Helpful Texts

Link zum Mandala von Bruder Klaus
Alexander Foitzik / Josef Sayer {*}

"Not Separate from the Poor"

An Interview with the Chief Executive of Misereor


From: Herder-Korrespondenz, 11/2007, P. 557-561
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    When almost fifty years ago the Episcopal Relief Work Misereor was founded, that was pioneering work. What the strict approach to help people to help themselves actually means, and how the partners in the churches of the southern continents have moulded profile and work of Misereor, about that we talked with Misereor's Chief Executive Josef Sayer. Alexander Foitzik asked the questions.


HK: Mr. Sayer, last year Misereor put the sum of 147 million Euros at the disposal of its partners in the south, by which 1419 projects in more than 80 countries could be financed. When Misereor almost fifty years ago was founded, nobody could know what one day would become out of the Episcopal Relief Work entrusted with the task to fight poverty. Were at that time path-breaking decisions taken?

Sayer: The beginning was extremely difficult because there were no models. Nobody knew how to provide development aid; Misereor had to do pioneering work. It is all the more remarkable that Cardinal Joseph Frings and Gottfried Dossing, the first head of Misereor summarized the task of the new relief work in the formula 'helping people to help themselves'. The church on the spot, the church in the southern continents was to be used for the fight against hunger and disease in the world. The theological foundation of that early co-operation of partners was laid in the Communio Ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council: All local churches are responsible for each other; each plays its part for a succeeding life. The other major decision at the cradle of Misereor was that assistance was only to be given because of poverty. So it was decided by Cardinal Frings and the Bishops' Conference. Hence not Catholic money only for Catholics, help only for Christians. The poverty criterion was to be the only criterion and is it up to this day. With its way to fight poverty Misereor has become a model for other church and non-church institutions of development aid in Germany, Europe and North America.

HK: Would in that phase of foundation a different profile of Misereor have been conceivable?

Sayer: There was of course also the idea of a merely charitable approach, and in so far it is very remarkable that Frings and Dossing did just not bank on hunger help in the sense of buying grain, renting ships and distributing grain to the hungry. HK: The foundation of Misereor fifty years ago also stands for the awakening of global responsibility in the German Church and in the German society as a whole ... Sayer: Of course political considerations played a role, since after the Second World War it was also about Germany's re-integration into the international community, overcoming its isolation -, with an honest look at Germany's guilt and the suffering it had inflicted on the world during the Third Reich.



Some of the solidarity of the former war enemies the Germans despite that war guilt experienced in the post-war period, was now to be passed on to others. That solidarity was not only limited to CARE-Parcels especially from the United States. Germany also got structural help for the recovery, for instance through the Marshall Plan. And the extremely generous debt reduction of Germany then made I would today wish with all my heart for the debt reduction of poor countries in the southern continents.


"Misereor has not been merely academically thought out in Germany and then realized

HK: Has compared with the pioneering phase the work of Misereor today become easier or more complicated?

Sayer: On the one hand the work has become easier, because we can today for instance fall back on grown structures of the development cooperation. Besides we also have a theological backing by the Second Vatican Council and the various General Assemblies of the Latin American Bishops' Conferences: Medellin, Puebla, Santo Domingo and recently Aparecida. The final documents just of those General Assemblies are for us a very crucial help. They have given us above all the option for the poor, which after all has become the foundation of Misereor's work. But work has become easier for us also because our partners have in the meantime become structured, organized and joined to a reliable partner network from the local area up to the national level. Dioceses, Bishops' Conferences and continental associations, but also non-church partners have linked with each other - especially in Asia where the church is in a minority-situation. Meanwhile an exchange is possible in a true spirit of partnership. Through Misereor the individual donors, the German dioceses, and the bishops' conferences work together with the well organized local churches and with non-governmental organizations. But the church's development cooperation has become more difficult because of the complicated combinations in a globalized world.

HK: In what way has Misereor too changed in profile, structure, and method of working together with its partners?

Sayer: As Misereor finds itself today it has not been merely academically thought out in Germany and then realized. Whatever our partners in the Southern continents in the past few years achieved flowed into our work: e.g. their experiences in agriculture, in health care or in the human rights work in the argument with the dictatorships in Latin America, their experiences during the liberation wars in Africa, or even in working with the poor in the conurbations of Asia. For us as a church in Germany and our considerations about and approaches to development it is also of crucial importance to learn and to see with what problems our partners are confronted or to get their analyses of the causes of poverty.

