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Journey to Justice

By Joe Gunn

Tom Ryan, CSP
Faith to sustain a more just world

Gird your loins! Pope Francis will soon make the headlines again!

Not long after the huge global stir caused by the pontiff’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, the pope will again be making news this autumn. On Sept. 24 he’ll be the first pope ever to address the U.S. Congress (where both Speaker of the House John Boehner and Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are Catholics). Next day, Francis will also address the UN General Assembly on the occasion of the UN’s 70th anniversary.

Francis will be the fourth pope to address the UN. Why now, and what is he likely to say?

Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

The September UN meetings will mark the end of the Millennium Development Goals. Signed in 2000 by global leaders such as Prime Minister Jean Chretien only 11 years after the end of the Cold War, the effort attempted to prove that the achievements of global capitalism could be shared. Eight goals were agreed to with 18 anti-poverty targets and 48 indicators — achieving modest success. For example, the share of people living in abject poverty has decreased (thanks to growth in Eastern Asia, especially China, more than anything the UN has done). And there have been notable increases in the numbers of kids in school. But progress has been uneven across countries, regions and social groups, and often the poorest, or most disadvantaged because of age, gender, disability, conflict or ethnicity have been bypassed.

The MDGs were important goal-setting exercises for the international community, but criticized as incomplete. As Professor Amartya Sen has noted, poverty is more than an economic problem. It exposes multiple deprivations of basic capabilities in human, socio-cultural, political and protective areas of life.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, followed by the Rio+20 Summit in 2012, “development” began to be understood differently. Some aid organizations felt that the very people to be “developed” were not included in plans designed to determine their futures. Others saw environmental sustainability as simply an add-on. And the developed nations were only challenged to give more — but not expected to change systemic barriers that prevent or block development.

So the UN has been working on a new agenda called the Sustainable Development Goals. There are 17 SDGs and a whopping 169 targets. They include reducing inequality — both within and among countries, climate change, health, lifetime learning and ocean management. The British Catholic aid group, CAFOD, noted that energy was often called the “missing MDG.” But an energy SDG is now on the table: “it needs to promote both universal access and the shift to more sustainable ways of producing and using energy globally.”

Sustainable Canadian development?

Importantly, the UN will now call upon action from all countries, not just the poorest. Whereas the first MDG called for halving the incidence of extreme hunger and poverty, the first SDG calls on states to end poverty in all of its forms, everywhere, including at home.

So how will Canada respond?

Canada’s record has been weak: we are now in 16th place out of 28 donor countries, and as a percentage of Gross National Income, our aid spending has fallen from 0.34 per cent to 0.24 per cent — a far cry from the MDG target of 0.7 per cent of GNI. And at home, Canada has no poverty reduction plan.

Additionally, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development developed green growth indicators to capture the complex reality of sustainability — and concluded that Canada is currently running a sustainability deficit.

Canadians use energy at rates 50 per cent higher than the OECD average, and over the past 13 years we accounted for 21.4 per cent of forest degradation — the highest global rate. As well, the Canadian government’s new target for post-2020 greenhouse gas emissions reductions is the lowest in the G7.

At the UN in September, as the international community adopts the SDGs, Pope Francis will surely remark that almost 1.6 billion people still live on less than $1.25 U.S. a day (the UN definition of extreme poverty) and over 2.6 billion lack flushable toilets and adequate sanitation. If he casts his gaze to the north, he might also ask Canadian Catholics if we are keeping our governments accountable to the promise to meet sustainable development goals.

What were the Millennium Development Goals?

1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
2. Achieve universal primary education
3. Promote gender equality and empower women
4. Reduce child mortality
5. Improve maternal health
6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
7. Ensure environmental sustainability
8. Develop a global partnership for development

What are the proposed SDGs?

1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture
3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all
9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation, and foster innovation
10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (taking note of agreements made by the UNFCCC forum)
14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss
16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development
Nations and other parties negotiating at the UN have highlighted the links between the post-2015 SDG process, the Funding for Development process to be concluded in Addis Ababa in July and the COP 21 Climate Change conference in Paris in December.

A recent analysis report concluded that only a high ambition climate deal in Paris in 2015 will enable countries to reach the sustainable development goals and targets. It also states that tackling climate change will only be possible if the SDGs are met; and that development and climate are inextricably linked, particularly around poverty, gender equality and energy.

Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.