, reproductive health and rights.
  6. Need to focus in practical ways to address gaps in understanding and action, as well as priority needs (like refugee action, rainforest, discrimination, child marriage).
  7. Large events need more and more practical focus on resource issues, including in partnership discussions. The theme of “billions to trillions”—i.e. the enormous resource needs that the SDG commitments imply—was downplayed or absent. What does it imply for religious actors? What will and can be their specific contributions?
  8. Focus on action: what comes next, for whom, when, how measured?

In concluding comments, Cardinal Turkson suggested that a next step should be a full report on the conference, focusing on the outcomes of the five short working sessions that took place towards the conference conclusion.

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International Conference on the SDGs: Listening to the Cry of the Earth and of the Poor