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Ken Hackett ’68 guides one of the country’s largest relief agencies through a world of need
“We should talk about Guinea. I read all hell’s breaking loose.”
That’s Catholic Relief Services president Ken Hackett’s greeting to his security advisor, Lara Puglielli, as she enters his corner office at CRS headquarters in Baltimore on a January morning. Puglielli is there to brief him on urgent situations that threaten the safety of agency staff. Hackett spreads out the papers she provides: images of violent demonstrations in Conakry, Guinea’s capital, and detailed maps showing the peninsula where two CRS workers and their one-year-old baby are trapped in a hotel.
Hackett has already seen the pictures. A self-described news junkie, he routinely scans the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Baltimore Sun and monitors the BBC and Al Jazeera online. With more than 30 years’ experience at the U.S. Catholic Church’s international relief and development agency, including 14 years at the helm, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the world’s troubled places.
Following a few terse questions from Hackett, “What have we got for an evacuation plan? What’s the embassy saying?” and a brief discussion—should they go overland to Sierra Leone or fly Air France to Senegal?—Puglielli recommends pulling the trio out by air. Hackett agrees. “That’s enough on that one,” he says. Puglielli moves on to the situation in Beirut, where rioting in the city’s Christian neighborhood has forced the shutdown of CRS offices. The news recalls a low moment for the agency. In January 1985, Fr. Lawrence Martin Jenco, OSM, then CRS director in Lebanon, was kidnapped in Beirut and held by Shiite Muslim extremists for 19 months. Catholic Relief Services employs more than 5,000 workers in 99 countries, and although Jenco’s experience was extreme, CRS staff have suffered beatings, carjackings, and house arrest in posts from Haiti to Congo, according to Hackett.
International charities on the scale of CRS, which had a budget last year of more than $558 million, may give the impression of being monoliths—unchanging, perennially reliable—but third world politics and the home economy, natural disasters and domestic power shifts continually reconfigure the conditions in which they work. Hackett has responded to challenges variously catastrophic—Rwandan genocide, AIDS, a tsunami in the Indian Ocean—and enabling, such as a more than 300 percent increase in federal cash grants (from an average $58 million annually during the Clinton years to $204 million last year, well over a third of the agency’s budget). In late 2002, he joined eight other nongovernmental organization leaders for a Vanity Fair photo shoot, a “Hall of Fame” group portrait with the heads of Oxfam, CARE, Save the Children, Amnesty International, and other giants of international aid and development. In the picture, Hackett stands in the middle, at the back, a compact, broad-shouldered man in a tweed jacket, with heavy eyebrows and a quizzical smile, as though amused to find himself in that glossy magazine. But he has every right to be in that company. In a decade and a half, Hackett has upheld CRS’s considerable record of humanitarian and relief aid; he has fostered sustainable agricultural programs, micro-enterprises, and health care services among people in the world’s poorest countries; and he has imbued the agency with a sharpened focus, achieved through lessons sometimes learned the hard way.
Catholic Relief Services was started by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1943 as War Relief Services, with a short-term mission to provide welfare and resettlement programs for European refugees displaced during World War II. The agency outlived and outgrew its wartime mandate, changing its name to Catholic Relief Services in 1955, expanding operations to Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and becoming one of the largest private partners in the management of the U.S. government’s food aid programs (27 percent of CRS’s resources last year took the form of donated commodities and ocean freight, nearly all of it from federal sources).
Unlike overtly evangelical faith-based organizations, CRS has from the outset stuck to a policy of non-proselytization and provides aid on the basis of need, without regard to race, creed, or nationality. The agency has a reputation for courage: for being “one of the first to go in and one of the last to leave” in dangerous situations, says Steve Radelet, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, an independent think tank in Washington, D.C., focusing on global poverty and inequality.
