A Discussion with Will Recant, Assistant Executive Vice-President, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
With: William Recant
March 30, 2007
Background: This conversation between William Recant and Katherine Marshall took place as part of the preparatory work for an April 16, 2007 conference at Georgetown University on the role of faith-based organizations in development. The conference was part of a joint Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Luce Foundation project on religion and international relations.
What path has brought you to your current job, and how has it involved working with faith-based organizations and international development?
I am the child of two Holocaust survivors. I went to a Jewish school in New York, where I was intensely exposed to Jewish values and ethics. I then went to college at the University of Louisville, on a baseball scholarship, where I found myself in a very different world and became more aware of the significance of interfaith diversity. This was also true at George Washington University, where I went for my Ph.D.
While I was at GW, fortuitously, I met and began to work with Jewish Ethiopians. I became involved, eventually as director, of an association that aimed at the rescue of the Jewish Ethiopian people. We were a small, single issue association that worked both for advocacy and support. I worked with other faith-based organizations in the effort, including the Coptic Church. The effort was successful, culminating in the airlift of the Jews from Ethiopia to Israel. At that time, we took a quite unique path, as one of the only organizations that consciously decided to go out of business and close its doors.
I then joined the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Washington D.C. (AJJDC), working on non-sectarian relief. AJJDC is a large non-profit organization that works in 66 countries. I work there now as the senior executive responsible for all non-sectarian programming. This involves a wide range of projects, including, for example, a rehabilitation center in Armenia, rebuilding schools and a mosque in Kosovo, and emergency rescue projects in Sarajevo; there we worked with Moslems and Christians, and organized the only convoy out, for 2200 people. We also brought in medications. We are involved in interfaith efforts to end conflicts in a variety of places. After the tsunami, we worked with Buddhist and Hindu groups. We are supporting an Israeli-style village in Rwanda which includes a residential school. We work with Adventists and many other faiths.
AJJDC has several very different faces. What is its core mission?
Our core mission is rescue, relief, and rehabilitation, outside the United States. We are inspired by the Jewish saying Tikkum Olam, which means, roughly, “repair of the world." We do not have the ability to repair the whole world, so we specialize in putting on band-aids. We have worked for 92 years, and we use our expertise everywhere. We do have a strategic focus which includes helping to support moderate Moslem countries, such as Morocco, Turkey, and Indonesia. Thus we support street children in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey, and provide wheelchairs in Morocco. We let it be known that it is the Jewish community which is providing them, and hope that in time the human dimension of our work prevails.
We work primarily for Jewish communities, but we have important programs also that are for all people. Of AJJDC's overall budget of some $300 million, about $15 million a year goes to the non-sectarian programs. The Jewish focused programs are diverse, and include work with Jewish populations in the former USSR countries where, for example, we provide food to some 231,000 elderly Jews. We run programs for the elderly and vulnerable all over the world. I work on both sides, the Jewish and non- sectarian, but I am primarily responsible for the department that leads the non-Jewish work. AJJDC receives only a small part of its funding from government sources. At present, we have one grant from the government, a $500,000 grant that supports health care for Palestinians and Israelis.
How did you get involved in Cuba? This seems both fascinating and improbable.
I first went to Cuba in 1992. Around that time the Cuban constitution changed from one which was explicitly atheist to non-religious. Before the change in constitution, if a Jew went to the synagogue they could not be a member of party. Cuba had not wanted to have priests and rabbis working there, as they were afraid politics will be involved. After the constitutional change, the president of the Jewish community there called AJJDC and asked for help. The community had remained in Cuba all along, though they faced serious difficulties. When the climate changed to allow outside contacts, the community asked AJJDC to come and look at the position of the Jewish community. It faced serious problems them, and it had had no rabbi since 1960. We helped in starting to rebuild the community. The community was down to perhaps ten practicing Jews, and it now has just under 1,500 members, and is active and thriving.
What do you see as the most important role for faith-based organizations in relief and development work, and what are the most important issues?
The overall situation of faith organizations working in development can best be described as a hodgepodge. There is often competition among various NGOs and FBOs. The name on the van seems important to some, and within two weeks of a disaster, there are dozens of vehicles with names emblazoned on them in the area. The motives for this are mixed but draw in many organizations, including the Red Cross, CRS, International Rescue Committee and others, as they seek to generate public support. For that you need a sexy program which gets media attention. There can also be competing interests on occasion, which can involve faith-based and other organizations. Sometimes faith-based organizations behave in ways that are not culturally appropriate.
Interfaith work offers the best hope for engaging faith in both disaster relief and in development. I see a very positive side when I am on the ground and witness how groups can work together. I also see the worst, as I did when I was in Somalia and saw children starving because officials would not allow us, CRS, and others in the camp to give them food and we could do nothing. But the best relief and development work I have seen is when faiths are working together.
This suggests that coordination is a continuing and important issue. What can help resolve it?
