How did you come to your current position? How has your own career linked faith and international development work and issues?
I am president of Caritas in Mauritius and a member of the Caritas regional commission for Africa. As an organization, Caritas has seven regions and Caritas Africa is one of these. I was recently called to be Executive Secretary of Caritas Africa. The person who was to take on the post resigned abruptly and I was asked if I could help. I had retired, and had been working (for the last three years) with Caritas, so was available. I am handling the work now as a volunteer.
My own career began with studies in physics in the 1960s in Manchester, UK. I returned to Mauritius and started to teach physics at secondary school level. I then turned to educational television. At the time, I was a pioneer in teaching physics on radio and television. My career took a turn then, as someone suggested that I had experience and flair in public relations, communications and human resource management, at a time when people were needed. So I jumped from physics to public relations and human resources. I went back to University in Mauritius to study Human Resource Management and attended the Frank Jefkins School of Public Relations in London in the late 70’s. I was involved above all in the Mauritius’ sugar industry, eventually as the Public Relations director for the sugar organization in Mauritius, with many activities, including as editor of a periodical on the sector. After retirement, I started my own consultancy. It was then that I became most involved with Caritas. So when my bishop asked me if I could help with Caritas and other organizations in the Church, I became more actively involved.How is Caritas organized in Africa?
Caritas works in 45 countries in Africa; that includes all the sub-Saharan countries, from Cape Verde
through the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius
North Africa (Morocco
) falls under a different Caritas region that covers the Middle East
The secretariat is based in Lome, Togo
With today's facilities for communications, with Internet and telephone, I can manage to work from Mauritius
. There are some personnel in Togo
, and we also have an office in Nairobi
We are in constant communication, given the number of countries and activities; it is interesting that this would not have been possible even five years ago.Can you tell me a little bit about the issues that confront your secretariat?
I would describe our role above all as animation.
We aim to coordinate but even more to spread the spirit of Caritas, which is an organization looking after the poor, not as assistance but as development.
Some decades ago, the concept was rather different, and focused on assistance and charity as a way to help poor people.
But that has changed.
With Populorum Progressio,
Paul VI's 1967 Encyclical, the very concept has changed, and now accompanying people and rehabilitating them is the spirit.
For the Church, the “new way of peace is development”.
If you want to help the poor and the vulnerable, you want to help them help themselves, and to participate in society.
This is really the main concept behind Caritas, and we seek to spread that spirit among our Caritas members.
Caritas works in many areas, including health, and in development areas like microfinance.
We also work to develop water resources, which is a big problem in Africa
. We are even moving into climate change. There, it is important for people to understand the difficulties, and work to mitigate the effects of climate change.
It is also important to be ready for emergencies, and this is a large issue in the areas where we are working.
We try to develop guides with Caritas Internationalis on how to prepare yourself and react to disasters and how to cope with emergencies.
And we are very much involved in work on HIV and AIDS.The activity of the Church is so extensive in Africa, how do you work to coordinate its work?
Coordination is indeed difficult!
I do not have a precise figure on how many people are involved, but my sense is that that we have some 40,000 volunteers on the ground.
But their work is overseen and coordinated in each country.
Our role is to animate.
We work on the subsidiarity principle, which aims to give every CARITAS its own life by itself, as long as it stays within proper limits of our spirit.
Our goal in the secretariat is to share experience, to let others know what is being done elsewhere.
When you look at the whole spectrum, some places are much more advanced and others are less developed.
It is important to share the experiences that all people are gaining.
As an example, in September we are organizing a forum on microfinance in Addis Ababa
, because there have been quite a few successful activities in the domain of microfinance to help the poor to organize themselves and to drive their own development.
We need to help spread that spirit, to generalize to others.
We shall be holding the Forum in the Conference Hall of the African Union.
This is quite significant in itself, as we want to work with governments.
We are today keenly aware that we should not be working alone.
We seek to work with governments, NGOs, the private sector, and civil society. If everyone works on its own, we will not develop the synergies that are needed. To us this is very often the problem.
Too often NGOs have been sitting on the fence, saying the government is not doing this, not doing that.
I believe that if we are to achieve anything we have to work with other partners.
But working with partners does not mean we agree with all they do.
You can influence them, and you can share experience, and you can even have opposite ideas.
