A not-for-profit organisation that you probably have vaguely heard of, Caritas International is a conglomeration of over 160 Catholic organisations which focuses on relief work and social service spanning multiple areas. One of the largest charitable organisations in the world and surpassed only by the International Red Cross in terms of its network, it works in over 200 countries in every habitable continent and is affiliated to the Catholic Church, for which it works as the de facto humanitarian arm.

Loosely translated as ‘charity and love’, Caritas operates through parishes at a local level while also being organised at a national and international level. The national organisations work autonomously with their bishops and together form the Caritas Internationalis confederation under the Catholic Church. Globally, its mission emphasises humanitarian relief work and human development, especially for the poor and the underprivileged, irrespective of their personal faiths.

Caritas International
Although the Catholic Church has a history of humanitarian work, Caritas in its present form came about in 1951 at its first international conference, where 13 of its founding member countries were present. The name Caritas Internationalis was officially adopted in 1954, with the Church anointing it as its official voice ‘in relation to its teachings in the area of charity work’. Caritas International has a rich history of working through some of the worst crises in human history including the Rwandan genocide, Haiti earthquake, the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, and the Cambodian genocide. It is also at the forefront of advocating for climate justice and debt relief for the Global South countries, fighting human trafficking, and protection for domestic workers, among others. Healthcare, especially HIV-AIDs, is another primary focus area and Caritas International remains one of the largest healthcare providers across the globe. In 2014, it spent the highest amount on advocacy and representation (918,000 euros), followed by communication and humanitarian coordination.

Caritas has more than 160 members, which can mean either a national-level charitable organisation affiliated to the Church or a group of organisations that work together with the Church’s support. Every four years, representatives of these member organisations meet in Vatican City to elect the Representative Council (which is the governing body), the president, the vice presidents, the secretary general and treasurer (although the Pope has direct influence on the election of the president and vice presidents) as well as to approve the strategic framework and budget.

Caritas abides by management standards covering laws and ethical codes, governance and organisation, finance and accountability, and stakeholder involvement. It follows canon law (those laid down by the papacy – that is, Church leadership) as well as the existing laws in the country in which it operates. Aside from this, a code of ethics and a code of conduct are mandatory. Caritas also strives to follow modern management principles of governance, strategy, risk management, and financial planning. Through its tenet of stakeholder involvement, transparency and information disclosure are covered.

Caritas India
Formally recognised as the national organisation for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), which is the apex body for Indian Catholics, Caritas India was formed in 1962 and has been working since then with the underprivileged, stressing on poverty alleviation. It is widely known for its extensive work and expertise in relief and rehabilitation in the aftermath of natural and manmade disasters and has been involved in almost every major disaster relief work in India in the past five decades.

Caritas India’s other programmes are in the areas of natural resources management, community health, sustainable development, promoting the rights of indigenous communities, and gender and child rights. These are usually run in partnership with the government and over 350 NGOs, coordinated through its 5 regional offices and a network of 250,000 volunteers. It has over 200 operating partners including over 170 Diocesan social service societies. Since its inception, it has supported over 20,000 projects, spending millions of rupees in the process.

Caritas India’s vision is ‘formation of a just and sustaining social order by upholding values of love, equality and peace’, and this it strives to achieve through empowering local communities and mobilising people at the grassroots level for their own sustainable development. Structurally, it is organised like any other midsized company with adequate hierarchy, with six zonal managers looking after operations and separate teams for advocacy and communications. The governing body looks after project selection and finances and in turn reports to the general body. Its policies are well articulated and customised for each of its core focus areas.

A key difference vis-à-vis traditional NGOs is that Caritas India works with numerous partner organisations and invests its resources in building up their capacities and also provides technical and organisational assistance for the same. Another important thing to note is its presence in all major cities and across most states in India, including the oft-neglected northeastern region. This last-mile connectivity is unparalleled for any other NGO in India. It helps that it can call on its huge number of volunteers from the CBCI. Even then, the speed and efficiency with which it operates, especially during times of major disaster, such as last year’s Tamil Nadu floods when it reached out to 24,000 victims in a short period of time, is quite impressive.

