Serving the Poorest of the Poor
March 13, 2010
The emphasis on seeking long-term solutions is one of the hallmarks of CRS and is critical if real change is going to occur in rural Peru or in countries like Malawi where Tom currently works.
Malawi, located in southeast Africa, is one of the most densely populated but least developed countries in the world. It is also one of the poorest.
According to Tom, most Malawians live on less than a dollar a day - less than the price of a cup of coffee in the United States.
The country's economy is predominantly based on agriculture and is heavily dependent on the weather because the majority of crops are rain-fed. If the rainy season is erratic, the subsequent harvest suffers and with it, Malawi's residents.
Tom says most families don't produce enough food to live on, which leads to poor nutrition, stunted growth and other health issues.
"Diarrhea is still a major killer of children under five," says Tom. "Once they become sick, because of the lack of water and lack of nutritional foods, it's very quick for a child of that very vulnerable stage to slip into no only becoming severely ill but typically dying."
Parents struggling to feed their families may be forced to take steps that, in the long run, only worsen their predicament. "You have a child in school. You can no longer pay their fees or their tuition, so you take that child out of school to save money. But obviously, that child won't progress because they're not in school," says Tom.
"You might sell some of your livestock, and that might not be appropriate. You might sell it at a time when the value that you're going to get is very low, and you lose one of your core assets. Selling a cow, a donkey, or a goat can really set you back, but you need that immediate cash because you're coping with a disaster. Sometimes, you have women who are called into transactional sex to keep their households alive. To be able to have income, they're forced into prostitution."
Catholic Relief Services looks for ways to break that cycle-to put families on firmer footing and to keep them that way. It does it from the ground up, working in partnership with the local Catholic Church and other groups. "We look at agriculture, health, but then also, we have the disaster risk reduction. So we look at how households and communities can withstand floods and droughts so that they're not falling into the negative cycle of doing things that are destructive," says Tom.
"We get involved by understanding, for this particular household, what are the issues? Number one-is your land too small? Is it that your soil is infertile? Is it that agricultural practices are detrimental or are not benefiting your family because the farming practices may be outdated? Is it because you have no links to the market?"
In Malawi, some of the solutions have included duct systems built into mountainsides to provide irrigation for crops, analyses to show farmers the best time to bring their goods to market, diversification of crops, and setting up village savings and loans. Tom says it may be only pennies at a time, but yes, even the poorest of the poor can save.
CRS is also currently looking at ways to improve the education system. Although enrollment is high, the quality of education is poor with as many as 125 children in one classroom. Students may have to walk significant distances to get to school, which can be a safety threat, especially for girls.
In addition, some schools lack adequate sanitation systems and bathrooms. "That's a deterrent for a female who no longer wants to share a latrine with boys. She wants privacy, so that might deter her from going. So what we're trying to do is make schools safer and more conducive to learning," says Tom.
Tom's job is to get the resources to make that happen. "You see how poor things are. You see how everything is substandard. And it is what it is, but I have an opportunity to do something about it," he says. "I'm able to assist through my efforts of writing proposals, generating revenue, dialoging with donors to say-this is the situation and we need help. They need help."
That help comes from government aid, from foundations, and from people like you who participate in programs such as Operation Rice Bowl. The Lenten program, now underway, encourages Catholics to pray for those who are hungry, to fast in solidarity with them, to learn about their lives, and to make financial donations.
Ninety-three percent of the money CRS receives goes directly into programs. "We are committed to being true and earnest stewards of any resource that we receive," says Tom. "We have a commitment to make sure this dollar, this five dollars, whatever it might be, is reaching the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable, the ones that are in the situation of the greatest disadvantage."
Tom says seeing the difference those prayers and dollars can make is what makes his job so rewarding and enriching. "I don't think of it as a job. I feel as though it's really an extension of who I am and of what I want to be," he says. "I love what I do."
For more information, contact Communications and Media Relations at 508-565-1321.