Millennium Development Goals on convention radar

March 31, 2009

Support for the world's poorest, most vulnerable communities has been at the core of the Episcopal Church's global mission efforts for the last triennium, particularly through its commitment to achieving the United Nation's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The goals are expected to gather strong momentum at the 2009 General Convention, when bishops and deputies representing the Episcopal Church's 110 dioceses meet July 8-17 in Anaheim, California, to review the church's efforts during the past triennium and establish program and mission priorities for the next three years.

Named a top mission priority by General Convention in 2006, the MDGs are a set of eight principles that provide a framework for improving social and economic conditions in the world's poorest countries. Among their objectives, the goals commit to eradicating extreme poverty, educating children, empowering women, improving health care, combating preventable diseases and ensuring environmental sustainability, all by 2015.

The church's Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace with Justice Concerns (SCAIPJC) has dealt with MDG-related issues for the past three triennia and is one of around 50 Episcopal Church committees, commissions, agencies and boards that report to General Convention and may propose legislation to the bishops and deputies.

Although the commission is not submitting any MDG legislation for consideration at convention, it prepared a report outlining the Episcopal Church's overall commitment to the goals during the past triennium and acknowledging "the spiritual transformation we have seen take place in the church as we come face-to-face with Christ working in partnership with our sisters and brothers around the world to end extreme poverty."

The MDGs "are nothing new for the people of God," the report said. "These tangible, achievable goals … are but a 21st century articulation of what the church has been called to and worked toward its entire existence."

Proposed line-item cut
Resolution D022 from the 2006 General Convention established "achieving the MDGs as a stated mission priority of the Episcopal Church for the next three years" and urged each diocese, congregation and parishioner to give 0.7 percent of their annual income toward the goals. The resolution also called for a line item equal to 0.7 percent in the Episcopal Church's 2007-2009 budget for work supporting the MDGs.

The draft 2010-2012 budget submitted by Executive Council at its January meeting suggested -- as a cost-saving measure in the current economic climate -- eliminating that 0.7 percent line item, which in the last budget totaled about $924,000.

The council was not attempting to disregard the MDGs in its recent draft budget proposal, said House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson. "Instead, they chose to document the percentage of the work that is done through the program section of the budget that supports the MDGs."

Josephine Hicks, Executive Council member and chair of its Administration and Finance committee, told the council that the Episcopal Church spent "much more than 0.7 percent" on MDG-related programs. She said she was concerned that people might believe that that amount was all the Episcopal Church spent on MDG work. The 2007-2009 budget already reflected funds totaling more than 8 percent directed to mission addressing the MDGs, according to the minutes from a November 2006 Executive Council meeting.

But the Rev. Ian Douglas, council member and General Convention deputy, said he worried that eliminating the line item might be seen as the Episcopal Church backing away from its commitment to MDG work. "I would beg and plead" that budget presentations make clear exactly how much of its spending goes to MDG-related ministries, Douglas said at the January meeting.

Anderson emphasized that the Executive Council budget was a draft and that General Convention has the final say.

"The budget and the mission priorities that are ultimately adopted by General Convention are not Executive Council's budget or mission priorities," she said, explaining that the budget is presented to the General Convention by the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance – a body composed of deputies and bishops.

The Rev. Mike Kinman, a General Convention deputy and MDG advocate who has served on the peace with justice concerns standing commission for two triennia, called the budget proposal "a wonderful opportunity for the church."

"This is a defining moment for us – one of God's defining moments for the church. Our call has never changed – we are to be the body of Christ in bold and powerful ways … particularly among those who have the least," said Kinman, recently named as provost of Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis, and former executive director of the grassroots movement Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation. "Will we sacrifice the mission for the sake of maintaining security and our sense of control? Or will we do the extraordinary?"

Anderson suggested that, "since many of those most severely affected by the difficult economy are already living in poverty, I'd consider going from 0.7% to 1.0% in a 'cost-of-giving' increase. Increasing our financial commitment to address domestic poverty should also be a budget priority for the people of God."

In its report to convention, the standing commission noted that at least 82 of the church’s 110 dioceses had pledged 0.7% of their annual budgets toward the MDGs. "While one measure of success is certainly in dollars raised, an even deeper measure is to be found in stories told around the church. Stories of sacrifices made, lives changed and joy discovered," the commission report noted.

Advocacy efforts
A principal way in which the Episcopal Church has lived out its commitment to the MDGs during the past triennium is through the advocacy work organized by the Office of Government Relations in Washington, D.C. According to Alex Baumgarten, international policy analyst for the office, the Episcopal Church has advocated to U.S. policymakers in all MDG focus areas.

