Churches, development and the crisis in the multilateral system

Oct. 21, 2018

Panel on human rights, faith and sustainable development

This year marked the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In their final declaration, the religious leaders who attended the recent G20 Interfaith Forum in Buenos Aires noted the religious “inspiration and moral teachings of the religions” in the Declaration, and they re-affirmed their commitment to defend human rights. They also expressed concern for the course of globalization that has produced new forms of slavery, and rejected all forms of human trafficking.

The global partnership program of The United Church of Canada supports the work of CREAS, a centre that provides training and support to faith-based organizations (FBOs) across Latin America and the Caribbean. Like other ecumenical initiatives that we support—from the World Council of Churches to KAIROS—CREAS engages with political and economic systems to open space for discussion of ethical values.

During the G20 Interfaith Forum panel on religious liberty, Elena López Ruf (at left, in photo above), the religion and development program manager at CREAS, said her organization works with others on sustainable development goals (SDGs) to bring perspectives that reflect moral and ethical values to that common agenda. These, she said, are centred on the human person and, as the SDGs proclaim, are to ensure that “no one is left behind.”

In a subsequent panel on human rights, faith and sustainable development, Elena and two colleagues from the Argentina office of the UN Development Program described how they work together and with others to achieve SDG 17 (“partnerships for the goals”). This is a process to work among FBOs to exert influence on implementation of all the goals. FBOs bring an ethical dimension to the SDGs, and recognition of the role of religious organizations in development. Such recognition is now greater than before, Elena said. “Development is not just economic; it is integral and multi-dimensional, including religion,” she added.

During the period after World War II, as the concept and structures of international development were being created, global leaders may have thought religion would simply disappear as education improved and secularism took hold. In a sense, the UNDP work with CREAS in Argentina is a kind of pilot project of how UNDP can work with FBOs in ways that measure results of proposals, actions and projects. Marcos Lópes of the Christian Aid office in Brazil said this is “not just green-washing,” but is rather “promoting a new future.” Elena noted some historic elements—some as recent as Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudate Si’ (May 2015). The encyclical speaks of integral development, though not explicitly of the SDGs that were launched a few months later.

This discourse about religion and development reflects what I heard a year ago in Geneva at an ecumenical gathering on diakonia and sustainable development. And I think it’s good that FBOs press governments harder on ethical dimensions of development—including human trafficking, impacts of climate change, mass migration, gross inequality, and gender justice.

Multilateral systems of development, human rights, under threat

But I worry sometimes that the cost of access to such tables is dilution of the justice messages. The times we live in require prophetic voices.

Together with the human rights declaration, the notion of international development was born in the late 1940s as nations re-ordered their relationships in the wake of the two disastrous world wars. They created new institutions to shape political and economic relations, and to bring the global “south” (or “third world,” we used to say) into this new order.

In June, when Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland received an award as diplomat of the year, she talked about a “rules-based” international order that was under threat from what she called “authoritarianism.”

We may differ about which rules—trade rules, for example, are made for corporations, not for people’s well-being or the environment. The authoritarians she mentioned most often were leaders of Russia and (incorrectly, I believe) Venezuela. But I think she was also levelling criticism at the right-wing populists who are taking over in the United States, Philippines, Turkey, Colombia—and more locally, in Ontario and now Quebec. In Brazil, perhaps the worst of them all may win power in an election at the end of October.

“The truth is that authoritarianism is on the march—and it is time for liberal democracy to fight back,” said Freeland.

Part of the problem is that liberals (and social democrats) seem to forget the struggle to win rights from the old land-owning elites, even while it’s the spiritual heirs of the old elites who are winning power today.

A few days after the G20 forum, during a round-table meeting of CREAS with its global partners, a panel tried to address the issues of this “epoch-changing” time. We celebrated proposals to address issues and systems. It’s not that we’re doing nothing. But we need to “cut the distances not only between our projects and communities and partners, but also between countries and communities and religions.”

In our times, we all face the same perils. We must continue to build alliances North and South for, in the words of Pope Francis, the benefit of “the poor and the Earth, our common home.”

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