CRS in the 1980s

In Ethiopia, the cries of the hungry were heard and prayers were answered. In Bolivia, unemployed workers received the gifts of job training and a second chance.

A Voice for the Hungry

"The face of hunger is so haunting. You never get used to it."

Cyclical drought and war have caused recurring famine in Ethiopia for centuries. The world witnessed this reality in 1984, when the people of Ethiopia were gripped by the worst famine in 100 years.

"The face of hunger is so haunting," said Monsignor Robert Coll, who helped bring the famine to national attention during a November 1984 60 Minutes interview with CBS correspondent Mike Wallace. "You never get used to it."

Speaking from a refugee center where he was directing relief work for CRS, Monsignor Coll urged Wallace to carry a message to President Ronald Reagan, asking him to guarantee food for people who were starving.

Monsignor Coll had long been committed to ending hunger. A decade before, he had created CRS Rice Bowl, a new Lenten tradition of fasting and almsgiving, to bring attention to world hunger.

Catholics from across the United States responded with generosity and compassion, donating more than $50 million in private contributions for Ethiopia and other famine in Africa.

"In Ethiopia, we are committed to reaching 2 million people with 225,000 tons of food a year, valued at $122.5 million," said Lawrence Pezzullo, then CRS executive director.

To accomplish this, CRS partnered with 27 agencies, including the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus and the Lutheran World Federation. CRS distributed food at 115 feeding centers and managed logistics to expand feeding operations into Eritrea and other regions affected by famine.

Perhaps the most well-known donor to CRS efforts in Ethiopia was Paul Newman, who in January 1985 contributed $250,000 from his newly formed food company, Newman's Own, which continues to donate all profits to charity. This was the largest corporate donation CRS received for their response to the famine.

"This is our expression of concern for a problem that is not going to go away overnight," Newman said. The donation was used for agriculture, water and reforestation projects.

Small Loans Invest in Big Dreams

How did five inexperienced women provide job training and—even more unlikely— convince banks to loan money to unemployed people for new business ventures?

In 1986, five women in La Paz, Bolivia, did something that their mothers, sisters, daughters or friends had never done before. They took business and financial matters into their own hands—for the good of their community.

Spurred by the plight of out-of-work miners forced to relocate in search of jobs, the women formed the Center for Promotion of Economic Initiatives.

Many of their neighbors were skeptical. How could these inexperienced women, without the help of a man, provide job training and—even more unlikely—convince banks to loan money to unemployed people for new business ventures?

With hard work and innovation, these women did more than succeed. They helped improve the lives of urban and rural Bolivians by extending credit and providing job training. Grants from Catholic Relief Services and the Inter-American Development Bank helped make it all possible.

The first step was training. The center published workbooks on accounting and business management and required participants to complete courses in both subjects.

The second step was trickier. Why would a bank loan money to someone who was a poor credit risk? After business training was completed, the center provided participants with a letter to present to the bank, verifying eligibility for an account and a line of credit. This method provided participants with loans—and created a positive working experience. Both participants and the banks learned from each other and established trust.

Loans in hand, the entrepreneurs were able to purchase equipment and supplies, hire local people, use local materials and produce goods to sell. Thanks to this initiative, bakers, knitters, rope makers, candle makers and mechanics were able to thrive and improve the economy of their communities.

Today, CRS microfinance programs emphasize savings and self-governance. Learn how CRS Savings and Internal Lending Communities have reached 1 million members.

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