“One Must be a Radical Believer in Incremental Change."

“One Must be a Radical Believer in Incremental Change."

Sister Joan Burke, SNDdeN

Sister Joan Burke, SNDdeN served as the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur representative to the United Nations from 2002 through 2010. She lived the better part of 50 years among people who are poor in three different countries of Africa and recently was also a professor in an adult education program at Tangaza University College in Nairobi. She has served as a member of both the Nigeria and the Kenya Provincial Leadership Teams.

Below is an article written for the SND at the UN, in which Sister Joan reflects upon the UN’s recent 10-day meeting focusing on digital technologies as they relate to human wellbeing across the globe.


The major theme of this year's session was the role of digital technologies in promoting sustainable development and the well-being of all.

In addition to the forty-six member states/governments, several hundred persons from around the world attended the ten-day meeting virtually to contribute as representatives of civil society and non-governmental organizations. The NGO Committee for Social Development in NY - on which Sister Amarachi Ezeonu represents the congregation - along with the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation organized an excellent parallel five-day Civil Society Forum with thematic panels examining the topic from the viewpoints of education, eradication of poverty and promotion of equality, good governance and respect for human rights. They also drafted a "Civil Society Declaration" signed by 650 different organizations from around the globe.

 All the discussions highlighted how much the COVID-10 pandemic has revealed and even exasperated the degree of existing inequity both within and between countries of the world. One of the greatest challenges for societies today is the need to address the digital divide - also existing both within and across countries of the world. All agreed - government and civil society representatives - that digital technologies could also serve to bridge the gaps and make possible more inclusive, people-centered development if policies intentionally focused on "leaving no one behind," especially the marginalized. This is the central commitment of the 2030 Global Agenda for Sustainable Development. The pandemic has brought to the forefront the necessity for multilateralism and global cooperation to promote the social development of all people and peoples.

Sister Lorraine Connell, SNDdeN described the Notre Dame African Photovoltaic Project during the side-event of the Commission as one effort to address the digital divide.

I was very aware of the significance of language in the discussions. No longer do governments speak about "the poor" but rather "people living in poverty." In the early 2000s civil society consciously worked for eight years to shift the language of discourse in this area. Now, the common understanding is that as human beings, all people have a basic right to live in dignity and have a livelihood to realize their fundamental needs (i.e. social development).

I also saw considerably more openness on the part of many governments to recognize civil society as their essential partners in creating more just and equitable societies for their people.

Striking, too, was the many speakers frequently citing a key phrase from the UN Secretariat's preparatory paper, "economic activity is not an end in itself, but rather a means for sustainably advancing human well-being." That echoes the Catholic Social Tradition, which holds economics is not to serve money but people.

I am grateful to Sr Amarachi for this opportunity to revisit the UN and its efforts in the area of social development’.  Even though much that I saw and heard these days encouraged and heartened me, I admire those patient and persistent civil society members committed to prodding governments to respond to the very elementary needs of their people.  As one US Senator once said of Congress, “One must be a radical believer in incremental change.” 

Let us hope that our global experience of COVID-19 has brought home to us the urgency to act collectively with focused commitment.  My sincere thanks to our Sister Amarachi and her colleagues for being in this forum for us and all our sisters and brothers sharing “our common home."

Read more: 59th Session of the Commission for Social Development: https://bit.ly/3dZ7aSP