"The Episcopal Public Policy Network is a group of more than 25,000 Episcopalians around the country who have committed to regular advocacy on public-policy issues that stem from our gospel mandate," said Baumgarten, noting that the MDGs have been a critical part of this advocacy.

Furthermore, a campaign called ONE Episcopalian equips parishes and individuals as MDG advocates and connects them to the work of the ONE Campaign and other communities in the United States working to eradicate global poverty.

"Over the past five years," Baumgarten said, "our voices have helped prompt Congress and the White House to triple funding for the fight against AIDS and malaria around the world, pass landmark legislation to help orphans and vulnerable children, implement new policies to relieve the debts of poor countries, assist impoverished communities in accessing clean water and [help] put millions of children in school."

Baumgarten said this work would continue in the next triennium, noting that the Episcopal Church was co-chairing a coalition of organizations in Washington working with Congress and the Obama administration to redesign the nation's foreign aid system to make it more effective in fighting deadly poverty, more accountable and transparent to the American people and better equipped to work with local groups – including faith communities – already engaged in successful poverty-reduction work in poor countries.

Another way the Episcopal Church has committed to the MDGs is through creating the MDG Inspiration Fund, a partnership forged among Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD), Jubilee Ministries and Executive Council to raise $3 million by the end of 2009 to fight malaria and other preventable diseases. At its March 2007 meeting, Executive Council designated the $924,000 Millennium Development Goals line item in the 2007-2009 budget for the fund.

A recent ERD news release announced that the fund was close to meeting its financial target. "The generosity and compassion of countless Episcopalians has made the MDG Inspiration Fund a remarkable success," said Rob Radtke, ERD president. "We are now within $250,000 of our goal and hope to achieve it by General Convention."

The fund assigned $2 million to support NetsforLife®, a partnership for malaria prevention in sub-Saharan Africa. So far, NetsforLife® has distributed more than one million long-lasting insecticide-treated nets, primarily to children and pregnant women living in remote villages. ERD reported that the program already had protected more than 11 million people from malaria.

Many paths to support
The church's commitment to the MDGs is expressed in many other ways, the standing commission report said. "From the elementary school kids in St. Louis who put up a lemonade stand to fund a microfinance loan in Cambodia to the pediatrician in Massachusetts who spent months working at an Anglican mission hospital in Kenya. From the group of homeless people in New York City who raised money for AIDS orphans in Tanzania to the Diocese of Bethlehem raising nearly $4 million for their companions in Christ in Kajo Keji, Sudan.

"From the missionaries of the Young Adult Service Corps to the thousands who picked up a phone or sent an e-mail on Sept. 25, 2008, to let their leaders in Congress know they care about more than just their own bank balance but about the 2 billion people living on less than $2 a day around the world."

(World leaders came together in New York on Sept. 25 for a high-level event convened at the United Nations' headquarters to renew commitments to achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015 and to set out concrete plans and practical steps for action.)

"We look back at the past three years and humbly celebrate what God has seen fit to do through us," the report concluded. "We look forward to the next three and … wonder what dreams God will set before us and pray for the grace and courage to embrace them … The Episcopal Church is experiencing an awakening. At its best, humbling, and at times, stumbling, but an awakening nonetheless."

The 75th General Convention mandated the 76th General Convention to have significant conversation about the church's mission, which includes its commitment to helping achieve the MDGs, Anderson said. The Episcopal Church Public Narrative Project will serve as the vehicle for this conversation among bishops and deputies in Anaheim.

"Every deputy, bishop and visitor will be presented with the opportunity to learn a mission-leadership art form [that] can be used as a tool to empower our church to respond to the urgent call to act together to make the MDGs become a fulfilled reality," said Anderson. "I pray that the Holy Spirit will touch the heart of our General Convention and send us away from Anaheim as a people inspired to act together on behalf of and with the poor. Our budget should reflect what is in our heart."

The 76th General Convention "has a focus on mission, embraced by identity and action," Anderson added, noting that the theme ubuntu "reflects a deep desire for an explored understanding of interdependence and relationship."

Kinman said he hoped General Convention would be a time of sharing stories of transformation.

"Not so much of how many malaria nets we've provided, or schools we've built or wells we've dug ... though I hope we tell those important stories, too," he said. "No, I hope it's a time of sharing how Christ has reshaped our hearts and lives through the increased engagement with each other in ministries of compassion across the communion that our MDG work has fostered. If we share those stories and let Christ's power speak through them, there is no way we will step back ... we will know the only thing we can do is sing louder."