Why compassion can win war against poverty: A conversation with Lesley-Anne Knight

Lesley-Anne Knight, secretary-general of Caritas Internationalis. Photo by: European Union

Caritas Internationalis is a rare case in the nonprofit industry. As many charities suffered income declines in 2009, the Vatican-based global organization saw its total income jump 300 percent!

Caritas Secretary-General Lesley-Anne Knight credits the financial success of the group to its “extraordinarily generous” donors, including parish communities and private citizens. She said Caritas, unlike other relief agencies, does not depend on funding from donor governments, many of which have been tightening their purse strings amid a continuing financial crisis.

Knight likewise serves as the European Union ambassador of the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Inclusion. She was among the select group of personalities, which included European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who addressed the opening ceremony of the 2010 European Development Days on Dec. 6, 2010.

>> European Development Days: What’s This Year’s Buzz?

At the sidelines of that two-day gathering in Brussels, Knight sat down with Devex, where she discussed why compassion is key to defeating global poverty. She also stressed the need for the world to start seriously exploring the next steps after the Millennium Development Goals’ 2015 deadline.

Looking back at 2010, what do you see as the international community’s most significant accomplishments in fighting poverty and achieving the MDGs?

We are trying to sum up the impact of Europe and the European Union [in] having promoted an awareness raising around conditions of real poverty and social exclusion of large numbers of Europeans and the impact of that in terms of just sensitizing, making people aware that poverty is clearly a global issue, but it’s right there at their doorsteps as well, in their neighborhood.

The figure of one in six Europeans who are at extreme risk of falling below the poverty line is quite shocking. And it should raise [the] awareness of many Europeans that it’s an issue of global solidarity and responsibility to look out for your fellow citizens and [care about] the conditions they are living in.

So, I think our issue around poverty is that we don’t see it for what it is, and we don’t question the root causes of it. We try very often to deal with the symptoms without addressing what are clearly choices we’ve made.

All of this, within the European Year context to fighting poverty and social exclusion, can only really help to further [our] cause [for] coming together as a global community and saying, surely, the Millennium Development Goals aren’t too much to ask. So, maybe in terms of practical statistics, figures, achievements, they may be quite difficult to measure. However, I have no data at all.

The links have been made within Europe, between our common suffering as [a] human family, where so many – billions in fact, well, over a billion – are in extreme poverty, and that awareness, that consciousness, is often [the] very first big step we need to make.

What were some of the main trends in international development that you saw in 2010?

I think we’ve really got to give a lot of credit, and to see a lot of hope and progress that’s been made in Africa. Some democratic processes have been certainly laudable. Some progress and certain growth in Africa are also of note.

I think we’ve come together after Copenhagen and energy is starting to improve a bit after the failure of Copenhagen in December 2009. I’m hopeful, too, that climate change, climate adaptation, climate mitigation and [a] lot of the efforts that we put into [those issues] last year have been re-energized. I’m hopeful, at least for Cancun, that going [into] 2012, we would start [to be] a little bit more practical and [achieve] concrete progress on those.

I think 2010 has been a very tough year, not only on the level of humanitarian disasters. A lot of our resources have gone not only into Haiti and into Chile, [but] into Pakistan. Ongoing issues around Sudan and the Congo have taken a lot of [the] development and humanitarian community’s attention. One of our difficulties is at the level of international aid, ODA [official development assistance]. Where countries, especially in the European Union, are under such tight financial constraints, it’s laudable if they continue to even aim [for] the 0.7 percent of the GDP that we are looking to achieve for ODA [spending].

What are your expectations for 2011? What will be the most significant events, decisions, challenges and achievements to watch out for?

I think we have to seriously start planning. As I just mentioned in my talk this morning [Dec. 6], we’ve got to plan now for what comes after the 2015 goals. I think there’s an understanding amongst most, not only [within] the humanitarian development community, but also the EU, the IMF, the World Bank, that having a global framework which sets goals, which sets targets for the international community is very helpful. But [the question is] what comes beyond 2015, when we know we have to quietly struggle to achieve those [goals]? People feel we are pretty much going to fail.

You heard Dominique Strauss-Kahn just [now] talking about [what] we would want to have achieved – at least another 70 million people out of poverty by 2020 – and the financial crisis means we are not going to achieve that.

I am hopeful: I think eradicating poverty is certainly possible. We need the political will. We need the correct decisions on that from our international policymakers. Every nation and member state of the European Union needs to ensure [policymakers] are keeping to their commitments.

In your opinion, how will the new European External Action Service impact the development work of the European Union? What are Caritas’ expectations? Do you think it will also change the way in which the EU works with organizations like Caritas?

I think there’s been a recognition that, as one real success of this European year on poverty and social exclusion, that we need each other. We all need each other: civil society organizations, the businesses, the media, international NGOs. We need to work really closely with government. We need to work with member states, with our parliamentarians, with the European Union and with the big global financial institutions. Nobody can achieve this in isolation.

