Catholic Sisters: The Sustainable Development Goals Personified
Partners joined the Catholic Sisters initiative team in Nairobi, Kenya to discuss Catholic Sisters’ role in sustainable development.
When the United Nations established the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, the international community shared its excitement, enthusiasm and intention to make the SDGs live beyond their initial release. Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, which were developed in 2000, the SDGs have the benefit of additional buy-in of numerous governmental entities, philanthropic institutions and other agencies, who are willing to be accountable; however, there are still naysayers, cynics and pessimists who question the SDGs validity. They may admire the ambition of the project, but it still leaves this cohort of people wondering “How do the SDGs relate to people on an individual level?” Given all of today’s pressing social issues, including the refugee crisis and climate change, the application of the SDGs on a humanistic level may seem lacking to critics.
If these critics still question the SDGs’ relevance on a humanistic level, they should look to Catholic sisters as a shining example. In October, I had the honor and pleasure of joining the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s Catholic Sisters Strategic Initiative in Nairobi, Kenya for a three-day convening that explored Catholic sisters as champions of the SDGs in Africa. Many public and private figures, among hundreds of Superior Generals who represent the African leadership of women religious met to discuss the vital role that Catholic sisters play in human development. Catholic sisters representing 22 different countries attended the convening, affirming and showing evidence of reaching the Strategic Initiative’s goal of building a global sisterhood.
While some of the group were only familiar with the SDGs as they related to the meeting, it is critical to understand that the work of the SDGs is not new to the sisters: in fact, they have been working towards these very goals for centuries. As vice president of Grant Programs at the Foundation Edmund J. Cain said at the convening, “You all were practicing the SDG agenda before it came out.” This was exemplified in an exercise carried out by the Strategic Initiative’s Monitoring, Evaluating, and Learning partner, the Center for Religion and Civic Culture (CRCC) at the University of Southern California. Meeting attendees were asked to identify which goals, if any, were already integrated into their work at their respective organizations, congregations and communities.
The aggregated results were revealing: 96 percent were already working towards SDG Goal #2: end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture; 89 percent of attendees’ work focused on SDG Goal #1: end poverty in all its form everywhere; and the work of 73 percent of attendees fell under the scope of SDG Goal #4: ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning. Significant efforts were also directed towards SDG Goal #3: ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages; SDG Goal #5: achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls; SDG Goal #16: promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies; and SDG Goal #17: revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.
As the international community prepares to dive into its second year working towards achieving the SDGs in 2017, it is critical to recognize the players that give life and legs to the goals on a practical level—and Catholic sisters very much fulfill this role and purpose. Sisters exemplify the local application of the SDGs in their continued commitment, passion and strategic advancement of social justice. A common remark at the meeting was that sisters are well-positioned to identify challenges and provide solutions on the ground as service providers in the very communities they serve. Many, if not all, already do. What I found most compelling was the depth of progressive issues that sisters have been working on that often goes unmentioned: female genital mutilation, climate justice, sex workers’ rights and land rights. Another powerful finding was that sisters wear many hats in their life’s work: they are business owners, they are farmers, they are nurses, tailors, environmentalists, as well as leaders in a multitude of social work that support their communities.
It is my hope that, by identifying champions of the SDGs, like Catholic sisters who work at the grassroots level, critics may better understand how the international community can leverage other community leaders and grow even closer to achieving these goals by 2030. We must recognize that Catholic sisters and other stakeholders will be the ones to conquer the naysayers who believe the SDGs to be insurmountable. By uniting with these kinds of community leaders and familiarizing them with their connection to the SDGs, we are establishing a global partnership where all players are pursuing the same agenda to improve sustainable development for the world.
The Catholic Sisters Strategic Initiative convening was an excellent demonstration of just that. These partnerships reinforce the power of collaboration. With continued commitment and identification of leaders on the ground, the international community as a whole can be as optimistic as the sisters we partner with. As Sr. Susan Clare Ndeezo of Little Sisters of Mary Immaculate, Gulu - Uganda said at the conclusion of the convening, “I came like a toddler—timid—but I leave like a giant.”