Does the Pope like the SDGs? Considering the 2030 Agenda through the lens of Laudato Si’


Photo 1 - Graham Gordon is Head of Policy at CAFODGraham Gordon, CAFOD’s Head of Policy, introduces a paper which explores the relationship between the Sustainable Development Goals and Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment and development, Laudato Si’

Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is the result of many years of collective thinking across the international community about what international development looks like and how it should be ‘done’. It is an ambitious Agenda with an aspirational preamble and declaration, as well as 17 specific Goals (the Sustainable Development Goals or ‘SDGs’) and 169 targets.

In many ways, the SDGs offer a new way of approaching international development. They emphasise the importance of tackling inequality, of integrating environment and development and of deepening citizen participation. Most fundamentally, they state a clear commitment “to leave no-one behind”.

The SDGs demand that no-one be left behind

The SDGs demand that no-one be left behind

However, we need to address the way the SDGs are being implemented and some of the assumptions underlying the Goals if the 2030 Agenda is going to achieve the ambitious change it targets.

In a new discussion paper, we at CAFOD with a group of friends at other Catholic development organisations have taken inspiration from Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si‘ – On Care for our Common Home and suggest that we can address these challenges by Engaging in the 2030 Agenda through the Lens of Laudato Si’.

The paper looks at the relationship between the SDGs and the Pope's encylical

The paper looks at the relationship between the SDGs and the Pope’s encylical

The paper argues that we need to have an integrated as opposed to a piecemeal approach to implementation, and that we also need to ask deeper questions and address the unsustainable models of development.

Challenge 1 – A piecemeal approach to implementation

Most development challenges are addressed in the 17 SDGs and 169 targets, so it is easy to pick your favourite SDG and report on your contribution while carrying on with business as usual. Donors have been criticised for simply asking recipients of aid money to report based on which SDGs they have met. This then becomes a ‘numbers game’ of adding-up a multitude of different contributions to the individual goals and targets. It lacks an integrated or transformational approach or any change in existing plans.

Challenge 2 –  The SDGs fail to address systemic issues

The second criticism of Agenda 2030 is that it doesn’t tackle some of the systemic issues and models of development that make and keep people poor and are responsible for the misuse of natural resources. The SDGs’ ongoing reliance on economic growth – indeed, their commitment to sustained growth – is problematic. Likewise, the lack of challenge to the current system of global governance, concentration and distribution of power and wealth is a blind spot.

The SDGs fail to question the necessity or sustainability of economic growth

The SDGs fail to question the necessity or sustainability of economic growth

Response 1 – We must take an integrated approach to Agenda 2030

To address the first critique of the 2030 Agenda, the discussion paper takes an integrated approach and suggests nine overarching themes that weave through the entire 2030 Agenda.

Many of these are the transformational shifts mentioned above – such as to integrate environment and development and to leave no-one behind – cut across all the Goals and targets. These need to be at the core of any approach to implementation.

These shifts are affirmed and built upon by Laudato Si:

  • Agenda 2030 has the aspiration to leave ono-one behind (#4) and that no goal will be met unless it is met for everyone. Laudato Si’ draws on the long tradition in Catholic Social Teaching of a preferential option for the poor (#158).
  • Agenda 2030 speaks of the need to tackle social, environmental and economic issues together (#13). Laudato Si’ affirms the need to hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor (#49).
  • Agenda 2030 was based on extensive participation (#52). Laudato Si’ calls for deeper dialogue (#14), especially with indigenous communities where development projects affect them (#146).

In this way, Agenda 2030 and Laudato Si’ come together to offer hope and fresh way of approaching some of the core issues facing us.

Response 2 – Ask deeper questions and rethink current unsustainable models of development

On the more challenging side, some of the overarching themes within Agenda 2030 relate to a deepening of the current model of development based on increased growth, technological solutions and expanding production and consumption. These are seen as largely neutral or positive in the 2030 Agenda, whereas Laudato Si’ challenges some of the core assumptions behind them:

  • Agenda 2030 aims for sustained economic growth (Target 8.1), while Laudato Si’ calls us to redefine our notion of progress (#194), recognising that the current process of development doesn’t work for everyone (#6, #54).
  • Agenda 2030 talks of technological advances to solve environmental challenges (#15), whereas Laudato Si’ warns of an overreliance reliance on technology to solve the world’s problems (#108-109), and challenges a throwaway culture (#16) based on increased consumption and production
  • Laudato Si’ clearly challenges the unequal distribution and misuse of power (#54) and calls for individual and collective action through an ecological conversion (#217-219). These are issues that are largely absent from Agenda 2030.
CAFOD's partners have provided training to women displaced by the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal

CAFOD’s partners have provided training to women displaced by the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal

Agenda 2030 and Laudato Si’ must both be considered

Engaging in the 2030 Agenda through the Lens of Laudato Si’ affirms much of what is in Agenda 2030 and sees significant opportunity to engage in this transformational agenda to bring about lasting change. However, this needs to be done in an integrated way that includes asking deeper questions about the purpose and direction of development and seeking deeper structural and political change.

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