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Leaving a stronger Caritas Asia

Outgoing regional coordinator says Church social arm has achieved much in recent years

Leaving a stronger Caritas Asia
Father Bonnie Mendes, Bangkok

February 6, 2012

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Caritas Asia’s new regional coordinator, Elezear Gomez from the Philippines, has arrived in Bangkok to start work at the Caritas Asia Secretariat, after being elected to the position in December. With that, I complete my service after more than three years as regional coordinator. When I took up the position in October 2008, we faced a problem of staff turnover. The post of regional coordinator had changed hands often and had lain vacant for a while before I arrived. That was an extremely difficult situation. There was nobody to hand things over to me. Thankfully, now I am handing over an institution that has greater unity, proper documentations, audited accounts, inventory lists, annual reports, etc. The most significant achievement in the last few years is that Caritas Asia has grown in confidence and unity. National Caritas member organizations have a growing sense of wanting to work at the trans-Asia level to tap into each other’s strengths. This greater unity across Asia has come about due to people from different countries meeting one another at various seminars, workshops and formation programs. Another achievement is our publication of 10 manuals on disaster management and preparedness. These are very thorough, beginning with concepts and going on to methods of operation and coping mechanisms in different natural disasters such as earthquakes, typhoons and floods. The manuals are the results of training workshops and programs held in different countries. The challenge now is to get them localized. Each country has to produce local versions in local languages, and adapted to local conditions and lifestyles. This is actually a huge task, for it is not just translating them from English but adapting and applying them to local situations. For example, Taiwan has to produce these manuals not only for itself but for the whole of mainland China. A main determining factor in Caritas’ operations is capacity building. This is still one of its biggest needs. More and more young people have to be trained alongside more experienced staff to be second-line leaders of Caritas national organizations and partners across Asia. Another challenge is to get more funding, resources and expertise from within Asia. Caritas Asia does not have any funds of its own and depends on donations for all its work. Several countries have risen to this challenge. Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau are major Asian donors. These more advanced countries have also contributed human resources for capacity building in poorer countries. Member organizations have also given to one another in times of need -- Caritas Vietnam to Caritas Japan during the tsunami disaster, Caritas Philippines to Caritas Thailand during the floods, and Caritas Thailand to Caritas Philippines during a recent typhoon. Each country has its own strengths. For example, India and Bangladesh have helped Mongolia grow crops in arid conditions. Bangladesh has also shared with others its very successful financial management system and its disaster management and preparedness programs. However, Caritas Asia needs to strengthen its weaker members such as those in Central Asia, and likewise Malaysia and Timor Leste have to be organized at national level. Caritas Asia wants to benefit from Malaysia in particular, because it is a relatively advanced society and it is in a better position to share funds, human resources and expertise with other Caritas member organizations. One area of growing importance and influence within Caritas is peace-building. War and violence are also disasters but they are social disasters created by people. Caritas Cambodia is putting a lot of effort into this, and Caritas Sri Lanka is doing a good job helping people recover after decades of civil war. The situation differs in different Asian countries. When we train people to become animators in peace-building, we have to first study the root causes of the situation in a specific area – is the conflict due to injustices, or religious fundamentalism? etc. A major issue in advancing Caritas’ mission in any country is getting the local bishops interested. For countries such as Vietnam and Myanmar, we have to be very careful, because there is a lot of government control and the space for development and advocacy work is small. But where we have the freedom to operate, the bishops have to be taken on board. On this, the Office of Human Development of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences has a key role – to continually update Asian bishops and other Church leaders on the Social Teachings of the Catholic Church. So, my successor will have his hands full. But he is a young man, not even 40, and is also a layperson who has been working with Caritas for some time now. He is familiar with its agricultural sustainability and climate change resilience programs, and now he has to combine all that into a more global picture. My advice to him is to become truly Asian in his thinking and working, and make the best of this opportunity to serve. He should also try to keep calm, because sometimes one can be overwhelmed by various issues such as disasters taking place in many parts of Asia. He should not let himself get ruffled by anything. Father Bonnie Mendes, a 75-year-old Pakistani priest, is the outgoing regional coordinator of Caritas Asia.    
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