HK: What does that strict orientation towards your partners mean today in practice for the project work of Misereor?

Sayer: We have for instance just in view of the General Assembly of the Latin American bishops in Aparecida supported preparatory conferences to promote democracy in Latin America, a meeting of young politicians, whose experiences could so contribute to the General Assembly. Or, since according to experience women are by far too little represented at the General Assemblies, the CELAM-Committee proposed a women's conference of its own, which we have promoted; gender justice was anyway the Misereor's topic in 2006. And after (the) all the problems of globalization had been poorly treated in the preparatory document of Aparecida, we proposed at a meeting with the CELAM-Committee a special conference on that issue: in Rome, with high-ranking experts from around the world, the head of CELAM and several other cardinals and bishops from Latin America. The discussions and the document drafted there then flowed into the General Conference and its final document. After the General Assembly we now promote the implementation of the in Aparecida developed Pastoral Social Action in Latin America.


"We must co-operate in a spirit of partnership in North and South"

HK: In the Jubilee Year 2008 you deliberately want to start Misereor's annual Lent-Action not as usual in a diocese in Germany but quite decidedly on a southern continent, i.e. exactly in South Africa ...

Sayer: Without our partners in Africa, Asia, Oceania and Latin America Misereor cannot be Misereor. That's what we want to express. If we want to make visible God's mercy, i.e. his justice in love in today's world with its gulf between rich and poor, then we must co-operate in a spirit of partnership in North and South. Representatives of the association of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC) and CELAM are invited to Johannesburg.



Besides the promotion of the South-South dialogue is an important focus for Misereor. The representatives of the southern continents will meet for a two-day conference and the divine service will be broadcasted from Soweto to Germany.

HK: Partnership is in contexts of development policy all in all a nearly in an inflationary way used vogue word. What is the characteristic of Misereor's orientation towards partners?

Sayer: In addition to the already mentioned the training of the partners in Misereor projects is an important element. It is not enough to say, in this or that country there is a Bishop's Conference with which we can co-operate. Bishops, church groups and NGOs have to undergo training so that they, e.g. according to Joseph Cardijn's method 'seeing, judging and acting' practised also by the General Assemblies of Medellín and Puebla, analyze their situation and can so realize the answers to their problems in the light of faith. What, e.g. our partners perform today in Africa is not at all any longer comparable with the beginnings of Misereor. For that we convey e.g. experiences of our Latin American partners to the African ones and vice versa. And we in the North had to learn that development aid has to do with the structural conditions, which in turn are crucially determined by the industrialized nations. Development cooperation is endangered in its effectiveness e.g. when it takes place in a non-functioning or corrupt state. That's why "Good governance" has become an important area of development cooperation for Misereor.

HK: By what concrete projects can the partners in the respective local churches in a supportive way get qualified?

Sayer: In an eighteen-months-dialogue with the Bishops' Conference in Ghana we have e.g. developed a project to promote democracy and good governance. This is done through political education on the basis of the Church's social teaching for employees, officials and volunteers at all levels of the church, starting with the parishes over deaneries and dioceses up to the national level. The so trained people are to be enabled to keep a sharp eye on the political leaders in their villages, municipalities, provinces as well as in the state government and e.g. to exercise a certain monitoring function on the respective budget. There will be no participatory democracy without that participation of the civil society. Corrupt elites will not orientate towards the common good. For everything that we together get on the way in development projects in public health service, fight against poverty, agriculture or education can only really succeed if the ruling people fulfil their responsibility. That's why we in 2000 and 2004 promoted a project of the Bishops' Conference in Ghana to train election workers. Similarly it was in the Congo, a 'collapsing state' after the dictatorship and without electoral experience since the sixties. Supported by Misereor the Bishops' Conference trained about 50.000 election workers through the forty seven dioceses. Without the Catholic Church, which is the only nation-wide functioning structure yet, also in 2005 the referendum on the newly drafted constitution could not have been held. The definition of electoral districts for the parliamentary elections took place by an institution of the church, the election official was a priest. The church has the confidence of the people, and we support it in its effort for constitutionality and security for the people.


"The Church's development cooperation mostly reaches the remotest corners of a country"

HK: Last year Misereor got for its projects 86 million Euros through the "Catholic Central Agency for Development Aid". The government always emphasizes how much the church development aid, specifically the work of Misereor is estimated ...

