The U.N., Sustainable Development Goals and CNEWA

In 1999, as the world was preparing to welcome a new year, century and millennium, the United Nations was preparing perhaps the most ambitious set of “New Year’s Resolutions” in history.

Known as the Millennium Development Goals, or M.D.G.s, these eight objectives called to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat H.I.V./AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and develop a global partnership for development. The U.N. set a target date to achieve these goals for 2015.

From the outset there was criticism. The M.D.G.s seemed idealistic and naïve. Many asked — most earnestly, some sarcastically — “And what happens in 2016?” Some understandably feared the ambitious goals were a classic case of bureaucratic overreach and expected they would   disappear as so much else has in the past.

Although the declaration was approved by 191 member states of the U.N.’s General Assembly, the resolution was nonbinding. In addition, questions arose regarding how to measure the success of the goals; there were no practical metrics readily available nor universally accepted.

It should be noted, however, that the Millennium Development Goals found a ready audience among the nongovernmental organizations (N.G.O.s) that make up “civil society” in the United Nations community. Many N.G.O.s — including faith-based organizations — welcomed the goals and had long been working to advocate and advance one or more of them. Consequently, these organizations had experience with individual goals and also developed evaluation metrics from their “on-the-ground” experiences. One could say N.G.O.s played a key role in helping to advance the U.N.’s resolutions.

Fifteen years is a short time to accomplish any challenging goal, to say nothing of realizing goals as ambitious as the Millennium Development Goals. The question, “What happens in 2016?” began to be taken not only seriously, but strategically. The year 2015 was no longer looked upon as the year of admitting inability to achieve all the goals, but rather as an opportunity to review, assess and evaluate. Most importantly, U.N. leadership and member organizations began to recognize that 2015 was not the end of the endeavor, but the beginning of a new phase.

Nevertheless, The Millennium Development Goals Report, issued in 2015, surprised many with the results in what has been described as a “progress report” and not a “mission accomplished” report. It is important to note none of the goals identified in 1999 were considered superfluous or accomplished. Also, the metrics tend to depend on specific data and conditions that might not be obvious to the average reader. Some of the report’s findings include:

  • The “extreme poverty rate” in developing countries dropped from 47 percent to 14 percent between 1990 and 2015;
  • The number of “out-of-school children” globally dropped from 100 million to 57 million between 2000 and 2015;
  • Deaths of children under five decreased globally from 12.7 million to 6 million between 1990 and 2015.

Far from being the date of a defeat, 2015 provided great impetus for evaluating the Millennium Development Goals and for planning “the next step.” Once again, civil society — the N.G.O.s —provided a great deal of energy and experience for articulating this phase, as many had been already preparing. With some oversimplification, the objectives identified as the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals in 1999 evolved into Sustainable Development Goals or S.D.G.s.

The children at Kidane Meheret Catholic School benefit from CNEWA’s generous donors. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)

In 2015, the U.N. Economic and Social Council published Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which introduced the S.D.G.s: “The 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets which we are announcing today demonstrate the scale and ambition of this new universal agenda. They seek to build on the Millennium Development Goals and complete what these did not achieve.”

Although there is overlap between the two sets of goals, there is clear evidence of an evolution as the number of goals increased from eight to 17. The critical role of N.G.O.s, which are by definition “on the ground,” remains constant, as they are among the primary agents and evaluators of the Sustainable Development Goals. One cannot overestimate their role, not only as implementors but as evaluators.

Every four years, each U.N. member state is required to submit what is called a Universal Periodic Review (U.P.R.), which reports on matters such as human rights and the Sustainable Development Goals. There is a tendency for all governments to be positive in their self-reporting on the application and impact of the S.D.G.s. Often countries — especially autocracies — tend to paint a more positive picture of conditions than the facts might allow. Nongovernmental organizations working in such countries frequently submit an “alternative U.P.R.” Such reports can and do result often in oppressive and violent actions against the N.G.O. on the part of the government in question.

Thus, N.G.O.s often provide a crucial and more accurate, if less optimistic, report on the application, reception and impact of the S.D.G.s, either generally or specifically. Having said that, very few, if any, N.G.O.s advance all 17 goals outlined by the United Nations. Most focus on specific issues, such as health care, women, refugees and migrants. In addition, not all N.G.O.s are in full agreement with certain aspects of every S.D.G. The Holy See, a Permanent Observer State at the United Nations, does not agree with some matters regarding human sexuality, abortion and maternal health. However, it is imperative to recognize that, while the Holy See is quite clear where and why it disagrees and does not take part in some aspects of the S.D.G.s, it is nevertheless deeply involved with and supportive of the majority of them.

CNEWA has been accredited to the U.N. Department of Global Communication for several decades. As such, CNEWA is part of civil society in the U.N. organization, the so-called “N.G.O. community.” As an accredited, faith-based, Catholic N.G.O. — one of dozens — CNEWA follows both the commitment and reservations of the Holy See vis-à-vis the S.D.G.s.

There is a natural overlap of CNEWA’s extensive commitment to humanitarian work with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. The presence of CNEWA at the U.N. — together with dozens of other Catholic N.G.O.s — is an example of the social teaching of the Catholic Church in action.

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