vatican insider

Catholic NGOs: “Cooperating means growing with others”

Complex problems are tackled with sturdier foundations: this is how one may sum up the challenge faced by cooperation and development workers today. A concept which has changed frequently over the years and has evolved to the point of becoming an essential instrument for managing relations between states and a cornerstone of foreign policy. But without an ethical perspective it risks dwindling: “cooperation is not just an economic factor, it means creating relationships between populations and organisations based on values such as solidarity and brotherhood, growing with one another,” says Nino Sergi, founder and president emeritus of Italian NGO Intersos. 

There seems to be an increasingly urgent need to enhance development policies, – not just economically – especially in Italy. While Italy exceeds the European average in terms of the number of people who believe cooperation is useful (90% against 89% according to a Eurobarometer survey published at the end of last year), much fewer people would be prepared to get involved directly (26% compared to the EU’s 33%). This approach also means people do not question the vision which underlies single projects and the transfer of resources. 

An organisation such as ours has two roles, says Fr. Dante Carraro, director of Doctors with Africa – Cuamm. On the one hand there is the stimulus, the “provocation” towards government institutions to do more. On the other hand, the attempt to root activities in civil society: it is a mistake to think that only the public institutions are the only source of support.” Precisely because these are widespread values that concern everyone, private donors as well as businesses, local entities and parishes should be involved: cooperation needs to be widespread in people’s daily lives.” 

Transforming cooperation awareness into concrete and collective mobilisation is a task that can find a basis in Catholic social doctrine. “Pope Francis’ messages give us a great deal of encouragement in ensuring that the values of brotherhood and shared responsibility translate into practice, into people showing a commitment that is not limited to fundraising,” says Ezio Elia, president of the LVIA NGO founded by Fr. Aldo Benevelli in the Italian city of Cuneo 50 years ago. 

Alessandro Bobba, member of the LVIA presidency, stressed how vital raising awareness is, even about projects that are being implemented thousands of kilometres away: “There is a great deal we can do in terms of international cooperation and guaranteeing water, health and food rights but it is never enough when it comes to reversing the causes of these injustices,” he notes. “We are therefore always aware of the importance of combining actions carried out in the southern hemisphere with awareness-raising initiatives in the north, otherwise we would risk all actions carried out in receiving countries being pointless.” 

But the contribution Christian NGOs can make to efficient cooperative action is not just an ideal. “One of the pillars of a relationship of trust with people and institutions is transparency and the independent – not self-referential – certification of the results obtained,” says Fr. Dante Carraro. “In this domain, we Catholics need to act as examples precisely because we draw our inspiration from the Gospel. We need to turn these values into a common legacy.” It is in conditions such as these, that is with professionalism and competence, that “the evangelical mission of proclaiming Christ’s message to the poor” becomes an energy which in more difficult contexts pushes us to go beyond,” Cuamm’s director clarifies. 

The stable and constant presence of many of these organisations on the ground is an added plus, also given that the field of cooperation is called to take on less of a local dimension. “Cooperation needs to take place in an international context and with infra-state policies, otherwise there is a risk of a project launched in one country being eclipsed by what is going on just over the border,” LVIA’s Ezio Elia clarifies, specifying however that this must provide a stimulus “for further integration of the different entities”. Concentrating on specific areas over a number of decades, Alessandro Bobba agrees, “means having an in-depth knowledge and close contacts with local entities or regional and municipal authorities, which often come up with some good initiatives: a system of relationships placed at the service of big financiers to implement concrete proposals.”