Joe Gunn


June 29, 2015

Gird your loins! Pope Francis will soon make the headlines again.

Not long after the huge global stir caused by the pontiff's encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, the pope will again be making news this autumn.

On Sept. 24 he'll be the first pope ever to address the U.S. Congress (where both speaker of the House John Boehner and Democratic House minority leader Nancy Pelosi are Catholics).

Next day, Francis will also address the UN General Assembly on the occasion of the UN's 70th anniversary.

Francis will be the fourth pope to address the UN. Why now, and what is he likely to say?

The September UN meetings will mark the end of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Signed in 2000 by global leaders such as Prime Minister Jean Chretien only 11 years after the end of the Cold War, the effort attempted to prove that the achievements of global capitalism could be shared.

Eight goals were agreed to with 18 anti-poverty targets and 48 indicators – and achieved modest success. For example, the share of people living in abject poverty has decreased (thanks to growth in Eastern Asia, especially China, more than anything the UN has done). There have also been notable increases in the number of kids in school.

But progress is uneven across countries, regions and social groups; often the poorest, or most disadvantaged because of age, gender, disability, conflict or ethnicity have been bypassed.

The MDGs were important goal-setting exercises for the international community, but criticized as incomplete. As Prof. Amartya Sen has noted, poverty is more than an economic problem. It exposes multiple deprivations of basic capabilities in human, socio-cultural, political and protective areas of life.

Since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, followed by the Rio+20 Summit in 2012, "development" began to be understood differently. Some aid organizations felt that the very people to be "developed" were not included in the MDG plans.

Environmental sustainability appeared as simply an add-on. And the rich nations were only challenged to give more – but not expected to change systemic barriers that block development.

So the UN began work on a new agenda called the Sustainable Development Goals. There are 17 SDGs and a whopping 169 targets.


They include reducing inequality – both within and among countries – climate change, health and ocean management. The British Catholic aid group, CAFOD, noted energy policy was often called the "missing MDG."

But an energy SDG is now on the table: "It needs to promote both universal access and the shift to more sustainable ways of producing and using energy globally."

Importantly, the UN will now call upon action from all countries, not just the poorest. Whereas the first MDG called for halving the incidence of extreme hunger and poverty, the first SDG calls on all states to end poverty in all of its forms, everywhere, including at home.


So how will Canada respond?

Canada's record has been weak: we are now in 16th place out of 28 donor countries, and as a percentage of gross national income, our aid spending has fallen from 0.34 per cent to 0.24 per cent – a far cry from the target of 0.7 per cent of GNI. Unfortunately, at home, Canada has no poverty reduction plan.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development developed green growth indicators to capture the complex reality of sustainability – and concluded that Canada is currently running a sustainability deficit.

Canadians use energy at rates 50 per cent higher than the OECD average, and over the past 13 years we accounted for the highest global rate of forest degradation. As well, the Canadian government's newly-announced target for post-2020 greenhouse gas emissions reductions is the lowest in the G7.


At the UN in September, when the international community adopts the SDGs, Pope Francis will surely remark that almost 1.6 billion people still live on less than $1.25 US a day (the UN definition of extreme poverty) and more than 2.6 billion lack flushable toilets and adequate sanitation.

If Francis casts his gaze to the north, he might also ask Canadian Catholics if we are keeping our governments accountable to their promise to meet sustainable development goals.

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)