The Miracle in Ethiopia
On October 23, 1984, a BBC report about a drought in Ethiopia aired on NBC’s nightly newscast. Images of thousands of people near death from starvation stunned America. Catholic Relief Services was already at work on the ground in Ethiopia, and our executives had tried to raise the alarm—but to little effect.
CRS’ 1984 Annual Report sums up what happened next: In the 2 months after the BBC report, CRS received 250,000 donations—170,000 more than the whole year of 1983.
“They ranged from a girl who gave up her visit to Disneyland to make a contribution, to Father Rich Maloney of Laurel, Maryland, who raised money by running and became known as the ‘Running Priest’ and sent in $27,000, to a first grader in Iowa who sawed off the top of his piggybank and sent the contents to CRS saying, ‘there are people who need my help right now,” our annual report recounts.
Paul Newman stopped by CRS headquarters in New York with a check for $250,000 in profits from his Newman’s Own products. All told, CRS donors gave over $50 million—or more than $100 million today.
Even Mike Wallace of CBS’ 60 Minutes headed to the scene. His on-air guide was Monsignor Robert Coll of CRS.
Monsignor Coll had assured his place in CRS history a decade before by initiating the Operation Rice Bowl program, originally a multifaith effort to combat world hunger, in his Allentown, Pennsylvania, diocese. In Ethiopia, maintaining his interests in ecumenism and world hunger, he was one of the principals behind the Church’s Drought Action Africa/Ethiopia effort—later renamed the Joint Relief Partnership, or JRP—which brought Catholics and Lutherans together with the Ethiopian Evangelical and Orthodox churches to respond to the crisis.
It was a huge undertaking. Where would the food come from? How would it get to Ethiopia? Where would it come in? How would it get to where it was needed? Who would pay for what? Offices needed to be equipped and staffed. Trucks had to be procured.
As Richard Solberg wrote in Miracle in Ethiopia: “The stakes were high. It was essential to act. Thousands of people were starving and for them even the prosaic procedural decisions of a committee might make the difference between life and death.”
The response was indeed a miracle, just as the title of Solberg’s book suggests. A trickle of aid in early 1985 turned into a flood by mid-year. Fleets of trucks carried food into the country. In 2 years, the JRP had provided food rations for some 2 million people, delivered to more than 100 distribution centers throughout Ethiopia. In the process, we learned many lessons that guide our actions to this day.
Another miracle happened: The JRP did not disappear. This hastily thrown together consortium evolved into the JEOP—Joint Emergency Operations Program. Working closely with the Ethiopian government, the JEOP helps monitor rainfall and other conditions to anticipate food shortages and delivers commodities supplied by the U.S. government to households that would otherwise go hungry.
Just as in 1984, today CRS is the lead agency for the JEOP while we continue our many agricultural programs that improve farmers’ yields—even with the unprecedented pressures of climate change. The result—conditions that shocked America in 1984 have not been seen since.
CRS and Ethical Consumerism: A Legacy With Global Reach
We are connected to millions of people through the things we consume.
Take a moment to check where your shirt was made: Indonesia, Bangladesh or perhaps Lesotho. What might life be like for the people who made your shirt? For more than 25 years, CRS has served as a resource for people to better understand how our purchasing habits affect our brothers and sisters around the world. We partner with ethical businesses that pay people a fair wage, protect the environment and invest in the communities where their products are sourced and made. These companies also donate to CRS projects that support vulnerable workers around the world.
But how we do this is not as important as why we do this. We do this work because vulnerable working people around the world need advocates like CRS and our Church partners. We know these people. They have a name and a family. Many are exploited, working in unsafe environments and even situations of forced labor.
Lesotho is the largest exporter of apparel to the United States in sub-Saharan Africa. Factories there employ over 40,000 workers and export 80% of their clothing to the United States.ii Lesotho’s 55 textile factories supply popular brands including Levi Strauss, Lee, Wrangler, The Children’s Place and Gap Inc. iii Most textile workers in Lesotho are young women between the ages of 18 to 24. Because Lesotho has the second largest HIV infection rate in the world, as many as 40% of garment workers are estimated to be HIV positive. iv CRS works with these young women, and helps them secure safe child care while they are working. CRS also teaches them life skills and financial empowerment.
The plight of a young seamstress in Lesotho is as real today as the T-shirt on my back. CRS Ethical Trade has been telling her story and the stories of countless other workers for more than 25 years. Below are excerpts from folks who have joined us on our journey.
“Each of us has an incredible amount of power in what we purchase and how we purchase. So, if you think about just the shirt on your back or the pants or socks you’re wearing, someone has sat down at a machine and created them—sometimes under duress or under very difficult conditions.”
Molly Hemstreet, owner of Opportunity Threads
“The fact is, ethical trade is a pro-life issue. We are all consumers. We all purchase goods, and every single thing we purchase is attached to a human being in some way. As Catholics, we have a responsibility to recognize that where we decide to spend our money affects lives.”
Sarah Kroger, Catholic recording artist
“When we make the choice to spend our hard-earned dollars on goods that are grown, made and traded fairly, ethically, and justly, we are living out our Eucharistic faith in another very important way—such choices preach and practice the dignity of every human being, and help us to participate in Christ’s work of justice for the poor and vulnerable.”
Audrey Assad, Catholic recording artist