In the course of a single day in January, there is more than one life-or-death issue on Hackett’s agenda. Before the conference with Puglielli, Sr. Phyllis Hughes, manager of Catholic Relief’s HIV/AIDS unit, had briefed Hackett and his cabinet on the agency’s 250-plus AIDS/HIV programs, operating in 52 countries. (The programs account for more than 19 percent of CRS spending.) While CRS officials do not claim that previous administrations penalized the agency for its policy of not distributing condoms as part of HIV/AIDS prevention programs, they concede that the “conscience clause” in the 2003 legislation authorizing the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) enabled CRS to apply for more HIV/AIDS relief funding, and that thanks partly to this provision, CRS has been a major beneficiary of PEPFAR. In 2006–07, the agency received $63.5 million through PEPFAR, and a pledge of $107 million for 2007–08. Hackett registers Hughes’s concern that Congress may decide to hold funding to the 2006 level. Such “flatlining,” he says, could be a death sentence for thousands of people currently receiving care.
Afterward, Hackett gets an update on developments in the civil war–plagued Central African Republic, from a colleague he calls the “Master of Disaster,” Patrick Johns, director of emergency operations. Then he speaks by phone with Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who promises her support on the Senate Appropriations Committee for the PEPFAR increase.
Catholic Relief’s involvement with AIDS/HIV began in 1989, in Masaka, Uganda, and extends now to some four million people, primarily in Africa, but also in the hardest-hit areas of Asia and Latin America. Its programs provide testing and antiretroviral therapy, as well as training in nutrition and health care for community volunteers who attend to people living with the disease, their children, and the orphaned. In keeping with Catholic teaching, preventive programs focus on abstinence before and fidelity within marriage. Even among CRS’s admirers, the agency’s adherence to Vatican policy on condom distribution provokes frustration. “The Vatican’s ban on condoms has cost many hundreds of thousands of lives from AIDS,” wrote New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in a May 2005 column that also mentioned the work of CRS as “a model of compassion.”
“Yeah,” Hackett says, “there are some agencies that really see us as something akin to the devil because we don’t push condoms.” The issue is a tough one, he concedes, and he cites South Africa’s Bishop Kevin Dowling, who in 2001 called on the Vatican to consider lifting its outright ban on condom use in order to save the lives of impoverished women in sub-Saharan Africa, and who remains one of a handful of public advocates for change within the Church hierarchy. Hackett’s response is pragmatic. “We just put our effort into other areas,” he says. “Other people are there. There’s no shortage of condoms.”
Hackett’s style is low-key and genial, but trenchant. With his Boston accent, open manner, and ready laugh, it’s easy to imagine him in a bar drinking beer and watching the game on TV. (Although when a small group of CRS staffers adjourns to Maggie Moore’s Irish bar after work, Hackett chooses Chardonnay.) He may be a Knight Commander of the Papal Order of St. Gregory the Great, but he also agreed to be the first victim of the dunk-tank at last summer’s annual office party. His laser-like concentration, omnivorous curiosity, and ability to absorb information at high speed, as he rocks back in his chair or fiddles with his pen, are legendary among his co-workers. It helps that he doesn’t sleep much, often rising at 4:30 a.m. Another Hackett trademark is frugality. He buys his cars used in Florida and drives them into the ground, resisted purchasing a new computer for his office—even though the old one regularly had to be rebooted three times before it would work—and recently turned down requests for a scanner for the legal department and a PowerPoint projector for the executive offices, according to his assistant, Stacy Craig. Hackett laughs when presented with this litany, insisting that there’s no sackcloth-and-ashes complex: just the impulse to conserve, reuse, and recycle, learned in the years of putting himself through school and living in poor communities overseas.
