CAREing for the world Featured

9:47am EDT August 20, 2004
The numbers are staggering.

Six million children under the age of five die every year from hunger. HIV/AIDS has created 14 million orphans, 92 percent of them in Africa.

Hundreds of millions of children have never been to school. Children die every day from preventable diseases such as malaria, measles and diarrhea. Millions of people around the world live in extreme poverty, earning a dollar a day or less.

For nearly 60 years, CARE has been working to make a difference to them. Today, with Peter D. Bell at its helm, the organization that became known for its CARE packages after World War II makes a difference in 72 countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

"One of the most gratifying aspects of working at CARE is the commitment to our vision and mission on the part of CARE staff all around the world," says Bell, president and CEO of the organization, which operates 10 regional offices in the United States and 38 country offices worldwide out of its Atlanta headquarters.

CARE was founded in 1945 when 22 American organizations came together to rush lifesaving CARE packages to survivors of World War II. In the two decades that followed, more than 100 million CARE packages reached people in need. At the time, the name stood for "Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe." Now, it means "Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere."

And with a different name has come a wider focus. Today, CARE's efforts are directed at long-term projects designed to achieve lasting victories over poverty and those recognizable emergency relief packages have been largely phased out. Such widespread reach, Bell says, has made his mission both more difficult and broader in nature.

"Our vision is to help create a world of hope, tolerance and social justice, where poverty has been overcome and everyone lives in dignity and security," he says. "That is an extremely ambitious goal but it is one with which I personally resonate, as does our staff. We energize one another, and in the end, our greatest source of inspiration is in the millions of people with whom we work in the poorest communities of the world."

Before joining CARE as president and CEO, Bell served as president of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York City, an organization which was founded by the daughter of the founder of Avon and which is engaged in issues of poverty within the United States. Bell, who was chairman of CARE while employed at the foundation, found himself devoting more and more time to the Atlanta organization.

"While I was serving as chairman, it never occurred to me that I would join the staff full time," he says. "But in the end, when I was given the opportunity, I really couldn't think of another way in which I could make a difference for good in the world."

Bell's responsibility begins -- but does not end -- with overseeing operations in 72 countries.

"It is complex, and one of our strengths is we are a highly decentralized organization," he says. "We give a lot of authority to our staff in the field around the world. Our headquarters operations provide overall direction and help to set standards for our work and provide some technical support.

"It is complex, but our capability to respond to the particular situations of each country and to be sensitive to the cultures of each of the countries in which we work is one of our core strengths."

In most cases, that's not too difficult; CARE workers typically operate within their home countries. Says Bell, "Fully 95 percent of the people on our (12,000 member) staff in the countries in which we operate are from those countries themselves. We put tremendous priority on training, development and advancement of those people. It may be one of the most valuable things we do."

 

Action-oriented goals

Last year, CARE spent more than $447 million on 771 poverty-fighting projects. The work directly benefited 45 million people and indirectly affected the lives of tens of millions throughout the world.

Among the initiatives:

 

* More than 12 million farmers in 45 countries were trained in agriculture and natural resource management.

 

* More than 313,000 students in 28 countries received basic education.

 

* Nearly 3 million people in 29 countries gained access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene education.

 

* More than 9.5 million children in 31 countries benefited from child health projects.

 

* Emergency food, shelter, water and health care reached more than 970,000 survivors of war and natural disasters.

 

* More than 3 million people in 31 countries received business training and gained access to financial services.

 

* More than 5.5 million people in 30 countries received information about stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS, and resources to mitigate its impact.

 

Despite the gains, Bell says there is a great amount of work that still needs to be accomplished.

"Our ultimate objective is to contribute to ending global poverty," he says. "Our most proximate objective, that is the year 2015, is to contribute toward cutting extreme poverty in half. I actually believe that we already have the knowledge, the technology and the wealth in the world to end extreme poverty today, if we only had the political will and the organization to do so."

That's quite an ambitious goal, he admits, as well as an indictment of the current state of world politics, but Bell maintains it can be done. As proof, he points to several Third World and developing countries where progress has been made, as well as other places where he thinks too little is being accomplished.

"Perhaps the single most helpful advance over recent years has been the progress in China and in India," he says. "By contrast, sub-Saharan Africa, particularly given the conflicts there and the HIV/AIDS pandemic, has, on the whole, moved more backward than forward. But there's a real prospect that we could end extreme poverty, not by tomorrow, but certainly in the next two generations."