Some umbrella organizations, like Interaction, are working to address the issues of lack of coordination, and things are improving. There are efforts now to coordinate the activities of different actors as they enter the relief area. There are limited resources, and everyone recognizes that. Interaction was formed in the early 1980s, at the time of the Ethiopian drought, as organizations that were active there came together so that they could be aware of what other organizations were doing. Coordination has improved to a point that the following could occur. During the 2006 Israel Lebanon war, my organization was working on the Israeli side, and CRS was working in Lebanon, both to help those who could not escape, like the elderly. Because we had structures in Israel and CRS in Lebanon, we were able to share information and coordinate our relief activities.
The 2004 tsunami was so grand and involved so much money that it was really a quite unique case. There, everyone went in and made their own partnership arrangements locally. What was difficult there was working out arrangements with local government authorities, and what worked best was what was worked out among the relief agencies on the ground. Indonesia initially only allowed faith-based organizations to play certain roles and initially refused aid from Jewish groups (they changed their position later). This is unusual however, but when it occurs it is obviously a significant obstacle. An interesting model is the voluntary code of conduct in that was hammered out during the tsunami relief period in Aceh. It worked very well, but has no precedent and no more general follow up. It was because of that voluntary code of conduct that we ended up getting involved there. It forced the government to look into the issue of how it was approaching the roles and possible support of faith-based organizations.
Specific disaster relief mechanisms vary place by place. If there is a Jewish group in the affected area, it becomes a hub. This was the case for our work in Macedonia and Albania, where we were working with refugee camps. The Jewish population there helped materially in mounting the relief effort. They had capacity, and they wanted to be involved. They were thus able to help us to know where to go and how to find the resources we needed. This allowed our organization to play a role that it does best, which is to serve as an honest broker.
How would AJJDC respond to a disaster in the U.S., such as Hurricane Katrina?
Relief work in the United States is very different, including coordination arrangements. Interaction and its mechanisms work only overseas. And AJJDC works only overseas. However, we were asked to advise Jewish groups working in the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina, and our advice focused on interfaith outreach and coordination. As a result, the Jewish community reached out to many groups.
As you look at the Berkley Luce FBO project and April 16 conference, what are the issues you would most like to see addressed?
As a representative of a faith-based organization who has partnered with many international NGOs as well as other faith-based organizations, I feel that the issues of how we carry out humanitarian work on a non-sectarian basis are critical. This means above all how we, different faiths and faith-based organizations, work together.
The issues of proselytization are critical to us. We will not partner with organizations that proselytize. We are concerned about it, though in fact it is not seen very frequently in disaster and crisis situations. And when it occurs, it generally disappears fairly quickly. As an example, there have been recent discussions with the Church of Latter Day Saints, which has agreed that it should not undertake proselytizing work in disaster situations.
The issues of proselytizing are in part tied to governmental policies, meaning specifically the attitudes of governments other than the United States. Their attitudes should guide the work of relief organizations.
There are important issues around US government funding for faith-based organizations. USAID is supposed to be supporting a lot of FBOs but the funding has not been equitably distributed. It is groups which engage in a lot of lobbying that get the bulk of funding. I suggest that we should look at the approach and policy through another lens. This would involve a substantial restructuring of USAID. In requests for proposals, USAID should ensure that the organizations demonstrate their interfaith approach. It would be quite appropriate to require that organizations have a variety of organizations as their partners. This should apply, for example for the $100 million that recently was awarded for AIDS awareness in Africa and might help avoid some of the controversies that surround such funding. Issues of criteria and processes for evaluation and monitoring are of great importance. Both are areas of considerable weakness among most FBOs. During the tsunami, people gave hundreds of millions of dollars. Today, there are press reports on misuse of funds because of these weaknesses in follow up. What is needed is a clear requirement for all programs that there is an evaluation of results, with clear matrices and criteria for judging performance. It would be interesting to consider establishing an interfaith NGO monitoring committee. At present nothing like that exists, and groups that are monitoring performance, like Amnesty, tend to have a different lens than evaluation of efficiency and impact.
Funding received from governmental sources need careful evaluation from a third party. I feel that the sources of funding should be carefully investigated and any funds arriving from non-denominational sources should be evaluated critically. Faith-based money is sometimes viewed as provided with ulterior motives. It is critical that we look at who is providing the funds for operations. The implication is better criteria for transparency, overall and including practices such as earmarking funds for certain programs and projects.
There should be an explicit discussion about other channels of misuse of funds, including the possibility of funds going to support terrorism.
A significant outcome of the project could be to help further cement relationships between faith-based organizations and find common denominators for cooperative programs. This suggests that discussion of coordination mechanisms for different kinds of work involving FBOs should be discussed. The role of interfaith work should be discussed, with a view to finding ways to encourage and promote it.
Which emerging issues could really benefit from religious/secular partnership? ( i.e. the "new" trafficking, Darfur, debt relief, etc.)
We underline the importance of clear and effective policies regarding separation of religion and state. At the point of intersection, it should be interfaith bodies that work on how those intersections take place. There needs to be more competition and with transparent rules. The work of FBOs should aim at ensuring that the work contributes to building peace and does not accentuate controversies (for example in areas like sex education in Africa).