This thrifty mind-set is reflected in CRS’s consistently high ratings from independent watchdogs, who credit the agency for channeling the vast majority of its funds into programs. In 2006, just $35.7 million, or 6 percent of annual operating expenses, went to administration, fundraising, and marketing. The American Institute of Philanthropy, which currently gives CRS an A-plus rating for financial efficiency and transparency, set a cutoff point for operating expenditures of 25 percent last year to come up with its list of the 27 top international relief agencies. Smart Money magazine in 2000 ranked CRS the third most efficient charity among international relief agencies (behind the International Rescue Committee and the U.S. Fund for UNICEF), ahead of CARE USA, the Christian Children’s Fund, Habitat for Humanity, World Vision, and Save the Children.
A day of back-to-back meetings is unusual for Hackett. This one was necessary because he’d been in Washington, D.C., the previous day attending a meet-and-greet breakfast for new senators, and would be headed the next day to New York for discussions with the new United Nations undersecretary general for emergency relief and humanitarian affairs, Sir John Holmes, Britain’s former ambassador to France. The following week, he would be in Africa, juggling attendance in Nairobi at a CRS regional meeting with duties on a delegation to Madagascar for the U.S. government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). Hackett and Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor and, from 2001 to 2003, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are the corporation’s “public” representatives on a seven-member board chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and vice-chaired by Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson, Jr. President Bush proposed creation of the MCC, which he termed a “new compact for global development,” in 2002, and it was established by Congress in January 2004, with strong bipartisan support. The board oversees funding to impoverished countries on the basis of 16 criteria, including commitments to democratic political processes, poverty reduction, anticorruption measures, health and education, and an equitable legal system. To date, the MCC has signed compacts with 11 partner countries totaling $3 billion.
Hackett’s appointment to the board is a measure of his reputation as a tough-minded advocate for need-driven aid, says Radelet of the Center for Global Development. Speaking by telephone from Florida, Whitman says that Hackett’s personal experiences on the ground and his worldwide contacts through CRS and its partner organizations give him ears and eyes in places where government officials rarely venture. “Ken has this ability, every once in a while, to stick a pin in a balloon,” she says, especially when the discussion turns to contentious topics like corruption reform.
Hackett’s special assistant for MCC affairs, Jamieson Davies, cites the example of Benin, in West Africa. “The port of Benin is one of the most corrupt in the world,” she says, and a large part of the Benin government’s agenda in approaching the MCC was to rebuild the port. Hackett’s practical knowledge of the area enabled the MCC to toughen its criteria for Benin’s anti-corruption measures before signing a compact. Radelet says that Hackett has proved a highly effective board member, willing to push back against threats to the corporation’s mandate to act independently of U.S. foreign policy considerations. Hackett’s motivation for accepting the position, he says, was the chance to nudge the federal government further in the direction of supporting socially equitable economic growth over one-shot bricks-and-mortar projects.
A favorite lunch spot of Hackett’s in Baltimore is a Korean diner a few blocks from CRS headquarters. He takes a visitor there, pointing out the local sights: the abandoned Greyhound bus station directly across the street from CRS, the methadone clinic around the corner, and the now-empty adult bookstore next door to the office that caused a minor panic at the time of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Baltimore in October 1995. The question of how to shield the Holy Father from the sight of pornography was shelved when his proposed 12-minute call at CRS’s offices was squeezed out of the schedule.
Despite the optimistic “West Side, Zest Side” banners on the street lamps, urban renewal has stalled on Baltimore’s West Side, and CRS, located in what was a hat factory at the turn of the last century, occupies a neighborhood of shuttered businesses, dollar stores, seedy-looking bars, and pawn shops. It used to be much worse, says Hackett cheerfully. As a major local employer (with a staff in Baltimore of around 360), CRS has become part of the city’s slow regeneration. This is why, when the organization needed new premises, Hackett and his management team chose to stay in the neighborhood, in a nine-story former department store a few blocks from the present offices, where CRS will move this summer. The building will double the capacity of the present headquarters, providing space for 425 staff, a gym, 35 meeting rooms, and a gallery for exhibits on the organization’s mission and achievements.
