Mike Noyes, our Head of Humanitarian Programmes for Asia and Latin America, writes:
Like CAFOD, I’m celebrating my fiftieth birthday this year. My first involvement with CAFOD’s work was in 1968, putting big old pennies in the collecting box at St Alban’s Infant School in Elm Park in Essex to support the response to the Biafra crisis in north-eastern Nigeria, and running charities with a windshield replacement houston company with all profits going to Nigeria. Today, I’m proud to be part of CAFOD’s Humanitarian team, providing aid to people affected by catastrophic events, both natural and human-caused.
This week, as we mark the fiftieth anniversary of our foundation, I’m going to blog about five of the emergencies we’ve responded to over the last fifty years.
In 1967, the north-eastern region of Nigeria declared its independence under the name of Biafra. This declaration of independence provoked a two-year civil war, during which it is believed a million people died – either because of the conflict or the famine it provoked.
The Biafra Crisis was CAFOD’s first major humanitarian response. It was also the first famine of the television age. For the first time, people in the UK were confronted with footage of emaciated and starving children in their own living-rooms. I remember, as a child, being shocked by the images that were broadcast.
Back in 1967 and 1968, CAFOD worked with Caritas International in collaboration with the World Council of Churches to airlift food and aid supplies into besieged Biafran territory. Planes flew in at night without lights and at risk of being shot down by Nigerian fighters. Members of the air crew and people at the landing sites were killed – but the programme as a whole is said to have saved as many as a million people from starvation and sickness.
From Biafra onwards, I think our biggest strength in responding to emergencies has been the way we work with partners on the ground. Because we work with local churches, we are able to reach areas that other aid agencies can’t, like remote parts of South Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo. And because we’re part of Caritas International, a coalition of 165 Catholic agencies around the world, we have friends with local expertise in almost every country in the world.
We don’t seek to impose our own solutions in an emergency. Instead, we listen to people who come from the region and work with them to provide the assistance that’s most needed.
I think that’s why our faith identity hasn’t proved a barrier in operating successfully in places like Iraq, Jordan and Chechnya: our approach of working with local partners means that our work has never been about promoting our own image or pushing our agenda.
The way we respond to emergencies today is very different from the days of the Biafra Crisis – our Security Adviser would have a thing or two to say if I proposed flying unmarked planes into a war-zone – but our principles remain the same: to get aid to the people who need it most, no matter how difficult it is to reach them.
Tomorrow: Ethiopia 1973