A Global Compact for Sustainable Development

By Oliver F. Williams, C.S.C. | Fall 2015

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On the morning of September 21, Pope Francis addressed the worldwide heads of state and government gathered at the United Nations New York headquarters, focusing on the key themes of his June 2015 encyclical, On Care for Our Common Home (Laudato Si’). He presented the dangers from “the environmental deterioration caused by human activity,” the need to show compassion for immigrants, refugees and all the poor, and the urgent need to work for peace in a troubled world.

Some critics have interpreted the encyclical as hostile to capitalism, and not open to the work of the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), the official agency charged with advancing the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For example, while the encyclical lists some of the legitimate shortcomings of capitalism, it does not reference the fact that more than a billion people have been lifted out of dire poverty in the last 20 years due to global business. Because of this concern, the UN formed a small committee to prepare a brief response to the encyclical. (See “Open Letter to His Holiness Pope Francis from the United Nations Global Compact Responding to Laudato Si’” at unglobalcompact.org.)

As a member of that committee, I was pleased to endorse and praise the pope’s vision, while adding language indicating that capitalism can be part of the solution and not simply the problem. Indeed, the pope was clear at the UN that he sees business as playing a key role in advancing a better world for all. Reiterating a recurring theme, he said that “business is a noble vocation,” but it must not neglect “service to the common good.”

The next day, CEOs of more than 400 select businesses and heads of state gathered for a forum, “The United Nations Private Sector Forum 2015: Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals.” As a member of the UNGC Foundation board of directors, I found myself sitting near the likes of Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany; Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook; Bono, lead singer of the band U2; Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General; and Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, among others.

Dozens of companies used the forum as a platform to announce new programs in support of the SDGs. To name but a few: Sumitomo Chemical pledged to provide more than one million insecticide-treated bed nets to protect people from malaria; GlaxoSmithKline intends to improve access to health care for more than 20 million underserved people by 2020; and LEGO committed to implement Children’s Rights and Business Principles, pledging $ 8.2 million to the effort. (For full listing and description of the business projects, see the website unglobalcompact.org)

The Notre Dame community will have the opportunity to learn more about the UNGC and the pope’s vision of capitalism during a conference on April 3-4 at Mendoza. Sponsored by the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Religious Values in Business, the event will feature two keynote speakers: Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, former CEO and Chairman of Shell Oil and Gas Companies and the current chair of the UNGC Foundation, will discuss alternate energy possibilities; Archbishop Bernadito Auza, the pope’s representative at the United Nations in New York City, will outline how the pope envisions the role of capitalism in the global economy.

Visit mendozaevents.nd.edu/encyclical/ for more information.