Over lunch, Hackett talks about his childhood in the West Roxbury section of Boston, “provincial as heck,” and the missionary friends of his uncle, a Passionist priest, who would tell stories of Jeeps getting stuck in rivers in the Philippines. As a “brown bagger,” or day student, concentrating in operations studies at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, Hackett says his main interests were “lacrosse and women,” and he planned to follow his father, a senior executive at the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company, into the corporate world. But the prospect of working for a large company left him cold, and one day in his senior year, egged on by a lacrosse team buddy, he signed up for the Peace Corps at a booth on campus. “It seemed like an interesting thing to do,” he says, and his parents, though surprised, supported his spur-of-the-moment choice.
On the day of the senior prom, he received a letter assigning him to Ghana. “Where is Ghana?” he asked his mom. She wasn’t sure. Hackett and his friend Paul Lenardson ’68 set out on a three-and-a-half-year adventure that took them, with a group of 23 other business graduates from various universities, “all city boys,” first to Accra, Ghana, for orientation, and then to a rural agricultural institute to learn the local language, Twi, and how to grow crops, plant trees, and kill a pig. Armed with these skills, Hackett and another volunteer took a 27-hour truck ride north to their first posting, on the vast, isolated Afram Plains between the Afram River and Lake Volta.
For two and a half years, Hackett lived at a Catholic mission run by a Czechoslovakian priest and dutifully set about his official task, which was to help restore integrity to the agricultural cooperative movement devastated by the depredations of President Kwame Nkrumah, who had led the country from independence in 1957 until a coup in 1966. Hackett began by trying to farm a fast-growing variety of cocoa and new types of corn on a piece of land loaned to him by the village chief. The locals regarded the activities of the new obruni (Twi for “white man”) with curiosity. Old farmers would walk by, wave, and ask what he was going to plant. “This is not a good place to plant,” some told him kindly, and they were right: “There were ants that ate the seeds,” says Hackett, “and all of these farmers knew the ants would eat the seeds. But I was the obruni and I knew stuff, and I had a Jeep.”
On July 20, 1969, a brilliant, starry night, Hackett was sitting on the veranda of his little hut, listening to international radio news coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing, watched by a group of local children. “Look up there, see that moon? The Americans have landed on the moon,” he told them, in English. A boy of about 10, whose English was good, turned around and said in Twi, “Do you know what the obruni just said? He said the Americans landed on the moon. I told you he was crazy.” The Peace Corps years, says Hackett, were a “wonderful beginning of my career and adult formation.”
A framed letter of rejection from Catholic Relief Services, dated October 21, 1971, commemorates Hackett’s first attempt to graduate from volunteer to professional aid worker. The letter informs him that there are no current openings, and that he is asking for too high a salary, starting base pay then being in the region of $6,500. Not deterred, Hackett applied to the United Nations and CARE, and through a sister-in-law’s uncle wangled a second chance with CRS. This time, he had an interview with the African regional director, Msgr. Wilson Kaiser, who asked bluntly, “What can you do?” Apparently the answer was satisfactory, as Hackett was hired and sent back to West Africa. Working as a program assistant in Sierra Leone, he ran a “Breast Milk Is the Best Milk” campaign to promote breast-feeding and acted as general gofer, monitoring CRS nutrition and agricultural projects countrywide. Once promoted to program director with a staff of 65–70, he took on responsibility for relations with the local Catholic hierarchy, government agencies, and international bodies like the United Nations and the World Bank, developing grant proposals and managing a budget of around $2 million.
Over the next 13 years, Hackett kept his focus on Africa, serving as regional director for the continent from 1978 to 1985. During this time he met, hired, and ultimately courted Joan Mitchell, a former Peace Corps volunteer from Concord, Massachusetts, who had been stationed in Cameroon. Chuckling, he recalls how he sent her to the scorching desert of Mauritania, to “see how tough she was,” then after two years moved her to Ghana, where her job was to oversee the clearance of food aid out of the ports of Takoradi and Tema during a severe economic crisis, when an egg cost $9 and starving people would paddle their canoes up to the quayside, climb on the food trucks, grab a bag, throw it into the water, and dive in after it. “They’d do anything to get food,” recalls Hackett, “and she had to make it all work.” It was on one of his frequent visits to Ghana that the couple struck up a romantic relationship.