Sayer: We get not only money from the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. We are e.g. through working groups in close - but also critical - exchange with the BMZ about the situation in individual countries and the orientation of development cooperation. In exactly the same way there are discussions with several ministries and many parliamentarians. In the awarding body of the Catholic Central Office, in which the funds on trust assigned to us by the state, sit representatives of the parties. We regularly talk about the church title and the means of BMZ with the financial experts of the Bundestag.

HK: Was that so from the beginning? In the pathos of that time Cardinal Frings made Misereor take to heart to have a serious talk with the rulers ...

Sayer: Due to the excellent relationship between the then-Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Cardinal Frings Misereor had from the beginning a good chance to contribute its views and positions to politics. When the BMZ was constituted in 1962 the work was formalized by the foundation of the Catholic Central Office. The Central Office is the basis for the intensive dialogue between Misereor, the BMZ and parliamentarians. In this steady dialogue we can also file certain things from the perspective of our partners especially the question essential for us whether the development aid is really orientated towards fighting poverty.



HK: Why then is the church development work so highly estimated on the part of the state?

Sayer: Particularly because the church development cooperation mostly reaches the remotest corners of a country, even where e.g. war prevails or states are disintegrating, and where the state development aid just no longer gets. For in crisis situations the church does not simply go away. It is with the people. And here the principle of partnership proves itself; for we are working with local forces. The church also accompanies the poor while they are fleeing. So I could recently among other things explain to the Chancellor in a private discussion before her journey to Africa what the church has done in Liberia. Without the church the process of peace and re-democratization in Liberia would not have gone so positively.


"To look what we can learn from the local churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America

HK: In the context of the G8-Summit in Heiligendamm in the summer of this year you have just complained about a criticism of the effectiveness of development aid in general that has become fashionable and especially denounced the disproportion between rising military expenditures and the resources for development aid ...

Sayer: What worries and annoys me is the so-called war on terror. By the definition in the Bush administration it has led to a completely distorted view of the world. The security of the rich North is suddenly superior to everything else. But the security of the poor world-wide was and is far more threatened by hunger, injustice, bad governance, corruption or exploitation of raw materials that is of no use for the poor population. When e.g. in West Africa every eighth mother dies in childbed or during pregnancy, that is acute threat to security in the highest degree. Against it it is possible to do something with relatively few and simple means. The whole discourse on security in connection with development policy has by the terror debate been steered to the wrong direction. If the terribly high resources devoured by this "war on terror" and above all by the indescribable war in Iraq would be invested in development cooperation it would bring the world a lot more security. To say it with St Paul, it is essential to overcome evil by good. If the poor peoples could see how deliberately the United States and other rich countries do what they can to see that the Millennium Development Goals are realized, the swamp of terror would be dried up and the security of the north and at the same time the poor would be improved.

HK: When the founding of Misereor stood for the reawakening of global responsibility in the German local church, what today about that responsibility in your view?

Sayer: Compared with other countries there is in Germany's Catholic Church and population a very high willingness to donate and to commit oneself. Many people let themselves move by disasters, famine, disease and war in Africa, Asia or Latin America, but also by the injustice in the world. I am very grateful for this and it gives me courage. For the donors it is important that we report back to them what their donations effect. We do that by our reports, information and educational materials, and by many events with partners from the southern continents, who e.g. during the Lent Action in Germany bring themselves up for discussion. It is true though there is a worry that recently moves me very much: As a result of the past and present financial crisis in the West German dioceses the focus of our attention is too much directed to ourselves.

HK: When parishes, e.g. in order to save must close their kindergartens, can then charity not begin at home for them?

Sayer: I understand that very much. Misereor does not want to play the misery of some off against that of others. But I see a danger for the intensity of the awareness for the universal church. And here above all the officials and the bishops are asked. For we must take into consideration that in the years 1958, 1959 or 1960 the situation was certainly incomparably more difficult in the various dioceses, parishes and families. But how much did the parishes, officials and bishops nonetheless engage for the poor around the world! Furthermore, by this back-bending on our own problems we see much too little what we can learn from the local churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America for our own pastoral restructuring processes. I have reminded about that also in discussions with bishops. When here several parishes are merged and huge units are created that make a genuine individual pastoral care difficult for pastors and will produce some frustration with the full-time pastoral workers - why then do we not look e.g. to Latin America. How has the church there handled the problems of large parishes? I myself was priest with three fellow priests in a parish of 500.000 Catholics and know what I am talking about. There one has established a sub-structure with the help of basic communities, so that the proximity of the church to the needs of the individual was upheld and pastoral care in the true sense of the word was still possible.