We work to persuade.This idea of sharing experience is of special interest to us. What are you finding are the most effective ways through which you are able to share experience?
You can have meetings of course, and they are important.
But they are not always the most effective way as often you need to be on the spot and address specific circumstances.
We also work to support people who bring expertise and human resources.
Those who have experience can go and share with the others what they have done, so that people do not always have to start from scratch.
If everyone has to go through the same experience, you waste a lot of time.Techniques, for example for water supply development, have to be developed and shared.Can you describe any particularly good examples?
I think in the first instance of the example of water resources.
There, partners from countries like Australia
, or the United States
have been able to bring in new technologies.
Some time ago I visited a place in Kenya
where the ground was very much like a funnel, and no water was visible around.
But people had been able to find that there was water underneath the ground, so they built a small basin at the bottom of the funnel and used the very good technological system of filtering. Water that had been invisible before managed to collect at the bottom of the funnel, and then afterwards the water would go through the filtering process, and, with two small pipes, we were able to get water to some 80 families.
This could not have been done by the people there & you needed people with outside knowledge & which is why you can help a lot with experience from elsewhere.How far to you typically go into emergency situations and contexts?
We operate in all the difficult regions of Africa, and work to try to bring peace and reconciliation.
As examples, we are present in Kenya and Darfur.
The team from Caritas Nairobi has been working hard to help the people affected by the terrible events there, the close to civil war.
So many families have become vulnerable so this has been a great challenge.
I look also at a country like Togo.
There, the problem is not of refugees leaving, but of returning refugees.
Many are now coming back, but they find they cannot immediately go back to their own villages because they are not accepted anymore there.
You have to rehabilitate them, and help them become members of their societies again. War is a very painful and difficult area. The Catholic Church is extraordinarily large and complex. What parts of the Church do you work with?
When I leave The Hague next week, I will be traveling to Central Africa to participate in a meeting of the Conference of Bishops of Central Africa.
There are seven Episcopal zones in Africa.
Each has dioceses and parishes, so you can imagine how extensive a network it is.
For it to work, it needs to be driven by work at the local level.
Our role in the secretariat is to help activate all these points. I'm interested in what tools you find most useful.
Direct contact is what is most important.
In each Episcopal Zone Caritas has a coordinator, thus seven coordinators for Africa.
We also aim to have one bishop serve as the contact person for our work in each sector.
We want to have direct contact with the people who are on the spot, and in this way we try to maximize the direct contact between people.
We make active use also of telephone and Internet, but there is nothing like direct personal communication.
Not only do we have coordinators, but each coordinator is also the focal point for a particular theme, for instance, emergencies, gender, HIV/AIDS, climatic change, peace and reconciliation, migration and human trafficking, microfinance and Millennium Development Goals, communications.
Each one has a particular responsibility, and we are trying to have in each country a person as the contact person for each theme. This is not easy and we are working still to develop the system.
It is important as each link in the chain is essential. As we all know the strength of the chain in practice depends on the strength of the weakest point.
We need to assure that everyone is in the right place with a clear role, working as best they can, with a clear understanding of what they are responsible for.You have highlighted the challenges of aid coordination, an issue that is gathering increasing international attention. How do you see this working for Caritas?
One of the greatest challenges in Africa is to get clarity of understanding of responsibilities, and that starts with Africans themselves.
Everyone needs to realize that he should be responsible for herself and himself.
There is too much of an attitude in Africa of waiting for help from outside.
It is rather difficult for people to find the spark so that they can understand that they can truly help themselves; help yourself and God will help you.
Building on the roles played by the respective bishops is also important.
They can be influential, but sometimes do not play the full role that they could.
They often can use their influence not just for themselves and their immediate institution but for the people in their respective countries. Their role at the top and the need for their influence to trickle down from the top is important.
We do see examples of positive change in many areas. I am reluctant to highlight any one area.
But I see many successes as tied to individuals and leadership.
They can make a big difference.What roles do the parishes and the dioceses play, and does the Caritas Secretariat play a clearinghouse role?
You need to have communication going up and going down.
What we are trying to do is to get all the interested parties involved, also to report back what they are doing.
A difficulty we have today, is to take stock of all that is happening.
As we noted earlier, a lot is being done in the health domain, but we find it quite difficult in the health sector to be able to say clearly what we are actually doing. So we are working to build this culture of communication, up and down.
