Friday, April 11, 2008

Article on Catholic Non Governmental Agencies

Feature Article, 12 April 2008

Window on the world

Patrick Nicholson

Pope Benedict's visit to New York is expected to highlight the Vatican's

commitment to the UN. But what of the hundreds of Catholic NGOs based in New York

which lobby on issues such as education, justice and poverty? Are they a

Catholic bloc or myriad voices for the voiceless?

On a visit to the United Nations headquarters in New York in 2006, Archbishop

John Baptist Odama, of Gulu in Uganda, poignantly addressed members of the

Security Council, telling them: "I come here to bring the cry of the children,

the cry of their mothers, and the cry of their families to the ears of the

people who matter."

Uganda was then in the twentieth year of a long, brutal and largely

unreported civil war. Its worst feature was the abduction of 20,000 children by the

rebels to be used as forced labourers, sex slaves and soldiers. The archbishop

was asking for outside help to end the conflict and he got it. With increased

support from the international community, a peace process was launched.

Caritas Internationalis, the umbrella organisation for 162 national Catholic

relief and development charities, had helped to arrange the archbishop's trip

to the United Nations. It is one example of a wide variety of work carried out

by Catholic organisations there.

"Every day we work in a relentless crisis of challenging opportunities and

urgent competing priorities," says Joe Donnelly, head of the Caritas delegation

at the UN in New York, as he shuttles between meetings on Iraq, Colombia and

the Millennium Development Goals.

His office looks across to the UN, with its landmark Secretariat tower and

domed General Assembly building. It is here that the Security Council and

General Assembly meet to address urgent crises of peace, human security and

development affecting the lives of millions of people around the world.

"The General Assembly and the Security Council don't have any windows," Mr

Donnelly points out, "so we provide them with a window on the world. We're a

grass-roots global organisation and so can give the diplomats and UN staff a

sense of the reality on the ground. We act as a bridge between governance and

policy to members of our network in local communities everywhere."

Amid the jargon and the bureaucracy, reportedly not as bad in the wake of

reforms launched by the current Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, deals are struck

and international law is shaped. Hoping to affect the outcome of these

negotiations are various advocacy groups, from industry lobbyists to non-governmental

organisations (NGOs) campaigning on anything from the arms trade to the

economic crisis in Zimbabwe.

Hundreds of Catholic organisations, lay and Religious, from all over the

world are accredited to the United Nations systems in New York, Geneva, Paris,

Vienna and Nairobi. Some, like the Catholic Association for Peace, were actively

engaged with other Christian groups in San Francisco when the UN Charter was

drafted in 1945.

"Catholic organisations are very vibrant at the moment," says Sr Dorothy

Farley, a Dominican who has headed the International Catholic Organisation

Information Centre for the past 13 years.

Her office provides Catholic agencies at the UN with accreditation details,

advises them about whom to talk to on what issues, and sets up briefings with

national Catholic staff and experts on health, education, environment, de

velopment and poverty matters, often in dialogue with diplomats and UN executives.

During her time at the centre she has seen its members double to 42. "There is

great variety," she says. "There are Franciscans, the Catholic Medical Mission

Board, the Society of Vincent de Paul, the International Federation of

Catholic Universities. The list goes on."

NGOs are accredited to the department of public information or to the

Economic and Social Council, or to both. "Catholic NGOs at the UN have been active

advocates on the alleviation of poverty, access to primary education,

empowerment of women and climate change," says Isolda Oca, information officer at the

Department of Public Information. "They are effective. They come to conferences,

briefings, workshops, and high-level meetings at the General Assembly."

Though NGOs are not allowed to address the General Assembly, those with

accreditation to the Economic and Social Council and consultative status, like

Caritas, can be called upon to speak as experts.

Sr Eileen Gannon represents the Dominican Leadership Conference at the UN.

She says her job is to bring the voice, experience and concerns of the Dominican

family to this global forum on issues around the Millennium Development

Goals, the UN's anti-poverty targets.

"Justice, poverty, fair trade and sustainability are global issues," she

says. "They are local issues as well, and our work at the UN complements the good

work done by our sisters and brothers where they live. Global policies are

lived locally and we make the connection."

The nuts and bolts of being a representative mean submitting briefings to UN

committees, attending NGO working groups, meeting General Assembly and

Security Council members and, most significantly, giving them off-the-record

briefings. Achieving change can at times seem a slow, laborious process, but this has

borne fruit in the past. Caritas representatives at Special Sessions on HIV

and Aids at the UN General Assembly have helped to lobby governments to increase

funding and commit to providing universal access to prevention, treatment and

care. Their words have been incorporated in final declarations.

The key to success is not being part of a Catholic ghetto, but working in

partnership with other colleagues across the NGO spectrum. Catholic NGOs stress

that they are not part of a bloc, but are there to represent the issues that

are vital to their organisations on the ground. However, they do bring an

important moral dimension to their work.

In an interview with The Tablet, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, Permanent

Observer of the Holy See to the UN, told me that the Catholic NGOs' relationship

with the Holy See is not merely functional: "Rather, they tend to incarnate

different charisms and calls within the Church. In this sense, their mutual

relation is based more on the sense of the ecclesial communion than on


He added that a healthy challenge to Catholic agencies comes from within. "If

they want to be effective, they have to team together, to show cohesion or,

rather, communion and unity on the background of their legitimate pluralism.

Because this is our strength: our word is effective only if we are united," he


At the end of November, Pope Benedict XVI addressed a Vatican meeting with 85

Catholic international NGOs and expressed support for their work as well as

for the importance of the UN system, though he did warn against "moral


"A growing tendency within the international organisations is to dislike and

discard in principle all semblance of a religious connotation," said

Archbishop Migliore on the challenges faced by Catholic NGOs at the UN. "The

intolerance does not reside only in certain fundamentalist religious people, but also in

those who - not being believers - do not permit society to be a believer."

Governments and international institutions have in the past not recognised

the vital role that faith-based organisations have to play in delivering

humanitarian assistance and promoting human development, says Caritas. For instance,

in many African countries the Catholic Church is the primary, if not the sole,

healthcare and education provider. International donors have not taken

advantage of this valuable resource as a way to deliver aid, with only a fraction of

funding going though faith-based organisations.

"We advocate first and foremost not on the basis of our beliefs," says Dr

Ezio Castelli of the Association of Volunteers in International Service USA

(AVSI-USA), a development agency with a basis in Catholic social teaching. "We are

not advocating for a space to build a 'Catholic' school or hospital, but for

governments to recognise the common good of these institutions."

The UN is beginning to see the potential of faith-based organisations,

especially their role in organising advocacy initiatives internationally, nationally

and locally. UN staff regard campaigns such as the Jubilee Debt Campaign or

Make Poverty History, with their backbone of faith-based organisations, as

setting the standard as they try to deliver on their own Millennium Development

Goals. They also look for expertise on programming from faith-based groups.

Pope Benedict's visit to the UN in New York to address the General Assembly

will bring into focus many of these issues. Catholic NGOs are hoping for

different things from the Pope: to support their issues around poverty and

development, to maintain the Vatican's commitment to the UN system as he has done in

the past and, in the words of Dr Castelli, "To be reminded what a Christian is

and means."

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