Pope Benedict is set to make his first official visit to the United States, home to an estimated 80 million Catholics – the third largest national Catholic population in the world, after Brazil and Mexico. On his schedule are a meeting with President Bush at the White House and talks with American Catholic leaders. He’s also expected to mention the charity work being carried out by Catholics around the world. Catholic Relief Services (CRS) provides aid to Africans in 30 countries across the continent. VOA’s Darren Taylor reports.
Lori Kunze, CRS deputy director for East Africa, says her organization is involved in various anti-poverty and humanitarian programs throughout Africa, including initiatives aimed at providing people with access to clean water, good agricultural practices and emergency relief.
But Kunze says “by far the largest” of CRS projects in Africa is its response to the continent’s HIV/AIDS pandemic in six of the countries worst affected.
“We have a very large range of activities in HIV, ranging from treatment to support for orphans, children who have been orphaned by HIV or otherwise made vulnerable because of HIV," she says. "We also have programs that support people who are HIV positive and need home-based care.”
According to Kunze, the main challenge confronting CRS in Africa with regard to HIV/AIDS is the “scale” of the disaster. The sheer numbers of HIV-infected Africans who need help, she says, means that her organization’s work is never done.
She credits African governments with becoming more involved in the battle to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.
“There have been some positive changes – certainly with regard to the various governments’ response to the crisis," Kunze says. "They’ve been very supportive and are responding appropriately. But I think the scale is something that is difficult for CRS, governments and everyone to cope with.”
In East Africa, CRS is active in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Sudan. Again, says Kunze, CRS workers are largely involved in combating HIV/AIDS and its many negative effects.
“[HIV/AIDS] is the largest portfolio in [East Africa] in terms of value and possibly in terms of the number of people reached. But we also have significant programs in water, peace building and emergency response," she says. "This part of the world is very much subject to emergencies, whether it’s civil conflict or environmental [catastrophe] caused by drought or floods.”
The CRS is also concerned with promoting good agriculture in the region.
“We have a wide range of agricultural activities, but generally we target the very poorest farmers. We have projects that aim to increase their production, as well as to link them to markets so that they can earn income from what they produce,” Kunze explains.
Her office is in Nairobi, which was the epicenter of violence that wracked Kenya after disputed elections in December. The country was tense for months, with clashes breaking out in various areas following opposition leader Raila Odinga’s decision to suspend power-sharing talks with President Mwai Kibaki.
However, the tension has eased since Kibaki recently named Odinga Prime Minister. But Kunze says there are still problems.
“Security is not adequate for [displaced] people to return [to their homes] in large numbers, safely," she says. "There [are] still at least 200,000 people living in displacement camps, with probably an equal number who are being accommodated by relatives or friends, people who are hosting them in their homes.”
Kunze adds that Catholic Relief Services continues to be “very active” in responding to the various emergencies in Kenya, ever since the violence first broke out about four months ago.
“Within the first few days we had teams from our staff here in Nairobi going out to work with our partner staff throughout the country to look at the situation, to understand what people needed," she says. "We received funding immediately so that we could begin responding to those needs. The initial response was to get things to people that they needed – basic plastic sheeting for shelter, blankets, water, basic supplies.”
Although there are millions of Catholics in Africa, Kunze doesn’t foresee them paying great attention to Pope Benedict’s visit to the United States.
“Catholics are indeed interested in the pope’s movements, but I’m not sure that [those in Africa] expect the visit of the pope to the United States to have any impact on their lives,” she says.