Programmes and themes
Caritas India’s programmes are broadly classified into advocacy, human rights, empowerment, and sustainability. Advocacy refers to engaging formal institutions such as national and local governments as well as public spaces and forums to highlight specific issues and generating support for suitable solutions. This stems from the Church’s intrinsic aim to be an advocate for basic human dignity for all. Human rights here is about taking a rights-based approach to development in which people’s participation is key. An example here is the ‘9 is mine’ campaign through which children belonging to marginalised groups interface with powerful authorities to demand 9 per cent of the GDP for the education and upliftment of children. Another form that this can take is training – like the one organised by Caritas in partnership with National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) which trained about 130 human rights activists last year.

Empowerment is the process through which people take control of their own lives whilst increasing their social and political capital. Caritas’ work on Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, or PESA, in Chhattisgarh and Poor Areas Civil Societies (PACS) programme in seven Indian states are examples. Sustainability for Caritas is mostly around natural resource management for the rural poor and marginalised sections. The strategy behind these programmes is threefold: inclusion, participation, and animation (awakening of the targeted individuals).

In 2014–15 alone, Caritas was involved in over 450 development projects reaching out to nearly 9 lakh people, spending well over Rs 33 crores to achieve these humanitarian objectives.

Thematically, Caritas’ initiatives revolve around these seven focal points:

•  Health: Although Caritas has been working on HIV and AIDS projects since 2005 (a direct mandate of the Church), it was only in 2008 that health was officially adopted as one its core themes. Here, the idea is to provide additional support to existing public health services instead of duplicating existing efforts. Some of its noteworthy projects are community-based rehabilitation of families living with HIV/AIDS in Delhi, a PPP model project on HIV and AIDS prevention among truckers and allied population in Gujarat (in partnership with three other groups), Global Fund for HIV AIDS, TB and Malaria (GFATM) initiated in the northeast, and training of ASHA (accredited social health activists) trainers and ASHA facilitators under National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) in Bihar. Caritas’ support comes in the form of training, media activities, blood donation camps, supplementary health-service provision, and information dispersal. HIV being a pet project of the Church, Caritas India regularly holds capacity-building workshops for its staff and partners, so as to enable them to incorporate it into their own programmes.

• Natural resource management: Caritas’ NRM efforts are based on ‘food security, sustainable agriculture and climate justice with focus on organic and natural farming, and protection, conservation and regeneration of land, water and biomass’. The goal is to facilitate community-led action on preserving natural resources that are the lifelines of marginalised groups in this country, especially for STs and other indigenous people. Caritas has also established a Centre for Environmental Studies in Social Sector (CESSS) in Amravati district of Maharashtra; it works on integrated and sustainable NRM models that are implemented and replicated across different communities. In 2014, Caritas worked with nearly 90,000 families on their multiple NRM projects such as Jeevika, a livelihood programme in Madhya Pradesh, and the Farm North East project wherein smallholder farmers practise seasonal cropping techniques to increase livelihood options.

• Disaster management: Caritas has often been at the forefront of disaster relief and rehabilitation work, spending five billion rupees across 14 major emergencies between 2005 and 2015. Aside from actual relief efforts in the affected areas, it also advocates for the rights of the impacted people and works for their access to the deserved humanitarian assistance. After the 2013 Uttarakhand floods, Caritas launched a Rs 50 million project to assist 2,000 affected families. The two-year project has been implemented in 49 villages across the state to help families with their livelihoods. The selected beneficiaries were mostly those from poor backgrounds.

