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Listening to the Cry of the Earth and of the Poor

An International Conference on the contribution of religions to the Sustainable Development Goals took place in the Vatican from March 7th to 9th. Read a retrospect by Prof. Katherine Marshall here.

By Prof. Katherine Marshall

The idea of a joint Vatican and United Nations event centered on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was first discussed by the leaders of this conference 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 organized by the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The joint leaders were Cardinal Turkson and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and Michael Möller, Director General of the United Nations Office at Geneva. One highlight of the conference was an address by Pope Francis to the over 500 participants on on March 8th. 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:

  1. Formal opening speeches focused on Abrahamic tradition perspectives (Rabbi David Rosen, Rev. Martin Junge from the Lutheran World Federation, Sheikh Mohamad Abou Zeid, Islamic Sunni Court in Saida, Lebanon);
  2. Alternating perspectives on SDGs by UN agencies and religious voices (FAO, WHO, UN-Habitat, and UN Global Sustainability Index Institute, and Vandana Shiva – speaking 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);
  3. More action focused sessions looking respectively at bonded labor, migration, energy, and peace (with UNDP);
  4. explorations of partnerships, with, notably, reflections from various religious traditions and illustrations through specific programs; and 
  5. 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. Youth representatives participated at different points, including a group of pre-kindergartners at the opening. The German Deputy Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development (Dr. Maria Flachsbarth) was the most prominent representative of a government.

It is about marshalling the moral force of religion behind the implementation of the SDGs. No source of wisdom can be left out, just as no one can be left behind! Peter Cardinal Turkson, Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development

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. Especially noteworthy was the presentation from Bishop Gunnar Stälsett (Religions for Peace, Europe) on the significant Rainforest Initiative. 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 KAICIID (King Abdallah bin Abdulaziz Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue).

The injustice that brings tears to our world and to its poor is not invincible. Pope Francis

The opening message (through 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. 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, however, 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 was made by the pope: “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.”

In his concluding comments, Cardinal Turkson announced a full report on the conference, focusing on the outcomes of the five short working sessions that took place towards the conference conclusion. The attending PaRD members agreed to work together to cover the conference’s outcomes and to follow-up through their own work. Please revisit the PaRD website for further updates in the coming weeks.