I think this year has raised that awareness, and we all have a role to play. [As for] our Caritas organizations around Europe, also across the world, we have a strong sense of our identity, of who we serve, of our options for those who are marginalized, those who are poorest. But we do that in great respect with the role that others need to play. We need to complement each other.

So, we’ve had very good working relations with the European Union this year.

We’ve launched our own Zero Poverty campaign, which we will take on for the next five years as a global organization. On the whole, I think it [the campaign] has shown that when you work together, when you give and take, a lot can be achieved. I’m very hopeful for it.

So, you think this reform will open new doors for NGOs like Caritas?

I think so, absolutely! I think it is a huge acknowledgment to the work that often was done by volunteers … by people who often are not acknowledged. I think it’s opened our eyes and our society to [the fact] that people [who live] below the poverty line, a woman who gets into social spirals of a family breakup and loses her job… they can’t afford to pay for basic commodities. The suffering of hundreds of thousands of Europeans at that level is our problem, all of us. We can do this together.

What advice do you have for other organizations that also want to partner with the EU, based on the experience of Caritas?

I think [you must] be open, transparent, accountable, and don’t sell yourself [short] in terms of who you are and your values and offer that as a service. But at the same time, be there, be prepared to communicate, to be transparent and accountable about who you are and what you do, and demand mutual respect.

New countries are emerging as donors to Africa, such as China, India and Brazil. In your opinion, does this scenario offer new opportunities for international development cooperation?

[As for] the aid going into Africa, be that from the European Union, China or India, I think we can trust our African colleagues to know that they can get the best benefits of that. They can profit from it, provided they’re aware that aid must not be tied and that they too are at the center of development, that communities are at the center of development, that the values of subsidiarity and participation, which are also at the heart of the European Union but also at many of our international development organizations, [are assured].

My request as the secretary-general of Caritas is [for donors] to not forget those core values of subsidiarity, participation and respect for human dignity, whoever you are as a donor.

China’s participation in international development is growing. The European Union and other Western donors are looking to partner with China and others. Do you think this trend could lead to more transparency? Could it also impact how new donors work in Africa?

I think, at the political level, we will clearly need to challenge all donors on the way aid is delivered, at times, without question, around human rights, moral or ethical values. And I think we need to do that in a respectful way and [through] dialogue.

We understand, at the moment, there is concern, perhaps for many, around the large amounts of aid coming from China into Africa, into states where governments are not respecting and upholding human rights. I think, in the international NGO community, we have a duty to point that out, we have a duty to raise awareness on [that] when we see it happening. But certainly, EU, in its dealings, needs to be transparent and coherent in its work.

Looking at your 2009 annual report, the income from membership fees rose impressively. How did you achieve this goal? Did you change your strategies? What lessons can nonprofits take from your experience?

I think it’s sometimes quite inexplicable how, in times of financial crisis, faith communities — for me, specifically, it’s not just saying the Catholics because Caritas is a Catholic organization — [can thrive], how generous people can be in times of real hardship and real crisis.

We had various people who, in spite of seeing the financial crisis that’s happening around us — a lot of our organizations losing substantial amount of government aid, aid from the European Union – [have been so generous]. The public, the general public, the [faith-based] communities everywhere, of all faiths, are always extraordinarily generous.

We are one of those international NGO networks which rely not on governments for our financing, but from our constituencies, from all of us, from our stakeholders, from our parishes’ communities. I think that’s a huge recognition for the solidarity and the compassion of people who know that they are often better off than others, even though the punches [are] coming [to] them too. That’s really wonderful.

Has the way you communicate these values played a role?

I think so. Especially in the financial crisis, people realized that [it] was not so much a crisis of the banks, but a crisis of lack of values – people having just been blinded by greed and by [the thought that] “I need to have more and more and more.”

Often people [get to thinking], “What’s really going on here? We’ve got big issues of hunger, of food crisis, we’ve got climate issues. What’s happening in my life?” People start to say, “But do we need all of this? What’s really going on?” So, they look at their own lifestyles, even within Europe, and how much [they] really need, how much [of] this is just consumerism.

So, very often, I do think people are looking [for the point where] “we’ve lost our way,” and it is not because, [as] a secular society, we’ve got it all wrong. We have not. But let’s be sure that the good we do is founded on values, which can be shared by everyone, anywhere.

I think that’s part of our hope as well. We heard speakers this morning. It is all about solidarity but it is also about compassion, it is about feeling [one] with other people, and when you forget to do that you lose a large part of [your humanity]. That’s very hopeful for us. I think the financial crisis sometimes weakens us a little bit [for us] to see what really matters in [our] life, in [our] family, in [our] own neighborhood, [our] community, [our] town, [our] country, and not to be inward-looking but to see what this actually means to me and my grandchildren.

About the author

  • Elena L. Pasquini

    Elena Pasquini covers the development work of the European Union as well as various U.N. food and agricultural agencies for Devex News. Based in Rome, she also reports on Italy's aid reforms and attends the European Development Days and other events across Europe. She has interviewed top international development officials, including European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Elena has contributed to Italian and international magazines, newspapers and news portals since 1995.