How the Interfaith Community Can Advance the UN’s Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda

October 1, 2014

Ms. Sara Rahim and Mr. Tahil Sharma secure their grounds passes to the United Nations Headquarters in NYC as representatives of the Parliament of the World’s Religions at the 65th Annual UN-DPI NGO Conference in August, 2014.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions UN-NGO Representatives affiliated to the United Nations Department of Public Information say attending the 65th Annual UN-DPI NGO conference in New York City August 27 – 29, 2014  was a great opportunity for the interfaith movement to build relationships with other NGOs invested in advocating for the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda. “How A Global Ethic Can Contribute to the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda: An Intergenerational Discussion” paired the Parliament’s UN Youth Representatives Ms. Sara Rahim, and Mr. Tahil Sharma, in a workshop with members of the Parliament UN Task Force and co-sponsors exploring how activism for the SDGs can be enhanced by civic society. This process is achievable through the promotion and understanding of foundational documents on Human Rights including the Global Ethic, the Earth Charter, the Charter of Compassion, and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. The Panelists Representing the Parliament and Co-Sponsoring Institutions:

Dr. Kusumita Pedersen, Chair of the Parliament UN Task Force, Parliament Trustee, and Co-Chair of the Interfaith Center of New York
Monica Willard, Representative of the United Religions Initiative to the UN, UN NGO Committee Co-Chair
Rev. Father John Pawlikowski, Parliament Trustee
Rev. Dr. Anne Benvenuti, Parliament Trustee
Sr. Joan Kirby, The Temple of Understanding
Ms. Sara Rahim, Parliament UN Youth Representative
Mr. Tahil Sharma, Parliament Un Youth Representative

