This workshop was the first event of a new research network funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council on the topic of religions and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It brought together faith-based organisations and other actors in the UK involved in religions & development practice to examine the new SDGs.
The FBOs present had typically consulted their country offices about the SDG process in order to inform their response. However, the regional consultations organised by the UN did not specifically reach out to faith actors, including religious leaders and organisations.
Participants reported that it was not only faith groups that felt frustrated by the lack of grassroots consultation, but Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) more widely. It was felt that while the SDG process started very consultatively, it ended up state-dominated. CSOs, including faith-based actors, were largely excluded and only allowed 2 minutes at end of day after the states had given long speeches. However, it will be the faith groups and other CSOs who will be largely responsible for implementation.
The religious actors that were involved in the consultation process were mainly Christian; there were very few non-Christian FBOs represented. This is largely due to the fact that other faith traditions lack the religious International NGOs that acted as a gateway into the consultation process. It was also highlighted that the very discourse on the SDGs was highly Christian. The current Pope for instance has had a large impact on debates through his recent encyclical Laudato si’. A special focus of the country conferences therefore will be to what extent the SDGs are seen as a foreign or even inherently Christian imposition by religious actors from other faiths.
In discussing what made an SDG challenging for religion, some participants noted that due to the traditional (Western) focus of religions on personal, intimate aspects of life, it was hardly surprising that gender ended up on top of the list. Others noted that they had explicitly not picked gender, because they felt that the more challenging SDGs are the ones religions do not tend to talk about. Others emphasised that the dominance of the state in development has taken certain dimensions outside of religious discourse (e.g. education or local economies), while still others noted that insurgent religions (such as certain reform movements) might reflect the challenge of global policy clashing with local aspirations.
It became clear that the country workshops will need to include some activities aimed at understanding how local religious actors react to the SDGs: especially how they amplify, reject, or ignore some goals and targets.
Main requests/aims for the research network going forward
To ensure that the network engages with a comprehensive range of individuals and organisations from different faith traditions
The participants in the workshop represented mostly Christian organisations but there were also a good number of Muslim groups present. This was noted by a number of those present.
While the organisers had attempted to be inclusive and had invited representatives from organisations linked to different faith traditions, this imbalance is itself reflective of the greater number of Christian and Muslim formal FBOs in the UK (and indeed globally) and therefore the likelihood that members of these were more likely to be able to attend, as well as to be already engaging with the SDGs. This signals that this network needs to be aware of as it develops if it is to be able to generate inclusivity around engagement with the SDGs in the UK and internationally.
In India, for instance, one of the network’s focus countries, Muslim, dalit and tribal (adivasi) groups are most socially excluded and economically disadvantaged (and women, sexual minorities and the disabled even more so within these groups) and the network needs to pay attention to including these in its activities around the SDGs. Participants working in Ethiopia similarly noted the importance of looking at how traditional religions relate to development issues. and the SDGs. This poses the question as to how far development aims, methods, and discussions still reflect a Western and implicitly Christian ethos, making the SDGs and their teleological process harder to contextualise in other religious environments.