Like any large organization, CARE uses the latest technology to manage its affairs.

"We really need to be state-of-the-art when it comes to human resources, technology, information systems and in finance, as well," Bell says. "Yet, at the same time, we do not have the same bottom line that businesses have. We do need to be as efficient and effective as the best corporations. We therefore have internal organizational ratios that are not so different from those of many corporations.

"Perhaps the one that is most important is that at least 90 percent of our total revenues be spent on programs."

Bell says maintaining that level of spending is not easy.

"It's a constant challenge," he says. "We pride ourselves on our efficiency. We also rely on tapping into the private sector and look to corporations like Motorola and Cisco to provide us both with their technology and with consultation. We've got a lot of help, pro bono, from the corporate world."

Without the private sector and corporate assistance, CARE would not be the same organization. Many companies donate not just money, but also their expertise and services.

"Delta (Airlines), from the time of our arrival in Atlanta nearly 11 years ago, has been a terrific partner," Bell says. "(They've) provided Sky Miles for our staff to travel to our various destinations, as well as supporting our work in projects in education in Central America and providing travel for high school students here in Atlanta to see our work first hand.

"UPS is another supportive partner, particularly in helping to provide us with resources for the delivery of goods and supplies in emergency hot spots around the world. They've been absolutely terrific. We've also received support in one form or another from Home Depot, SunTrust, Coca-Cola, as well as other corporations locally. And, of course, the Woodruff Foundation and the Turner Foundation."

 

Maintaining a legacy

When you compare the CARE of today with the organization founded nearly 60 years ago, you'll find both striking differences and similarities.

While the organization's mission no longer is to simply feed the hungry, it is still building bridges that transcend political, organizational and geographical boundaries.

The first CARE packages arrived in Le Havre, France, in 1946 -- 20,000 of them -- and were the result of building relationships among the U.S. Army, U.S. government, private nonprofits and corporations. That recognition of the need to develop and maintain partnerships remains strong, says Bell.

"We really prize the relationships we've built up with the media in Atlanta, including CNN and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, among others," he says. "We have also benefited tremendously from relationships with the CDC and with local universities."

Bell says a significant problem with working all over the world is that CARE's workers often find themselves doing their jobs in dangerous places.

"One of the distinguishing characteristics of CARE is that we take a long-term approach to the countries in which we work," he says. "And when a crisis occurs, we've usually been there long before the crisis, we're there during the crisis and we'll be there for years afterward.

"The short period in which these countries are in the headlines or on CNN is really just the beginning. It usually takes a decade for those crises to work their way out for ordinary people."

And with resentment of America growing worldwide, that's a real concern the organization must consider every day.

"The role that the United States has played in the world today, where we have, in fact, engaged pre-emptively in war in Iraq, has meant the United States is now often being criticized in large parts of the world," Bell says. "And sometimes, because CARE is based in the United States, its history is associated with the United States ... so we have to be conscious of that. It means we face issues of safety and security of our staff in some countries as we never have before.

"We are in Iraq. We have been there for the last 13 years. We are engaged in Afghanistan; we have more than 1,000 staff (members) in Afghanistan today and have been there since 1960, except for the decade of Soviet occupation. We're also working in Sudan, and have been there for more than 25 years.

"We are also working today in Darfur in Western Sudan, given the humanitarian crisis there, perhaps at this moment, the most acute humanitarian crisis in the world. Some 300,000 people's lives are at risk unless the violence can be brought to heel and unless organizations like CARE can gain access to those who are suffering."

By its staff members' very presence in these hot spots, CARE makes a political statement. But, Bell says, it does so without taking sides.

"For many years, we made a point of talking about ourselves as though CARE were apolitical or strictly nonpolitical," he says. "We've come to realize that there is no way of escaping the fact that, in a certain sense, we are political; that is, we are engaged in the distribution of resources. We make choices about where we work, with whom we work, how we work, and we have become increasingly conscious of the need, if we're doing our job well, to try to influence policy in ways that will support the struggle of poor people to improve their lives.

"That having been said, we are adamant about not being partisan in any way. We do not take sides with particular political factions or political parties. We do not campaign for candidates for political office, either in this country or other countries in which we work. In that sense, we are not political."

Instead, Bell says, CARE is simply focused on its mission and vision -- that one day, not long into the future, world poverty will be eradicated forever. And, if successful, Bell will be out of a job.

HOW TO REACH: CARE, (800) 521-CARE or www.care.org