How Caritas Really Helps

Interview With Aid Organization Official

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By Nieves San Martín

ROME, FEB. 7, 2008 (Zenit.org).- When Caritas responds to an international crisis it does more than deliver material aid, because the people they are helping are more than material beings, says a Caritas director.

Paolo Beccegato, head of the international section of Caritas Italy, told ZENIT in this interview that the organization of the agency must be professional and efficient, but above all be sensitive to the reality of the cultural, historical and religious elements of the society at hand.

Only in this way, he said, is Caritas able to meet the "real needs of the people involved in the catastrophe."

Q: Caritas is known internationally for its emergency aid programs, but you talk about the organization's pedagogical function. How does this happen in practice?

Beccegato: Caritas is known in the world for its charitable, rapid, decisive and well-organized action in emergency interventions to help stricken populations. Caritas works to spread -- in the Church and in society as a whole -- the witness of charity, the logic of service, preferential love for the poor and the marginalized.

But our charter, in its first article, gives us the mission to sensitize, to educate: "Caritas Italy has the goal of promoting the witness of charity in the ecclesial communities of Italy -- on the parish level, but not only there -- in view of the total development of the person, of social justice and peace, with particular attention to the latter and with a prevalent pedagogical function."

This is to say that our objective is to educate in charity and solidarity, to promote conduct and lifestyles imbued by the gift of self and involvement with next-door neighbors as well as with the great problems of the world: wars, injustice and underdevelopment.

Educating in solidarity and in a global outlook, with a cultural approach, comprises the fact of understanding the interdependence of macro phenomena and lifestyles in the everyday. Thus, you could say that our mandate is also to do politics, because it is a work that is directed to the common good, to justice and peace.

This task is translated into educational proposals at two levels: internal -- with national, diocesan and local groups and even involving our workers -- and external, for example, making proposals to young people in regard to volunteering and civil service, so that our proposals are not isolated expressions, but are articulated with a cultural and intercultural approach. Solidarity also means giving alms, but this is not soothing the conscience and keeping a distance from problems, rather it is to put the poor at the center of the community.

Q: In a recent article you wrote that an "organizing machine" is not enough to respond to emergencies. What do you think should be done?

Beccegato: The problem of rapid interventions in emergencies raises very delicate issues: the risk that one runs with "air-dropped" aid -- that is, to achieve effective interventions, but forgetting the whole context in which you are working, with its historical, cultural and religious elements -- is not to enter into the real needs of the people involved in the catastrophe.

Along with professional competence, it is necessary to have experience and a great capacity to listen to reality.

At this point it is necessary to consider man in his whole identity: material, but with anthropological, relational, psychosocial components. This requires a rigorous formation of the workers without leaving aside the role of the local Caritas to avoid focusing only on the epicenter of the emergency.

Having a local Caritas on-site is important because, as Benedict XVI's encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" reminds us, "[W]hile professional competence is a primary, fundamental requirement, it is not of itself sufficient." Besides professional preparation, as Benedict XVI says, the "formation of the heart" is above all necessary, because we are dealing with human beings.

We emphatically reassert that the importance of the intervention of solidarity is not over after the first phase of the emergency, but continues over time through rehabilitation and development plans.

Q: You have just come back from Haiti. What struck you the most about this experience?

Beccegato: This country's experience is emblematic: In the last decades it has lived through moments of conflict -- political and humanitarian emergencies -- but at the moment its situation is almost forgotten in the international context and by our mass media.

Haiti, the first black republic in the world, already independent at the beginning of the 19th century, despite indisputable steps forward and the relative stability that reigns in the country, above all in the last year and a half, remains a very poor country, the poorest in Latin America. In Haiti life expectancy is very low, 53 years -- compared to 69 years in its neighbor, the Dominican Republic. Approximately 53.9% of the population lives in absolute poverty, with less than $1 a day -- compared to $2.50 next door.

The gross domestic product per capita is only $400. Only 40% of the children have access to basic medical services. The percentage of babies vaccinated against measles in their first year of life is less than half of the number of those registered in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to U.N. statistics. Potable water and electricity are the privilege of a few. I will not even mention logistics, transportation and the condition of the roads.

The contrast between the Dominican Republic and Haiti is staggering; crossing the border is like passing between distant worlds. This border is an emblem of inequality between rich and poor, and it is growing. Certainly Haiti is clearly improving, but there remain some huge problems that are not very well known outside the country.

Q: Is there collaboration between the Caritas groups of these two countries?

Beccegato: The two national Caritas groups of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, apart from joint undertakings in education, health care, agriculture, integral development, basic formation, emergencies -- not least of all after Hurricane Noel, which hit both countries hard along with Mexico -- have recently launched an interesting project to deal with the grave problem of the influx of Haitian immigrants into the Dominican Republic, called "Fronteras." The project is precisely to coordinate all seven dioceses along the long border to provide concrete assistance to the migrants and the asylum seekers -- legal help, language education -- but also to sensitize and to spread a new mentality of solidarity and hospitality at the cultural level.

Q: What are the projects that Caritas Italy has most supported recently in Haiti?

Beccegato: Besides the small development projects in the various dioceses to provide potable water, [support has been focused on] the agricultural ambit, finding employment for young people, health care, and also emergency humanitarian interventions in response to recurrent Haitian crises. In the course of recent years the support of Caritas Italy and Caritas Haiti has focused on projects for women and children.

In particular, Caritas Italy is supporting a project in the Diocese of Hinche, on the border, which aims to form, organize and provide access to credit to begin small entrepreneurial activities by groups of women who, joining together, are achieving phenomenal results. It is necessary to ensure continuity and reinforce this activity, so that socioeconomic development goes on at the same pace with human promotion and, in particular, the promotion of women as subjects capable of creating development, revenue, for example. This is a holistic approach by a well-developed national Caritas.

Q: Is there another aspect to highlight?

Beccegato: Caritas Italy believes that it is important to continue to promote a culture of solidarity, through lobbying and advocacy also at the local and international levels, focusing on two major themes: reconciliation and building sustainable peace and the resolution of conflicts in non-violent ways, as well as information that is more correct and more attentive in quantity and in quality.

[We promote] social communication that is a picture of objective reality, to make the essential and undeniable outlines of the truth about the human person more visible. The media, Benedict XVI says, "must also be instruments at the service of a more just and solidary world."