Religious Orders Speak for the Voiceless at the U.N.: Growing Number of Congregations Share International Expertise with World Policymakers

Article excerpt

For 20 years Franciscan Sr. Florence Deacon ran the Model United Nations program at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, where she is a professor of history Often she would ask herself." "If I could have the ear of a diplomat, what would I tell him?"

Since coming to the United Nations to represent her order in 2001, Deacon has had many opportunities to speak one on one with diplomats and some of the world's top policymakers. A unique opportunity arose last summer in Geneva when she was invited to a breakfast meeting hosted by the U.N. Economic and Social Council. Deacon was seated with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Negroponte, and ministers of development from the European Community, Finland and some African nations.

Their conversation focused on ways to eradicate absolute poverty and hunger. As one of its eight development goals to be achieved by 2015 (see accompanying story), the United Nations wants to cut by half the number of people--currently a quarter of the human race--who live on less than $1 a day.

What Deacon told the leading policymakers at her table is what she had heard from the grass roots--messages from those who work on behalf of students, orphans, the hungry, homeless, street children and those living with AIDS and other diseases in the 125 nations in which Franciscans are active.

Bringing the voices of the least visible of the earth's inhabitants to the briefing rooms of its power brokers is Deacon's chief work as director of the New York office of Franciscans International, a nongovernmental organization that represents at the United Nations some 1.2 million men and women worldwide who are vowed and secular Franciscans in the First, Second and Third Orders. Once when Deacon had just returned from Colombia, a U.S. expert on Latin America seated next to her in the U.N. cafeteria confided: "You have seen things I've never seen. You've been places I've never been to."

Deacon is one of some 40 Catholic nuns, priests and brothers who represent their global religious congregations and the people they serve worldwide. Their U.N. work is in the capacity of representatives of nongovernmental organizations accredited to the U.N. Department of Public Information or to the Economic and Social Council. Public information affiliates share in the information resources of the United Nations and its agencies, while representatives accredited to the Economic and Social Council become advisers for the world body's humanitarian work.

More than 20 congregations are accredited at the United Nations; 13 have consultative status to the Economic and Social Council. Most have been accredited since 1995.

International expertise

When the United Nations was founded in 1946, only 41 nongovernmental organizations--called NGOs--were recognized. That number has swelled to 1,400 organizations with the Department of Public Information and the 2,100 organizations with the Economic and Social Council today--of which religious organizations remain but a tiny fraction: The burgeoning of the nongovernmental organization movement has happened as the result of 12 years of U.N. conferences--on children, the environment, human rights, population, women, development, food, human habitats and racism.

As an accredited member of the U.N. Economic and Social Council, Franciscans International and several other religious groups share their international expertise and experience through written interventions or statements delivered to the council's working groups, commissions and committees. These documents are often seen by members of the General Assembly and by leading U.N. agencies. Last year Franciscans International submitted a statement to the Commission for Social Development on the social responsibility of the private sector and another to the Commission on the Status of Women on women's human rights and the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls. …