The Hackett-Mitchell courtship was a global enterprise. “I was going one way, she was going the other, and we’d meet in Rome,” he says. But after one frenetic week in December 1984 at the height of the Ethiopian famine when Hackett flew in and out of Addis Ababa three times, he decided that before they married (in 1986), he should secure a post that would keep him closer to CRS’s head offices, which were then in New York. He took a job working in fundraising, media relations, and liaison with U.S. Catholic dioceses. After two years, he was ready to go back to the field, and he was assigned as CRS representative to the Philippines.
When Joan joined him in Manila in August 1987, pregnant and exhausted, Hackett greeted her at the airport with the news that a coup d’état was in progress. She thought he was joking, but it turned out to be a fair taste of what was to come over the next five years. The Hacketts and their baby daughter (they now also have a son) weathered six attempted coups, two dozen typhoons a year, a major volcanic eruption, and an earthquake. “There was always something that engaged CRS,” he says. One of the things local staff remember about Hackett, says Michael Sheridan, CRS senior program advisor for economic justice, whose first posting was in the Philippines, is that he always used public transportation, even in the poorest, roughest areas of Manila.
In the Philippines, Hackett worked steadily to leverage the agency’s efforts through partnerships with other organizations. Catholic Relief had an office in the headquarters of the Philippines Bishops’ Conference, and CRS operations were often facilitated by the Church’s infrastructure—the agency’s nationwide nutrition program, for instance, was run through local dioceses. With Lutheran World Relief, CRS supported tribally run agricultural programs on the southern island of Mindanao. Hackett and his staff also collaborated with local NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) on micro-credit initiatives and small business development. And emergencies brought close cooperation with government agencies, as when Hackett accompanied the minister of social welfare to assess the damage and meet with local officials after an earthquake struck the northern town of Baguio in July 1990.
And yet, if ever Hackett came near to quitting CRS, it was during these years, he says. Catholic Relief was going through a seismic shift in management style, following the appointment of its first lay executive director, a career State Department diplomat and former ambassador to Uruguay and Nicaragua, Lawrence Pezzullo, in 1983. Pezzullo was hired by the CRS board for his wide-ranging experience in Latin America, an area highlighted at that time for renewed focus by the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. He imported former State Department staffers to fill key CRS posts. And according to Hackett, the new management adopted a top-down approach to development, a “we have all the solutions” mind-set that damaged relations with local partnering agencies, especially Church organizations, and failed to take into account social conditions in the field. Many long-term CRS workers either “left or clammed up,” says Hackett, and there were anguished internal debates about what the agency stood for.
Despite misgivings about the agency’s direction, Hackett agreed to move to Kenya in July 1992 as the regional director for East Africa. From his base in Nairobi, he orchestrated the CRS response to the humanitarian disaster in Somalia that followed the overthrow of President Mohamed Siad Barre’s military regime in 1991. Bitter clan warfare and lawlessness, combined with a serious drought, put thousands of Somalis at risk from violence, famine, and disease. With Patrick Johns, CRS’s director for emergency operations, Hackett had to build a relief operation from the ground up in a country with virtually no Catholic Church presence, and therefore no local infrastructure that could be immediately tapped.