Disaster prevention is another area that Caritas works on and here its network across the country helps in disseminating ways to prevent, mitigate and prepare for future scenarios. For example, in the Uttarakhand case mentioned above, it collaborated with Appropriate Technology India (AT India) to study and assess causes of natural disaster in the state, with emphasis on biodiversity conservation and economic development. Another example is the decennial remembrance of the Indian Ocean tsunami which looked at the long-term impact through a study commissioned by Caritas and examined a roadmap going forward. Last year, it launched an ecosystem-based Disaster Risk Reduction (‎DRR) programme to be run by Caritas for two years. As part of this initiative, seven NGO partners in North India were engaged to promote climate-resilient practices in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. >

•  Livelihood: With special emphasis on women and youth, Caritas has dedicated its efforts towards skill development and employment as well as self- employment/rural entrepreneurship, with programmes for informal sector workers as well. Caritas has also partnered with the government for MGNREGA implementation across multiple states.

• Peace: Caritas’ peace-building initiatives are centred on the troubled regions of Jammu and Kashmir, the northeast, Gujarat and Orissa. This they strive to do by facilitating dialogues between warring communities and involving the young people as well as the elderly. Caritas also organises meetings between young people from India and Pakistan, believing that honest and free communication is the key to letting go of the legacies of the past and embracing a peaceful future.

• Women empowerment: Through community interventions, Caritas applies its rights-based approach to examine the root causes of the marginalisation of women and accordingly designs its projects for maximum impact. Starting with its first women desk established at its head office in 1984 which organised multiple women groups focusing on their issues, to supporting self-help groups (SHGs) and mahila mandals and encouraging women to take part in local government, this is a key target segment for this organisation.

• Anti-human trafficking: One of Caritas’ main areas of operation, this includes capacity building of local partners, community-awareness campaigns, policy advocacy, and education and legal awareness of domestic workers. Caritas was instrumental in the formation of the All-India Network to End Human Trafficking (AINEHT) and supports other anti-trafficking networks such as the Asian Movement of Women Religious against Human Trafficking (AMRAT) and Christian Organisations against Trafficking in Human Beings (COATNET).

Aside from this, Caritas reaches out to more than 30,000 disabled people and their families through their partners and has over 130 community-based projects that touch upon health, education, livelihood and empowerment. On child rights, its interventions are centred on right to education and child labour. It also works with 5,000 rag-picker families of Kolkata and Delhi to help them get access to basic facilities that they are entitled to, such as ration cards and pensions. Multiple interventions have also been implemented for small farmers such as a programme on adaptive farming in Madhya Pradesh which has been going on since 2011, on environment such as the Pope4Planet four-year campaign, and on climate change adaptation programmes in vulnerable areas such as the Sundarbans. Caritas also supports micro projects that are designed to help small communities – in 2014, 64 such projects were funded at a cost of nearly Rs 1.5 crore in total.

The majority of Caritas’ funding comes through foreign contributions (over 70 percent in 2014) and the rest are through Indian donors, although the latter is slowly accounting for a larger chunk year on year. Nearly 80 per cent of this is spent on development programmes, with the rest being taken up by relief work and environment projects. In February of this year, Caritas sanctioned 56 projects worth Rs 10.89 crore during its project selection committee meeting. Out of these projects, 47 are new and 9 are continuation of running projects.

A future uncertain?
A troublesome development in the past one year has been the NGO crackdown orchestrated by the current BJP government, which evidently considers any foreign-funded NGO as a potential troublemaker and a destabilising force. Last year, Caritas had been placed on a list of organisations needing prior government approval to receive or distribute funds in India. This was ostensibly done as retaliation for its funding of groups that protested against the Kudankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu as well as other alleged illicit political activities. This move wasn’t exactly a surprise, though, as well-known organisations such as Greenpeace India and Ford Foundation also found themselves at the receiving end of the government’s disapproval, even as 10,000 NGOs have had their registrations cancelled. On its part, Caritas was confident about its compliance with all existing laws including the infamous FCRA. In this context, the prime minister’s latest remarks on foreign NGOs conspiring to destabilise the government aren’t exactly encouraging, even if the statements themselves border on paranoia. This, coupled with reports that a government-commissioned audit has found irregularities in NGO-run projects in tribal areas and hence the tribal affairs ministry has decided against awarding any new projects to NGOs in the education and health sectors, does not bode well for any NGO. In particular, those that are identified as affiliated to the Church (or any minority group, for that matter), like Caritas, need to be extra careful of the current environment in the country which doesn’t seem to favour even remotely dissenting views.

