Global conference sparks hope, calls for action

By Roma De Robertis, SCIC

UNITED NATIONS, NEW YORK — Members of the North American Sisters of Charity Federation joined thousands from around the world Aug. 27-29 to participate in the international non-governmental organization (NGO) conference at the United Nations in New York City focusing on sustainable development.

Organized by the UN Department of Public Information, the 65th annual conference drew more than 2,000 participants on site, as well as millions of others connected via the Internet and social media. While some participants represented governments, most were members of NGOs, also known as “civil society.”

This year’s theme was 2015 and Beyond — Our Action Agenda. The focus included Sustainable Development Goals to be adopted and implemented by UN member states for the period 2016 to 2030. They will build on UN Millennium Development Goals to which UN member states agreed for the period between 2000 and 2015.

Overall, such goals focus on reducing and eradicating poverty, overcoming inequalities and upholding human rights and development. The new goals emphasize reducing and preventing climate change and promoting sustainable development.

Governments are responsible for adopting and implementing such international agreements. However, they are informed and held to account by citizens and members of civil society who advocate with those most affected by poverty, war, violence, disease and environmental degradation.

The 2014 NGO conference came less than a month before UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will convene a climate summit Sept. 23 in New York City with world leaders from government, finance, business and civil society. The summit seeks to mobilize political will to achieve a meaningful legal agreement on climate action in 2015.

As part of the Sisters of Charity Federation, I travelled from Saint John, N.B., to participate in the 2014 NGO conference in the name of Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception. The Sisters of Charity Federation to which we belong has NGO status at the UN and has supported a representative there since 1997. Other religious congregations and faith-based groups play a prominent role among NGOs at the UN and internationally.

During the conference, many women and young people offered skilled and impassioned leadership roles as part of collaborative networks. The conference highlighted the need for those most affected by injustice and environmental degradation to be consulted, heeded and actively involved in decision-making.

Participants chose from a variety of informative workshops sponsored and led by NGOs. Scheduled time for midday networking offered opportunities for growth in collaboration and unity. The experience, courage and commitment of civil society leaders meeting from around the world sparked fresh hope for a healthier planet and more just and peaceful world.

In presentations during plenary roundtables, NGO leaders urged that human rights be upheld for persons who are often excluded and vulnerable, facing discrimination and violence. They include girls and women; indigenous peoples; persons with disabilities; small family farmers and persons whose sexual orientation is not considered mainstream.

The conference evoked key questions: How might we respond as local members of global networks of citizens committed to sustainable development and an end to poverty? With whom will we pray and act for greater social and ecological justice?

With record participation, the 2014 conference drew more than 900 NGOs from 117 countries. This year marked the return of the NGO conference to the UN in New York City. Beginning in 2008, the global gathering was held in countries beyond the United States. The next conference is planned for September 2015 in New York City during the UN’s 70th anniversary year.

During the closing session of the 2014 conference, Ralien Bekkers said, “politics, profits and power are overruling people and planet.” However, the Dutch youth representative on sustainable development to the UN emphasized that young people are among those boldly acting to overcome injustice. “We all need to get out of our comfort zones and show real courage,” she urged.

Participants strongly affirmed the final conference declaration which recognizes 2015 as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity for transformational change.” Offering a vision of sustainable development, the declaration also makes specific recommendations to monitor and achieve it. It is available on the conference website at

In his closing session remarks, Jan Eliasson called the UN a reflection of both “the world as it is and the world as it should be.” The UN Deputy Secretary General encouraged members of civil society to narrow the gap between the two worlds with both passion and compassion.

“In today’s global landscape, no one can do everything, but everyone can do something,” he noted.

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