Or why do our bishops e.g. not stand up for viri probati? There is nothing that is theologically in their way. And so the church could not only stay in the village, i.e. in manageable parishes and provide a home to the faithful. At the same time one would also help the local churches in Latin America and Africa.


"Our church cannot be church without the local churches in Latin America, Asia or Africa"

HK: Does it belong to the tasks of the world-wide operating church institutions to feed back the experiences of their partners to the German local church?

Sayer: Of course! In January next year e.g. Misereor will together with Adveniat organize a conference where we want jointly to consider what message the General Assembly of Aparecida has for the pastoral care and pastoral social actions to our society. We thus always understood also our Misereor Lenten Campaign, respectively the order to a Lenten pastoral given Misereor for its further work by Cardinal Frings in his foundation speech.

HK: What is the meaning of fasting in that sense? Today fasting is also en vogue again with the secular contemporary.

Sayer: Fasting does not simply mean to lose in weight. It is rather about stopping the normal everyday hustle and bustle for a moment, looking where I am, where we are and what gives meaning to my life and is its centre. It means to reflect on a better quality of life for everybody, on fairer relationships - in the individual and social, political and economic sphere, in North and South. Is our life and economy style a lasting one? When we consider such questions not only individually but in groups we will note how that enriches our lives and how we give each other support.

HK: The various German church institutions working world-wide have started a comprehensive process of reform and clarification - a response to the in many respects increasingly difficult conditions: from the decreasing yield of donations up to the sharper competition with non-church organizations. What is the goal of that at first for two years planned process "On the Future of Working in Germany for the Universal Church?"

Sayer: We as institutions are together concerned about the Catholics' awareness of the universal church and how the church in Germany can in practice realise its responsibility for the universal church. Together with those in the dioceses who are responsible for the universal church and the Commission of the Bishops' Conference on questions of the universal church, we are looking for ways and methods to strengthen that awareness in the parishes and dioceses. On that occasion we look how effects of synenergy can be produced and how the cooperation with the dioceses can be improved. As episcopal institutions we see ourselves as providers of services for the dioceses with regard to the responsibility for the universal church.

HK: Is that service function of the institutions working for the universal church still sufficiently seen on the various levels of the church in Germany?

Sayer: Here I see deficits and it is urgently required that in the training of theologians and in the church advanced training the dimension of the universal church is systematically strengthened. The new generation that is to take over the responsibility in the church should develop a finer sensorium for what it means to be church in the One World. Here the bishops are challenged in their special responsibility for the universal church. Our respective local church cannot be church without the local churches in Latin America, Asia or Africa. We mutually bear - founded in the Communio-Ecclesiology - responsibility for each other. That must indeed more intensively be brought into the training of full-time workers and through them into the parishes.


"To make visible God's mercy also in our time"

HK: How then can the goal of that process regarding the universal church be formulated?

Sayer: That the individual parish, every Christian in North and South recognizes what Jesus' life and message means for the present time: that he died for everybody and that today his suffering face becomes in a special way visible in the faces of the poor and excluded. For he became man among the poor, and that is why I cannot separate from the poor. We must learn anew to see and recognize how rewarding it is that we live in this communion with him and with each other. Such a living community will make the world worthier of human beings and more worth living, ranging from the personal up to the international sphere. That means in concrete terms e.g. to train and to support in Africa volunteers who serve persons suffering from AIDS, wash them, feed them, take care that they get their tablets three times a day. And it means also structurally on the national and international level to fight that scourge of mankind which hits above all the poor. Analogously to this case, that applies also to other areas of development cooperation. So I help that God's mercy becomes visible also in our time, and I myself win from it support and sense. To do good does good itself.


    {*} Josef Sayer (born in 1941) has been Chief Executive and Chairman of the Episcopal relief work Misereor since 1997. From 1981 to 1988 the in the Archdiocese of Cuzco incardinated priest lived and worked in Peru. From 1988 to 1998 he was professor of pastoral Theology at the Theological Faculty of the University of Fribourg.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'