Published June 4, 2009
Its five-year goal with the “Reaching Out for the Future” initiative is to reach more than 1 million school-age children. Every $1 million committed to this effort can educate 100,000 young people in South Asia. The goal provides schooling for students at an average cost of $10.
Indeed, education is a great need. In some rural areas in the region, fewer than 2 percent of adult women are literate.
The challenge is to work on education in the region—which runs from Afghanistan in the west to Bangladesh in the east—with its mix of religions, tribal customs, violence and where Catholics are vastly outnumbered by other faiths.
Despite the challenges, the Catholic relief workers find open doors.
“We have been received universally with great hospitality,” said Kevin Hartigan, a veteran CRS director who is marking five years as the South Asia regional director. “We are very upfront about who we are. We do not hide our identity.”
Catholic Relief Services is the official international humanitarian agency of the U.S. Catholic Church. Founded in 1943, it now works in more than 100 countries in areas of microfinance, peace building, health and emergency relief.
Hartigan’s talk at Christ the King Cathedral on May 19 touched on introducing education programs for girls and the marginalized, as well as working with local partners.
The relief work relies on partnerships with local leaders and other faith groups. The cooperation ensures the agency is aware of customs to greatly improve chances of success, he said.
“We have some real living saints in our church partners,” he said.
Hartigan said his agency may not be well known among Catholics here, but it is a success story worldwide.
“Everyone in Burkina Faso has heard of it. Everyone in central Afghanistan has heard of it,” he joked.
The money given by the American Catholic Church for development and emergency relief is one of the largest in the world, he said. It should be a “huge source of pride” for Catholics, he said.
Pakistan and Afghanistan can be troubled areas with daily violence targeting Westerners, but villagers embrace CRS staff and their partners. He told the story of how the first question often to community leaders is if the area is safe to visit and build a school.
“You are our guest. You will die last,” is the common answer that highlights their value of hospitality toward visitors.
Local partnerships paid off following the Indian Ocean tsunami with the rebuilding efforts. The decision was made, with the help of the local Catholic dioceses in Sri Lanka, to hand out the CRS assistance at mosques to avoid rumors of proselytizing and to make Muslim widows the first beneficiaries.
The local insights ensured the most in need got the help first and built good relations with the community, he said.
CRS’ education goal is to educate marginalized children, whether girls, special needs children, or street children. At the same time, the programs are designed to be more relevant and to replace teaching by rote memorization.
Hartigan said educational assistance is greatly desired in many communities, including in the most rural regions. It brings together communities to help their young people, he said.
The agency works with communities to find solutions to cultural barriers, such as not teaching girls in schools. A solution may mean single-sex classrooms, where the boys attend in the morning, girls in the afternoon or building separate girls bathrooms. The effort also includes recruiting more women teachers.
The programs promote quality education, starting community education groups, such as parent-teacher associations, and community libraries, among other steps to improve education.
For more information visit www.crs.org.