ORLANDO, Florida – Generally speaking, the most strongly anti-immigration forces in American politics aren’t very friendly to federal spending on overseas development and humanitarian aid either, under the rubric of a consistent “American first” stance.
Sean Callahan, however, CEO of Catholic Relief Services, has a message for those folks: They’re cutting off their noses to spite their face.
“Putting more water into the Mediterranean or building bigger walls is not going to keep people out,” he said. “If we don’t assist people overseas, they’re going to migrate.”
Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is the official overseas aid agency of the U.S. bishops, providing assistance to an estimated 130 million people in 90 nations. Callahan offered Africa as the best example of a place where a little help now could save the U.S. lots of headaches down the road.
“As you look at the demographics, in the next 15 to 20 years we’re going to have a billion more people in Africa,” he said. “If we don’t provide a stable environment for them to have health care, education and job security for their families, then people are going to look for it someplace else.”
More broadly, Callahan argued that beyond altruism (and, for Catholics, the commitments of their faith), there’s an argument for overseas aid in terms of naked American self-interest.
“We saw it with the Ebola virus,” he said. “If we don’t address it in Africa, it’s going to come here. If we don’t address Zika overseas, it’s going to come home. We need to make sure that on the level of altruism, we maintain our values and continue to assist people, but it’s also in our self-interest to have other countries safer and more secure.”
“We need to deal with [problems] where they’re happening, rather than waiting for them to cross our borders,” he said.
Callahan spoke to Crux during the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders” in Orlando, Florida, a gathering of almost 3,500 bishops, clergy, religious and laity, representing more than 80 percent of the dioceses in America.
On other fronts:
- Callahan said he recently returned from a trip to South Sudan, where, despite bloody conflict and severe famine, he saw signs of hope in people coming together as communities to plant crops and get them to market, and functioning schools with disability centers even in displaced persons camps. “These people are doing micro-financing, they’re doing farming, and they’re doing education, so they’re trying to get their lives in line,” he said. “What they need is a little investment, a little help from us, and then they go full-bore. They’re tough people.”
- Callahan called the situation in Venezuela “a very sad case,” with hunger and infant malnutrition spreading rapidly, and said the government’s refusal to permit much humanitarian aid to enter the country is agonizing. “It’s extremely frustrating when you see people in need and we have the venues to help them, we have the network of the Catholic church in in Venezuela that’s ready to go and has been ready to go for over a year now, as we’ve been talking with them. Not being allowed to come in and help people and having to watch them suffer is terrible.”
The following are excerpts from Crux’s conversation with Callahan, which took place July 2.
Crux: From your point of view, what’s this convocation about?
Callahan: It’s bringing together religious leaders throughout the country, the different ministries that are being performed by the Catholic Church, and exploring new ways of providing assistance. It’s about reflecting on what we’ve done in the past, and trying to set some parameters for the future.
Why was it important for Catholic Relief Services to be here?
We want to make sure that the work the U.S. Catholic Church does overseas is not forgotten, and that people realize we’re in a small world nowadays so everything that happens around the world effects the United States. We need to reach out to our brothers and sisters overseas. It’s part of our obligation as Catholics to assist those people throughout the world who are suffering.
What are CRS’s current priorities in terms of overseas aid?
Our priorities continue to be representing the U.S. Catholic community overseas, and trying to build the capacity of our local partners throughout the world.
When you look at some of the hotspots throughout the world, the Sudan, the Central African Republic, in the Middle East, and West Africa where we had the Ebola virus and are now attacking the malaria epidemic that’s going on [are priorities.] We’re there to represent the U.S. Catholic church, to strengthen the local capacity of people, and really to save lives.
Our mantra overseas is, ‘Protect and save lives.’
We’re also trying to work in the United States, and that’s going to be one of our big priorities too, in helping the U.S. Catholic community understand what the church is doing and how the Catholic church from the United States assists the global Catholic church in responding to theses crises. I think we haven’t done as good a job as we could to date on that aspect. It’s trying to pull U.S. Catholics into our realm, to understand the work and how it can better them as Christians.
You just traveled to South Sudan, which is something Pope Francis has been dreaming about for quite some time now. Unfortunately, in his own words, he’s not being ‘allowed’ to go because it’s a country at war, and it’s also suffering one of the worst famines in recent history. What did you find there?
It’s a very distressing situation. It’s unfortunate the Holy Father couldn’t go, but that doesn’t mean he’s not engaged and I know he’s committing some resources to it …
$500,000, which for the Vatican …
… is very big, right. He’s looking to hopefully visit in the future, and we’ve been trying to identify ways he could do that.
We have a team that’s not only in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, but we also have a lot of work up in Jonglei Province. We went out visiting the communities, met with the U.S. ambassador, the U.N. embassy, about how the U.S. Catholic church can assist in these different issues people are facing. We found a lot of challenges.
First of all, 70 to 80 percent of our staff’s families there are out of the country right now. They have fled to Uganda as well, because they just didn’t feel they were safe. At the same time, we have people who are tremendously engaged there, protecting, transforming, and saving lives. We saw people planting at times they haven’t planted before. We’re addressing food and security not just by giving food, but by helping people to create local assets and infrastructure, such as access-ways along the rivers and roads.
I met one group of people who were planting ground nut, or peanuts. They were telling us that they came together as a community so they could plant in a way allowing them to test the different seeds to see what works best for them. They said, ‘Next year when you come, we’re going to double this, and the year after that we’ll double it again.’ Although they’re in a very difficult situation, and many of us might see it as hopeless, but these people have hope, and with a little bit of assistance they can do it on their own and be sustainable and improve their lives and the lives of their children.