Connecting institutional and grassroots advocates, the UN-DPI conference format includes plenary speakers, workshops, and panels equipping thousands of participants with new strategies. In proving the value of face-to-face networking opportunities, assemblies like this serve to enhance sustainable action by smart approaches to allocating human and other resources directed toward the UN’s Development Goals. Tahil Sharma and Sara Rahim reported and reflect below on their experience presenting and participating in workshops and plenaries paying special attention to five takeaways the interfaith community can use to advance the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda: The first three observations come from Sara Rahim: “We have a duty to be bold. That is what people want. That is what the world needs.” – Ms. Susana Malcorra, UN Chef de Cabinet UN-NGO 2014
Between August 27-29, Tahil Sharma and I attended the 65th Annual UN DPI/NGO conference held in New York City, which drew in over 2,000 NGO representatives from over 117 countries. Earlier this year, we were chosen to serve as the Parliament of the World’s Religions Youth Representatives to the United Nations.
These past few months leading up to the conference, we brainstormed ways in which we could share our experiences with the greater civic community. We submitted a workshop panel that would explore how a Global Ethic could contribute to the Post-2015 Development Agenda, and were thrilled to be notified that we had been selected to present at the conference with trustees of the Parliament and like-minded interfaith bodies.
On August 27, Tahil and I quickly registered for the first day of the conference and made our way through UN security. In line, I met dozens of NGO representatives from around the world, who shared with me their field of work and what inspired them to attend the conference.
While this conference would clearly focus on the role of civil society and key global issues, I wondered how it might be possible to increase collaboration among interreligious groups. Faith-based organizations were certainly leading grassroots initiatives in their local communities, but how could we take that one step further? During the Opening Session, I observed several main themes that resonated with me regarding the role of interfaith at the UN.
1. “People are the center of development” – Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director, United Nations Population Fund
Refocusing efforts towards protecting people’s dignity is crucial, as we often forget the inherent link between human rights and development. Interfaith groups can continue to pave the path towards conflict resolution and community building in a way that ensures all voices can be a part of the conversation. As expressed by Dr. Osotimehin, focusing specifically on women and youth can help achieve universal goals of poverty reduction and education. I see an opportunity for interfaith groups to continue to advocate for women and youth as part of their initiatives.
2. The Importance of Setting Concrete Goals
Ambassador Samantha Power, Permanent Representative of United States to the United Nations, stated that encouraging civic society to work more closely with government would require an outcomes-driven process. The need for setting measurable, concrete goals for the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda can combat the criticism that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are too abstract and intangible. Powers also recommended focusing on peace and global governance as a basis for development. Passing just laws and creating credible institutions is one of the most sustainable ways to improving development. I personally recognized this vision, as it aligns with Parliament’s mission to mobilize faith leaders in their communities towards creating a peaceful, just, and sustainable world. Interfaith work is not just a ‘feel good mission,’ but it also has the potential to measure impact and offer tangible results.
3. Inclusion of the Disabled, Indigenous, and Youth
Ms. Maryanne Diamond, Chair, International Disability Alliance, assessed that persons who live with disabilities, 80% of whom are in the developing world, severely lack access to education, healthcare, and other basic resources. She offered a major critique that the previous MDG’s lacked inclusivity of disabled and indigenous populations. One of the biggest outcomes of this conference would be the revision and inclusion of minority groups into the agenda. Of these minority groups, I saw the role of youth as a major key player towards development. Tahil and I both recognized our own experiences in which interfaith had been a tool to mobilize people of all backgrounds towards a common goal. The NGO community, particularly interfaith and faith-based organizations, must continue to think in innovative ways to collaborate across sectors and be inclusive of all minority voices.
Tahil Sharma observes points 4 and 5:
4. Building Community through Forgiveness
The Representatives at the NGO conference represent great diversity across fields of expertise and demonstrate profound willingness to make a difference in the world. This point was addressed in a special keynote at the Permanent Mission of the United States to the United Nations by Ambassador Elizabeth M. Cousens who resides on the UN Economic and Social Council and serves as an Alternate Representative to the UN General Assembly. With fellow representatives being as young as 14 years old, showing an amazing ability to tackle major subjects, refute claims and develop productive dialogue with the ambassador, an important point on how the eagerness of the coming generations to foster change was taking place. The ambassador herself made note of this: “We need your voice, your ideas, and your insistence about what matters… You need to hold our feet to the fire in making sure that we count it.” This proved the vitality of the kind of inter-generational conversation we would emphasize in our workshop about the creation and implementation of influential documents like the Charter for Compassion, the Earth Charter and the Global Ethic of the 1993 Parliament. Several individuals across cultures, faith traditions and ages must participate in making these paths for change to make the impact which can really matter. My first example is a man who is legally blind, and arrived with a guide at his side for our workshop; his name was Takashi Tanemori from Hiroshima, and he is a hibakusha, or Atomic Bomb Survivor. Seeking revenge for the death of his family, he traveled to the United States for opportunity and suffered prejudice, discrimination and mistreatment for decades, even while discovering faith and service through Christian organizations. But in an instant, an epiphany of forgiveness and understanding made him turn his story become a force to educate and serve people. Dedicating his life to speak out against the struggles he experienced throughout his life, he describes his transformation and “how communication between people and countries is the answer to lasting peace throughout the world.” (Taken from his bio.) He spreads his message of understanding, love and forgiveness through lectures, poetry, art and through the writing of his own book, Hiroshima: Bridge to Forgiveness, having shared his message with thousands of people around the world. This same man who has experienced worlds of transition was the same man who commended the work that Sara, myself and the other panelists of our workshop dedicated ourselves to: creating bridges of understanding and respect. His sharing complimented our experience with his story and his message of compassion and clemency.
5. The Strength of Grassroots Advocacy
Another individual who caught my attention sprang from a social media interaction between Sara and fellow attendee, Syed Mahmood Kazmi, a college graduate from our age group, and a man who was leagues beyond my intelligence, capability and humility. A Kashmir, Pakistan native, he is dedicated to education and supporting marginalized and oppressed communities throughout South Asia. His work includes serving as an Emergency Response Team Leader in Pakistan Red Crescent Society providing First Aid and Search & Rescue. Additionally, Kazmi serves as an Intern at the Office of the Permanent Observer to the United Nations International Organization for Migration, New York. Proving to me that there is not any limit on the power in your stride to revolutionize the way we think and act. It was a privilege to associate with him, but his drive and grace also reminds me that my personal call to action must never be silenced. The workshop and conference experience sent me home with a new energy to excel in my work, to inspire others, to educate communities about the world, and to ensure communities are provided what is needed to flourish and produce better lives. At certain moments, I thought my work with domestic communities lacked significance in the bigger picture, but people from all over the world proved our small actions are revolutionary. I have always known that lecturing, building community beds for organic vegetation to feed people, and building relationships between communities was the right thing to do, but now it seems like the normal thing to do. There is normalcy in instilling peace and stability in humanity.
All in all, the 3-day conference served as a platform for individuals, stakeholders, and NGO society to come together. This success was not just because of the number of people who participated in the event, but because all players came together to draft a powerful declaration to action. Our roles as interfaith leaders challenged us to think innovatively about how a Global Ethic could efficiently push for the Post 2015 Agenda. We found that there are multiple opportunities for collaboration in a way that moves from dialogue to producing tangible results. We walked away with not only a better understanding of what sustainable development means, but also how interfaith action can bridge the gap towards inclusivity and peaceful governance.


Land Acknowledgment

The Parliament of the World's Religions is headquartered in the City of Chicago, the traditional homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi Nations, and other tribes such as the Miami, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sac, and Fox. 

PoWR recognizes and respects Indigenous Peoples as traditional stewards of this land. We remain committed to the advancement of dignity and justice for Indigenous Peoples’ and their communities in the region and around the world.


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