We are heading toward developing the Secretariat to support this communication function.
Some country institutions are ready to communicate very fast and some others are not.
And the means are an obstacle often.
We lack easy communications techniques.
In some African countries it's difficult to communicate even by telephone.
Several countries present particular obstacles, for example The Gambia, and the Central African Republic.
Some countries face terrible poverty but also they have been through long wars.
And our staff is very small: the Lome office has a permanent staff of only two. Does the Secretariat have any overall financial responsibility?
On finance we have some responsibilities, but fairly limited and they focus primarily on regional programs and activities.
For instance when we organize a forum, we handle the financial aspects to it.
However, we do not oversee finances at the country level.
This is handled at by each country.
Caritas normally accounts to their own Episcopal conference, at the level of each diocese and at the level of the country to the council of the bishops.
The region reports to the regional commission, and certainly to Rome as well as to Caritas Internationalis.
I get involved very much in the regional activities, for conferences, for visits, for meeting people.
We have our own budget for that.As a bit of a detour, can you speak some about corruption and is it a general theme?
That is indeed an important theme and not an easy one to discuss.
When dealing with corruption, in practice it is often difficult to know who is corrupting and who is not.
But, at the least, the Church can come forward with a set of principles, and perhaps use them to help organize civil society, so that civil society can check what is going wrong and where aid funds have gone.
There are ways and means, without accusing people, to make sure that funds reach the places where they are supposed to go.
I believe there is a big role there for churches in general.
The Church has taken firm positions in a number of specific cases.
Though the central issue is not corruption per se, there have been forthright statements recently on Mugabe. And in several cases bishops have made public statements around election campaigns.
Some recent declarations in South Africa, not necessarily just on corruption, illustrate how bishops of countries have been standing up. I was struck what you said at the beginning about charity and development, and wondered how far this theme is linked within Caritas discussions to human rights, of the “right to development”?
The main issue here is the way you look at the individual, and more particularly at the poor.
We have tended to look, in the past, at the poor as “beneficiaries”; even that word can be misleading.
If you look at a poor person as someone who is benefitting from your services, then there is more of a paternalistic attitude.
If instead, as we try to do today, we look to the person with his or her
rights, with his duties, they we can work to make sure that these people are really being developed.
There is much here that is in the mind, around attitudes or behaviors.
It is important because you can think you're helping people but in fact be hurting them. There is much talk of pro-poor policy, but it should really be with the poor.
We have to listen to them. They have something to say.
If you do not listen, you can end up thinking for them & then you may think you know what is right for them, and often it in fact is not. Do you work at all with Muslim groups?
Some, but not that much.
Contacts are much more active in some countries than in others.
In one country (Mauritania), a Muslim in charge of Caritas.
In the Comoros we are mainly, if not totally, at the service of Muslims.
Many of our employees are not Christians, and many of the beneficiaries are not, as, for example, in Bangladesh for instance.
Caritas has a large program there, with many Muslims working for Caritas.
In countries where there are few Christians, most of our assistance goes to people of other faiths. Wherever we are, we provide services to all irrespective of religion, ethnic group, and origin, among others.
But we have fairly few contacts at the level of organizations.
NGOs tend to be individualist in their work, unfortunately!What is the main source of your financing?
It is a complex picture.
Each country situation is different. We raise a lot of money from inside the countries themselves.
A lot come from donations, of course, and in some countries you have governments who contribute as well.
Richer Caritas members in Europe, the United States, Asia and Oceania do also help poorer Caritas members in Africa.
You also have many partnerships existing between governments and Caritas and increasingly we are responding to calls for project proposals. Many companies now have Corporate Social Responsibility departments and these also work with NGOs to serve the vulnerable groups. We need to develop ways and means to work together and take advantage an effective synergy that can help us succeed in our mission.
One example is in Mauritius.As you look at this meeting coming up in the Hague, what strikes you as interesting issues to discuss?
I think we should talk a lot about the advocacy part of it, because NGOs and civil society, I believe, can contribute to the livelihood of the people and they should contribute even more in future.
They can exercise influence by being able to take positions in a timely way, vis-a-vis governments, institutions like the African Union. This has not always been the case.
We do have many bishops who do express themselves, and do so very well, but more could be done.
Religions together constitute quite a strong force. We need to be really aware of that and act accordingly.