Fletcher in the News

A Force for Peace: Tufts Alum Sean Callahan, Head of Catholic Relief Services, Describes How Religion Aids Humanitarian Efforts

Religion can be a powerful convening force, bringing people together to combat poverty and other social ills, said Sean Callahan, A82, F88, A21P, in his keynote speech at the 2017 Religion, Law & Diplomacy Conference at the Fletcher School on November 3. “If we’re trying to change the world, we should harness this power” to direct people’s energy and talents, said Callahan, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, an international humanitarian agency with a budget that approaches $1 billion.

While he acknowledged that religious communities aren’t always “doing the right thing” on issues such as the rights of women and marginalized groups, Callahan said that religion cannot and should not be ignored in humanitarian, business, and diplomatic efforts around the globe. “There’s no way you can keep it out.”

In his own experience, he said, building trust has been essential to supporting change around the world, and being true to one’s values while respecting the human dignity and culture of others helps produce that trust. For example, when he first started working in Afghanistan, he was concerned that his agency’s in-country staff of 300, who were all local, might be targeted for violent attacks because the word “Catholic” is in the agency’s name. A staff member assured him that this would not be the case, saying “You’re people of the book”—a Muslim term for Christians and Jews. Being with a religious group, Callahan noted, sometimes helps convey that his motives are honorable and that he is “not here just for my own good, but for the common good.”

During the Ebola crisis in Guinea, religious leaders were able to assist in defusing tensions and help end the outbreak because they had the trust of local residents, Callahan said. He described how the government turned to religious communities for help, and they stepped in to provide safe and dignified burials, respecting local traditions but temporarily adjusting them to stop transmission of the virus. “If you want behavior change, what do you need? Trust,” he said.

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