“We needed everything,” says Johns, recalling how he and Hackett recruited Somali staff, secured food aid from the U.S. government, and coordinated with Lutheran World Relief to airlift supplies from Nairobi to Baidoa, a small town 150 miles northwest of the Somali capital, Mogadishu. CRS was one of seven relief agencies based there, each in its own office building or compound, sharing the work of burying the day’s dead and delivering aid to the living, surrounded by heavily armed Somalis, including nine- and 10-year-old boys toting automatic weapons. Hackett would fly in from Nairobi at least once a fortnight, and in the absence of reliable radio communication, he and Johns stayed in touch through notes carried by the pilots of the C-130 Hercules supply plane borrowed from Lutheran Relief. On December 9, 1992, U.S. marines landed on the beaches outside Mogadishu to spearhead Operation Restore Hope, a multinational effort to contain the looting and violence and restore food supplies.
Asked about fears for his safety, Hackett says he worried more about putting other people in harm’s way. “And I had the authority to put them in harm’s way,” he reflects. In 1993, that authority took on a global dimension, when Hackett applied for and was appointed to the post of CRS executive director.
One of the interview questions that Hackett remembers being asked when he applied for the top job was this: “How do you view the Catholic character of the agency?” Beyond humanitarianism, beyond Catholic piety, what is the underlying philosophical basis that makes CRS different from CARE, say, or Oxfam? On his appointment, Hackett’s first order of business was to engage the whole agency in an exploration of this question. “I’m no philosopher, and I’m no theologian,” he says, so he enlisted the help of then-CRS counselor, Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, a theologian specializing in international relations. Hehir would go on to head Harvard Divinity School from 1999 to 2001 before taking up the leadership of Catholic Charities USA, the umbrella organization of American Catholic social service agencies working domestically.
With Hehir’s help, Hackett began a rigorous process of institutional self-examination, using principles drawn from the long tradition of Catholic social teaching to refocus the mission of CRS. “I really didn’t know about Catholic social teaching in the formal sense,” Hackett says, although he had an intuitive grasp of its essentials. As he worked with Hehir it became clear that the touchstones—human dignity and equality, universal rights and responsibilities, promotion of the common good through social institutions, subsidiarity (the idea that problems are best solved by the people closest to them), concern for the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable, and stewardship of resources—provided an ethical framework for every aspect of CRS programming.
Bill O’Keefe, CRS’s director of policy and advocacy, remembers Hackett’s first speech as executive director. He articulated two interconnected concerns, says O’Keefe: the importance of reflecting on what it means to be a Catholic agency, and the need to reach out to Catholics in the United States, to build global solidarity between American Catholics and impoverished and marginalized people overseas, regardless of race or creed.
The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in 100 days, marked a turning point for Hackett and the agency. CRS was the largest, longest-serving foreign NGO in the country, known for its food assistance programs touching virtually every school and clinic since the 1960s. When Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down over Kigali airport on April 6, 1994, Catholic Relief’s country program director was in the United States. His wife and two children spent 48 hours hunkered under the bed in their house in Kigali as the long-standing ethnic tension between the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis boiled over into unprecedented violence. The family was rescued by Marine guards from the U.S. ambassador’s residence a couple of blocks away.
With Rwanda, CRS confronted the bitter reality that decades of food assistance and agricultural programs had done nothing to heal social divisions between ethnic groups. “We knew about Hutu/Tutsi, we knew about the political interplay. But we just ignored it,” says Hackett. After Rwanda, after Sarajevo, after Somalia, Hackett pledged to commit the agency to more directly promoting justice, the dignity of individuals, and the common good. Catholic Relief programs would tackle the structural causes of injustice and conflict, as well as the fallout. In CRS publications, the new focus is called the “justice lens.” “This was a sea change in the agency,” Hackett says, “and it’s still going on.” He points to peace-building initiatives with Rwandan youth, and to CRS support for the Bishops-Ulama Forum in Mindanao, Philippines, which brings Catholic and Protestant bishops together with Muslim leaders in a region where Muslim separatist groups have often resorted to bombings and kidnappings. Some 4 percent of CRS’s budget now goes to specific “peace and justice initiatives,” substantially less than the 16 percent invested directly in agricultural projects and the 15 percent spent on education and general health programs, but at roughly $22 million, a significant sum.
