Vision, not gender, on Caritas leader's side

By 
  • March 5, 2008

OTTAWA - Caritas Internationalis Secretary General Lesley-Anne Knight sees her election last June as a “historical moment” for the worldwide confederation of Catholic development agencies.

Not only was Knight the first woman to be elected to the high-profile Vatican-based position, but she was the first female candidate.

In an interview in Ottawa Feb. 18, Knight said the General Assembly’s vote represented a “coming of age” for Caritas Internationalis because it reflects the importance of the key involvement of lay women, especially in Latin America, Africa and Asia, in the confederation’s work.

Now living in Rome with her husband, Knight, 52, often finds herself the only woman at meetings heavily represented by cardinals and archbishops. Unfazed, the mother of two grown children exudes quiet confidence from her more than 25 years experience in international development work.

“I don’t think that I am without scrutiny,” she said. “However, I think it’s important that I don’t think at every turn that I’m doing this as a woman. I think I’m doing the job as a professional.”

She acknowledged “there will always be loud voices against women” in leadership roles, but they are a shrinking minority. In last June’s secret ballot of the 162 representatives, only 17 did not support her. She sees her win due to her proposed vision, not her gender.

Knight wants Caritas to hone a global voice for complex world problems in an increasingly globalized world. She expects the confederation to take global positions on pressing problems such as the devastating effects of climate change on the poor, on migration, human trafficking and HIV/AIDS.

Aid effectiveness is another focus. Knight was in Ottawa with Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace executive director Michael Casey and international programs director Gilio Brunelli to attend meetings at the Canadian International Development Agency. Development and Peace is part of the Caritas confederation.

“Getting aid right is a big issue,” she said, noting the importance of civil society, especially churches, in aid effectiveness. This is something often overlooked by governments and international relief agencies, she said.

She pointed out how dependent aid in Africa is on the Catholic Church’s infrastructure of hospitals, educational institutions, parish-run clinics and agencies helping AIDS orphans. Depending on the country, the Catholic Church provides 30 to 70 per cent of the work in these crucial areas. Other Christian agencies and churches pick up the lion’s share of the rest.

When it comes to AIDS orphans, the Catholic Church and other faith-based civil society groups are providing 25-30 per cent of the care, but they only receive about two-to-three per cent of the total United Nations’ aid assistance, she said.

“That’s a crying shame,” she said, noting that if aid were channelled through civil society groups they could make huge progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals in the areas of health, education, women’s health and infant mortality. The Catholic Church’s stress on AIDS prevention based on behavioural change has a higher success rate than other programs, she said. The church-based programs are more integrated with family and community life and need to do a better job of publicizing their success stories.

Knight gained her grassroots experience in the 1980s, working for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and OXFAM in Central America during the 1980s, when civil war wracked several countries and created hundreds of thousands of refugees. She went on to serve with Caritas England and Wales, also known as CAFOD.

Born a British citizen in 1956 in what was then Rhodesia, Knight witnessed first hand the struggle against white colonial rule. It made her aware of the contrast between her relatively privileged position and those around her who were “hugely underprivileged and underdeveloped.”

“I think that left me with a sense of wanting to make an option in my life for those who either had no voice or who were struggling simply to ensure that they had their basic human rights respected,” she said.

She attended the University of Cape Town in South Africa, during the early 1970s, at the height of the struggle against apartheid.

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