New York, N.Y. — The United Nations talks a lot about localizing its sustainable development goals, the organization's effort begun in 2015 to eliminate poverty and reduce other serious social problems by the year 2030.
But is the effort to involve people at the grassroots really happening beyond hopeful rhetoric? The Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary give a firm and spirited "yes."
On July 17, the Presentation Sisters working in Asia and Africa discussed the concrete ways their congregation is working toward the global goals in a presentation at the Salvation Army near United Nations headquarters. The event was related to the July 9-18 High-level Political Forum, the U.N.'s nearly two-week annual review of the sustainable development goals.
Presentation Sisters have a long history — 123 years — of working in what is now Pakistan, Sr. Shazia Gill noted in her presentation on helping implement the goals there.
Education has been the traditional focus of the congregation's work in Pakistan. But in a country of 200 million where nearly 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, engaging communities on a host of social issues is important, she said.
In 2017, the sisters selected 18 economically vulnerable communities near their convents in which to work in Pakistan. With the help of community leaders and discussions and interviews with local citizens, the sisters found that none of the communities had access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities. In addition, all of communities faced serious problems with drug addiction among people of all ages. The communities also experienced challenges posed by religious intolerance toward non-Muslims, including Christians and Hindus.
Gill called the U.N.'s 2030 Agenda "an opportunity for dealing with issues of water and sanitation, drug abuse, and peace-building through the involvement of [local citizens] with the aim of bringing transformation."
The sisters and community members in the 18 targeted communities focused on goals No. 3 (Good Health and Well-Being); No. 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation); and No. 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions).
Following trainings, Gill said community leaders "formed community-based voluntary groups consisting of men, women, and youth." They also "developed strategies to localize SDGs through education and advocacy," such as door-to-door visits and communitywide meetings, she said.
Other efforts included school presentations, holding awareness rallies on drug addiction and initiating communitywide petition drives on issues such as waste removal, safe drinking water, blocked drains and the construction of community boundary walls.
In the last year, local governments responded to the concerns by, among other things, removing garbage, building the sought boundary walls, and beginning construction on a water filter.
It is a start, Gill said, though the work on religious intolerance is a long-term goal that requires much work.
"We hope for a nonviolent society," Gill added, "where everyone is accepted regardless of religious beliefs, economic status and culture." The educational work needed to "prevent further drug addiction" is also a long-term effort.
But the sustainable development goals are providing a platform for tackling those challenges, Gill said, as well as creating "a platform for good health among the people of our communities by ensuring safe drinking water and better sanitation."
Other Presentation Sisters who shared experiences at the July 17 presentation included Sr. Nifa Viegas, who works in India; Sr. Helen Lenehan, who works in the Philippines; and Sr. Elizabeth Juliana Rodrigues, who works in Zambia.
Their work is part of a larger effort by the Presentation Sisters to incorporate a focus related to the sustainable development goals into their mission activities.
"We have been working on the SDGs in almost all of the countries where we have been present," said Sr. Elsa Muttathu, the representative at the United Nations for the International Presentation Association, which works in 24 nations.
This particular work, she added, is part of a yearlong goal-implementation project in six countries that began in 2017. In addition to Pakistan, India, the Philippines and Zambia, the project includes Thailand and Zimbabwe. The project is funded through the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which also funds Global Sisters Report.
In addition, the International Presentation Association has produced a popular 72-page study guide, "Critical Hope for the SDGs," which the association says "offers a just, critical and theological approach to understanding of and advocating for the Sustainable Development Goals."
Study groups using the guide "can be empowered to analyze how their lived reality can be enhanced by a just and equitable implementation of the SDGs. Conversely, groups can identify and address red flags and unmask deeply-rooted unsustainable and unjust development approaches that persist in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development," states the guide, which is co-authored by the International Presentation Association and human rights lawyer Amanda Lyons, former head of the New York office for Franciscans International.
The optimism the sisters expressed was only part of the mix of the events of the High-level Political Forum.
In his concluding remarks July 18, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres noted progress in a number of global efforts, such as "reducing maternal and child mortality, expanding basic education, improving access to electricity and much more."
But the U.N. discussions, he said, "also made clear that we are lagging or even backtracking in other areas that are fundamental to our shared pledge to leave no one behind. For the first time in a decade, the number of people who are undernourished has increased, mainly due to conflict, drought and disasters linked to climate change."
Given those challenges, "We need to embed the essence of the 2030 Agenda into everything that we do," Guterres said.
The head of the U.N.'s Economic and Social Council, Marie Chatardová, also noted progress, such as reduction in extreme poverty — living on less than $1.90 per day — since 1990. But at the same time, she noted that nearly 11 percent of the world's population still remains in extreme poverty and that about a third of the world still does not have access to electricity.
"There is progress, but generally not at a sufficient speed to realize the SDGs by 2030," said Chatardová, a Czech diplomat.
That should not deter the United Nations or those at the grassroots from their dogged work in fighting poverty, said John Gilroy, the deputy director of U.N. Policy in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin. Gilroy also formerly served at the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations, which co-sponsored the July 17 event with the International Presentation Association.
"I'm positive about where we are. We're in a good place," Gilroy said of the sustainable development goals. "But we have much more work to do."
Daughter of Wisdom Sr. Jean Quinn, executive director of UNANIMA International, a U.N.-based coalition of Catholic congregations focused on concerns of women, children, migrants and the environment, was the moderator of the July 17 presentation. She said it's important to focus on the "real stories" of progress and local engagement.
"It's where a lot of us need to go — this work at the grassroots," she told GSR. "It's real."
[Chris Herlinger is GSR international correspondent. His email address is email@example.com.]