Through all its transformations, CRS remains importantly what it has always been, an agency on call, a first responder awaiting the next overseas natural or man-made disaster. A full 34 percent of its budget is expended in emergency relief. And so, in common with charities worldwide, Catholic Relief mounted a massive emergency response to the South Asian tsunami that struck on December 26, 2004. Speaking on PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer two days after the tsunami, Hackett described CRS’s immediate response to the devastation, which was to provide cash to the agency’s local partners in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand to cover emergency food and shelter needs, while mobilizing regional staff and sending in Patrick Johns from Baltimore to direct operations. The magnitude of the disaster, coming at the end of a year of trauma in Darfur and major hurricane emergencies in the Caribbean, would stretch CRS to the limit, Hackett stated, and he stressed the importance of collaboration among relief organizations. For five years afterward, he said, CRS expected to spend $195 million on relief and long-term reconstruction in the area, of which $172 million would likely come from private revenues—from corporations, foundations, and the American public, including collections by dioceses and parishes. Mark Melia, CRS director of annual giving and support, still looks awestruck when he reports that before the tsunami, Catholic Relief was raising $1 million annually through its website but that after the tragedy the figure rose to $1 million per day for three days. (American Catholics last year contributed some $10 million to CRS through regularly scheduled diocesan collections; the U.S. bishops conference contributed $11 million.)
Hackett visited the disaster zone twice within the first year. As a former field worker, he understands the value of showing solidarity with staff on the ground. And if he travels in the company of the CRS board’s chair, Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida, and board member Carolyn Woo, dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, as he did on his March 2005 trip, so much the better. A year and a half later, local CRS workers were still talking about the fact that Hackett stayed in the dorm-like Banda Aceh guesthouse, with its sulphurous smelling water and lack of flush toilets, rather than checking into a hotel.
From Aceh, Hackett, Lynch, and Woo went with Johns to Medan, the capital of North Sumatra province. As if to demonstrate that there’s little rest for the head of an international aid agency, at around 11:00 p.m. a powerful earthquake shook their eight-story hotel for about 10 minutes and devastated the island of Nias off Sumatra’s west coast, home to three million people.
“Ken gave me the green light,” says Johns, and by the next day, CRS had chartered a 400-ton boat to transport emergency supplies from its stores in Banda Aceh and those of other humanitarian agencies and the Indonesian government. CRS medical personnel were the first to arrive on the stricken island. “Spend whatever you need,” Hackett told Johns, and supplies worth around $1 million were diverted to Nias.
Earthquakes, typhoons, famine, drought, disease, and conflict have been the stuff of Hackett’s professional life for decades, but his most recent pressing challenge is of a different nature. By a strange irony, the current Bush administration, which more than any other has championed the role of faith-based agencies in dispensing U.S. foreign aid, is increasingly shifting its aid policy toward what Hackett describes as “a narrow focus on security and antiterrorism.” The new stance, marked by a “lack of attention to our traditional core constituency, the poorest of the poor,” will make it “difficult to preserve a role for faith-based and community organizations” in federal foreign assistance, Hackett warned in testimony to a U.S. House subcommittee last September.
Over lunch in the Korean diner, he described how the administration’s new focus plays out in the field: “The U.S. government bureaucrat in whatever country starts saying, ‘OK, tell me how this welfare program that we’re going to fund will support security interests and counterterrorism.'” How do you “tell the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s people in Ethiopia, that they have to evaluate their program for AIDS orphans and disabled kids on the basis of counterterrorism measures?” What’s more, the government is increasingly requiring prior approval of local partners, endangering long-term relationships, he says. In the ever-fluctuating business of global charity, Hackett again finds himself making a case for the long view, for the slow work of fostering jobs and opportunity and stability, the necessary conditions for justice and peace.
Jane Whitehead is a writer based in the Boston area.
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