The spectre of religious conversion that has been used and abused by right-wing groups specifically targets Christian organisations, especially those that work with local indigenous groups. It requires no great deduction skills to connect the work of NGOs who champion the rights of marginalised groups (especially those that are on the receiving end of land and natural resources appropriation by the state and large corporates) and the ongoing witch-hunt by the government. The 2013 Companies Act ruling on CSR specifically lists out what constitutes as CSR, and ‘anti development’ causes are obviously not on the menu. In any case, companies are hardly expected to funnel their money into fighting for social-justice causes such as workers’ or adivasis’ rights. CSR for them is treating the mild symptoms, not the removal of the disease. What you have in the end is suppression of dissenting voices of people at the bottom rung of our society, all in the name of increased real GDP growth.

One way to counter this nefarious campaign to de-legitimise foreign-funded NGOs is to mobilise public support through traditional as well as more modern means. There’s much good work that Caritas does and yet, one will be hard-pressed to find people (outside the NGO sphere) who know about it. While choosing to be under the radar and avoid publicity may have made sense earlier, in current-day India it doesn’t seem to be a viable option. It is necessary that Caritas disseminates information regarding the tremendous amount of work that it has done for years in every way possible, starting with a more robust social media strategy – its Twitter and Facebook accounts are operational but seem to be an afterthought at best. More coverage by mainstream media on its multiple projects (especially its efforts during major disasters) will surely help in educating the common person that NGOs like Caritas are required in a country where public services are broken and corruption is rife. For instance, its work during the 2104 J&K floods, when it helped nearly 4,500 families during the immediate aftermath and rebuilt homes, or when it reached out to 7,000 families in the 2014 Orissa floods are hardly known. There is a visibility guideline issued by the organisation but it harps on the rules to be followed by its implementing partners on the branding of Caritas. Unless there is a concerted attempt to win the PR battle, Caritas may well end up being reduced to a much-maligned Christian propaganda outlet hell-bent on converting unsuspecting tribals through foreign funds.

Unless there is a concerted attempt to win the PR battle, Caritas may well end up being reduced to a much-maligned Christian propaganda outlet hell-bent on converting unsuspecting tribals through foreign funds. While choosing to be under the radar and avoid publicity may have made sense earlier, in current-day India it doesn’t seem to be a viable option. It is necessary that Caritas disseminates information regarding the tremendous amount of work that it has done for years in every way possible, starting with a more robust social media strategy – its Twitter and Facebook accounts are operational but seem to be an afterthought at best. More coverage by mainstream media on its multiple projects (especially its efforts during major disasters) will surely help in educating the common person that NGOs like Caritas are required in a country where public services are broken and corruption is rife.

CauseBecause view
One legitimate criticism, and improvement area, of Caritas is that information regarding its myriad activities is limited and not easily available. While its annual reports give some sense of its initiatives and funding, compared to other more savvy NGOs, the information is lacking in detail. Similar opinions have been voiced in the past by NGO insiders, claiming that Caritas is opaque in its functioning. Whether true or not, the fact remains that transparency and disclosure are absolutely key to outsiders understanding the work and mission of any NGO and also helps pre-emptively ward off prying questions and allegations.

While it is encouraging to see a diverse group of members comprising the newly formed advisory committee and offering honest and constructive feedback to the Caritas management, there is enough scope for the upper echelons of its management body to diversify as well, perhaps starting with a woman representative. Some of the feedback given by the advisory committee, starting with integration of its multiple themes, makes complete sense. Like any large organisation, Caritas can benefit from some consolidation among its multiple projects, if not in terms of operation then at least in their goals and resource allocations. Deep-impact, long-term and result-oriented initiatives will work much better than hundreds of small-scale, disparate and standalone projects – a familiar trope in the NGO world but one that still rings undeniably true. The future looks slightly grim for many NGOs, but if history is a reliable indicator, one would still bet on Caritas India riding it through.