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Pope Francis and U.N. in Sync on Sustainable Development Goals

It’s been more than a year since I first addressed the Pope’s encyclical, and a great deal has happened since. Following is an update. Complex global issues...

It’s been more than a year since I first addressed the Pope’s encyclical, and a great deal has happened since. Following is an update.

Complex global issues such as poverty, gender inequality, and the impacts of climate change have clear end goals but less certain paths to achieving them.

In traditional government-driven aid, development goals and incentives are established from an outside, top-down perspective. While well-meaning, these mostly global-north-to-global-south paradigms often fail when the proposed solutions do not address problems in ways that resonate with the people served—or in ways that engage local people in problem solving.

A classic example was a major sanitation project to install toilets in India: Cultural resistance to the idea of toilets in homes left toilets sitting unused in most households.

Last year, two important documents emerged—Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ and the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—that point toward a different approach to issues of poverty and climate change.

The parallels between the two documents are striking. Laudato Si’ explicitly links the suffering of the poor with environmental degradation, arguing vigorously for integrated solutions. The U.N. SDGs, meant to “universally apply to all,” can guide humanitarian efforts “to end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities, and tackle climate change, while ensuring that no one is left behind.”

As both documents highlight, the world’s poor will suffer most from the impacts of climate change, through increased frequency and intensity of drought, flooding, famine, lack of clean water, loss of agricultural crops and livestock, disappearing or degraded hunting and fishing grounds, deforestation, and the spread of tropical diseases.

Social Entrepreneurship as Catalyst
Laudato Si’ and the U.N. SDGs also share a powerful potential catalyst toward achieving their shared objectives: social entrepreneurship.

In contrast to aid-based approaches, social entrepreneurship—using business techniques to develop, fund, and implement innovative solutions to social, cultural, or environmental issues—is typically an “inside job.”

Social entrepreneurs address the multidimensional nature of poverty from within their communities. They identify problems and innovate potential solutions, thereby increasing the likelihood that solutions will be attuned to their communities’ cultural, social, religious, institutional, and practical norms.

Many social enterprises are focusing on climate resilience. That’s the ability for a community to function in the face of the negative effects of climate change, and to create sustainable social and ecological systems that can better handle future impacts of climate change.

Examples of social enterprises engaged in climate resilience include:

  • Networks of women entrepreneurs who sell household-sized solar energy and lighting systems to their neighbors. Off-grid solar solutions enhance energy access, reduce the use of carbon and wood fuels, don’t fail during big rain or dust storms, improve health by replacing toxic kerosene lamps, increase household prosperity, and provide better lighting at lower costs.

  • Local entrepreneurs who treat and distribute clean water in their neighborhoods. Distributed water systems increase access to safe water, reduce health risks associated with water contamination, provide livelihoods to local entrepreneurs, and are not subject to the disruption or aging experienced by the pipes of centralized water distribution systems.

  • Small-scale biogas digesters that turn animal and even human waste into usable natural gas for cooking and organic fertilizer to improve agricultural yields. These systems help rural communities generate clean, affordable, easily available energy; protect water sources from fecal contamination; reduce the use of chemical fertilizers; replace toxic fuel sources; lower disease incidence; and improve the incomes of farmers.

In each of these cases, communities are using principles and practices of social entrepreneurship to help overcome the negative impacts of climate change, while improving their own economies, ecosystems, and health.

In my next article, I’ll discuss how corporations are getting into the social entrepreneurship game, as well.

Entrepreneurship, Global, Jesuit
Illuminate, environment, nature, religion, social impact
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