You’ve seen their situation, which is as dire as it can get. What gives them hope?
You know, it’s incredible how resilient these people are. I think the hope comes in when they know they’re not alone, and when they know there’s someone else out there. We crossed the Nile, and it’s a devastating situation, because many people crossed the Nile to get away from the different rebel groups. They can’t take the heavy arms on these small boats.
We were in a place called Menkene, and it has a lot of internally displaced people. They’ve set up their homes, they’ve been there for over a year now, and the local people have lent land to them. They’ve built schools and sanitation facilities, and we put in pumps. Now the schools are starting to run, they’re getting education going. For some of the children who’ve been effected very negatively by the war, who’ve lost limbs and all, they have disability centers at the schools that can assist them as well. These people are doing micro-financing, they’re doing farming, and they’re doing education, so they’re trying to get their lives in line. What they need is a little investment, a little help from us, and then they go full-bore. They’re tough people.
Makes you realize just how easily we complain about trivial things, doesn’t it?
It does. You know, sometimes people think, ‘Oh, they just want a hand-out.’ These people don’t want a hand-out. They want to be sustainable on their own. They’re very independent people. These are difficult and isolated places, but they’re enthusiastic about moving forward for their families.
Jumping from one continent to another, there’s a major crisis unfolding in Venezuela. How would you describe the situation there?
Venezuela is a very sad case for me. I have a very close feeling for Latin America, because the first country I worked in was Costa Rica, then I worked in Nicaragua for four and a half years. Venezuela used to be the country that was providing assistance to many neighboring nations in Latin America, and basically that’s changed completely.
We’ve had reports from the head of Caritas there, with whom we work closely. He came up to one of our meetings, and frankly, the bishop got emotional during one of our discussions about the level to which things have fallen in Venezuela … without medicine, without access to food regularly, long lines at the pump. They just don’t feel like they can continue in this way, and so they’re trying to figure out how to do a transition and help the government recognize that people are in definite need.
The statistics are harrowing – people have lost an average of 17 pounds in the last year, or 8 kilos, and malnutrition among babies and toddlers is at 13 percent and growing by one percentage point a month. It’s especially shocking because Venezuela has the wealth, but these problems are spreading because of political conflict.
Exactly. Let’s just take access to medicines. For the elderly and the young, there’s no access to the medicines they used to have before. People are just suffering. We’ve been working with the local church, trying to see how they can build a process in the country that unites the people so they can have a peaceful way of working with the government on bringing assistance in.
Since the government refuses to acknowledge a crisis, humanitarian aid right now is blocked. How frustrating is that, and how ready are you to deliver aid if the situation changes?
It’s extremely frustrating when you see people in need and we have the venues to help them, we have the network of the Catholic Church in in Venezuela that’s ready to go and has been ready to go for over a year now, as we’ve been talking with them. Not being allowed to come in and help people and having to watch them suffer is terrible.
At the same time, the church is able to do some things, and there is some aid trickling in. We’d like them to open the gates so people can get the assistance they need.
About six months ago, you mentioned that if you could talk to the U.S. government, you would tell them not to focus so much on immigration but helping people not to make the decision to migrate in the first place by making it possible for them to stay in their own countries. Have you delivered that message?
I know there’s been a lot of politics talked about these issues, but I’ve been tremendously encouraged in my conversations with Congress. We have spoken across the aisle, bi-partisan support, and I think they realize the small amount of money that goes to foreign aid, less than one percent of the federal budget, is having a tremendous impact. It’s stewarded very, very well, and we are assisting people.
I think the members of Congress realize that if we don’t help people overseas, they’re going to migrate. As you look at the demographics, in the next 15 to 20 years we’re going to have a billion more people in Africa. If we don’t provide a stable environment for them to have health care, education and job security for their families, then people are going to look for it someplace else. We need to do that.
At Catholic Relief Services, our job is to help people not to have to move. We’re trying to do that in the Middle East, in Africa, and in Latin America. How can we assist people so they don’t feel like they have to move? If they do decide to move, how can we help them do it in a peaceful way that respects the local communities and they get integrated into those communities?
In the United States, we’re better for the immigration that’s happened here, and we’re finding in other countries that people are seeing the value of these migrants coming in. In some places in Europe, we’ve been very, very pleased at the way they’ve been received.
You said, ‘We have to help’ the people in Africa. Why is that our job?
I think there’s two reasons. First of all, as Catholics, we’re called to help. This is our raison d’être, we’re people who go out and help. Catholic Relief Services was founded 75 years ago, after World War II, to assist refugees after the war. Think about it – the Holy Family were refugees, they were internally displaced people, so we’re called to do it.
Secondly, world issues are not contained outside the United States, they effect the United States. Putting more water into the Mediterranean or building bigger walls is not going to keep people out. We saw it with the Ebola virus … if we don’t address it in Africa, it’s going to come here. If we don’t address Zika overseas, it’s going to come home. We need to make sure that on the level of altruism, we maintain our values and continue to assist people, but it’s also in our self-interest to have other countries safer and more secure. To be able to address health issues abroad is better for the United States, so we need to deal with them where they’re happening rather than waiting for them to cross our borders.
How can people help CRS?
I think the first thing is if people were to study what we’re doing, and to know what we’re doing. There’s a lot of disinformation out there now, and it’s crucial just to know what we’re currently doing. People need to join in, because we’re part of the church in the U.S. and the global church. We’re invited into the countries in which we serve, and that is crucial to our assistance.
So, people can learn about what we do, they can pray, they can call their Congressmen and other elected officials to tell them this is important, and they can also give. We need resources to help people right now. Our website is here.