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A Reflection on the U.N.’s Commission on Social Development

by Jacquelyn Porter, RSHMCategory: Updates

woman standing in UN general assembly room as crowd is breaking up

This February, I participated in the 62nd Commission for Social and Sustainable Development which brought together U.N. leaders, analysts from related fields, and grassroots participants from around the world. Its purpose may at first sound sweeping or simply aspirational: the eradication of poverty in relation to social and planet injustice. Yet the underlying methodology of the commission brought these goals down to earth. Six high-level panels that were open to all brought new knowledge and data to bear on structural barriers to equity and rights of all people on this shared planet. Closely related to these panels of experts were 50 side events, and smaller meetings in which diverse groups of member state representatives and NGOs discussed and shared their related projects and experiences. An unforgettable theme ran through every conversation: the right of every person to equity and social justice must drive us toward the change needed for a future in which “nobody is left behind.”

At this point, you might wonder what I was doing there. I brought little practical experience or knowledge of the world beyond Europe and the United States or of the people at its peripheries. I was there because I wanted to learn more: a need enlivened by the writings of Pope Francis and the Synod as well as the reflections of many on the mission of the RSHM as we enter a transitional phase. This conference engaged people beyond abstractions; it involved encounters with others who have struggled even under unjust systems to find their voices, and to offer opportunities to provide some security and growth to themselves and others.

Meetings covered a wide range of topics. I attended a session from a Working Women’s Forum with a telling title: “Empowering for Equity: Women’s Role in Cooperatives as Catalysts for Transforming Social Inequity and Patriarchal Practices.” Nandini Agad, a leader from rural India described her group’s efforts and achievements within the country’s agricultural economy. The women shared with a modest joy how they had learned to get loans and build a record of successful debt management. Their success not only gave greater opportunities for themselves and their families but improved agricultural production and distribution in their area.

Another side event included a few members of other NGOs of religious congregations that focused on the root causes of inequity. “De-commodifying People, Things, and the Planet” took on the increasing tendency of today’s economies to treat these people, places, and things as objects to be bought and sold. The ever- intensifying tendency of such commodification, according to Sister Winifred Doherty, RGS, has been to lose sight of their intrinsic value.

three women in UN meeting room
L to R: Sr. Veronica Brand, RSHM, and RSHM’s NGO representative, Sr. Jacquelyn Porter, RSHM, and Sr. Durstyne Farnan, OP.

The day-long Civil Society Forum demonstrated the organization’s realism and capacity for self-critique. Most nations lag in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in time for the 2030 deadline (though Portugal gained a shout-out for having done its homework). One could sense that people in the room felt a renewed sense of urgency. At the same time, they heard in the background the drumbeat of war with its violence and increased military spending. Fergal Mythun, the Permanent Representative of Ireland to the U.N., put it succinctly: “Without peace there is nothing and nothing is anything without peace.” Yet there was energy among the diverse participants who had shared their heartbreaks and successes.

I found the presentation by Dr. Katriona O’Sullivan, an author and lecturer at Maynooth, Dublin, particularly moving. She startled the audience as she told the story of her life, standing at the panel as a visibly successful expert with a satisfying life. She then moved the story backward to her beginnings of a life of seemingly little worth. As a child of poverty, abuse, alienation from school, and an early pregnancy she seemed destined to be one of those people left behind, burdens to themselves and others. Yet somehow the world turned, and she was placed in an excellent social program with mentors who recognized her intelligence and underlying dignity. Eventually, she returned to school and then received a doctorate in Psychology from Trinity College. Dr. O’Sullivan has led a distinguished life, fulfilling her dreams and inspiring others. In that conference room, she opened up a space for hope, one that had been shared by so many others in their local efforts.

Although the U.N. faces daunting challenges today, the global awareness it embodies sustains the dream of a more connected and just world. Reflecting on the structures that impede the eradication of poverty, the pursuit of fulfillment, and the restoration of the planet, one cannot visit there often and remain an observer. It is a place for people to join one another in a globally connected world extending to its little-known margins. From near and far, one observes how people have contributed in diverse ways to the development and the life of the planet, whether through advocacy, prayer, and discernment for moral conscience, collaboration with others, or the very activity of sustaining hope.

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