AFJN: Making Government Responsive

by Michael Sean Winters

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As mentioned yesterday, last week I went to a briefing at the Africa Faith & Justice Network (AFJN) after the group took two trips to Africa last autumn. In that post, I shared what they told us about their work fighting land-grabs. Today, I will share what they told us about their efforts to promote good and responsive governance.

Last year was AFJN’s 30th anniversary and such occasions invite self-examination. The group, which brings together different religious orders that serve in Africa to lobby for policies that will aid the continent, recognized that their advocacy in Washington would be enhanced if they did more advocacy work in Africa itself. And, as they looked at the problems that beset the continent, one theme emerged as both common and dominant: bad governance. Corruption, government inefficiency, shady deals with extractive industries, all have their root cause in bad governance.

There is a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” quality to the realization that AFJN needed to engage in advocacy in Africa too. In 2012, AFJN’s director, Fr. Aniedi Okure, O.P., had spoken about the vital role of Catholic Social Teaching in addressing the need for better governance to a meeting of African bishops. The bishops are powerful people in their respective countries but they had not really realized the influence that was proportionate to that power. The meeting was just after the U.S. elections and Fr. Aniedi told the bishops that Obama and Romney had spent over a billion dollars trying to turn people out to vote, but that millions of Africans come to Mass every Sunday. But, they needed a sustained introduction to Catholic Social Teaching which does not provide cookie-cutter answers to the many and varied problems that afflict Africa, but it does provide a framework for solving those problems.

Many bishops were enthusiastic about Fr. Aniedi’s presentation, and the next year the continent-wide bishops’ conference, SECAM, issued a statement on good governance. But, more was needed than a statement. Among the bishops who had been very enthusiastic about emphasizing Catholic Social teaching was Archbishop Charles Palmer Buckle of Accra. So, with grants from the Raskob Foundation and Be the Change Foundation, and some assistance from the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at CUA, Fr. Aniedi planned a three-day conference this past autumn in Accra, a kind of pilot program. He was joined by another AFJN staffer, Fr. Barthelemy Bazemo.

AFJN reached out to parish leaders, Catholic journalists, lawyers and other professionals to attend. Twice as many people signed up for the conference as expected, so AFJN had to scurry to find a place that could hold them all. It turns out that in Africa you can’t just go to the local Holiday Inn where room rates are twice what you would pay for a similar room in the U.S. They rented a Presbyterian conference and retreat center in Abokobi, on the outskirts of Accra. Archbishop Palmer-Buckle gave the opening address, focusing on the biblical roots of advocacy, as seen in Luke 4 when Jesus announces his ministry by quoting from Isaiah. Fr. Aniedi spoke about “Africa in global perspective.” But, they wanted to do more than just give lectures. “The objective was not just to give a good workshop,” Fr. Aniedi explained. “We wanted to give participants the tools to confront the problems the continent faces.”

But, first, Fr. Aniedi decided it was important to address the stakes involved, so the second part of the conference was what he called the “Scare the Hell out of them” section. Many people were not aware that the infamous Somali pirates were originally fisherman trying to prevent Western companies from dumping toxic waste in their fishing waters. Others did not know that a Dutch company, Travigura, had dumped nuclear waste in Ivory Coast – neither did the local inhabitants, until the women became infertile and people started developing skin diseases. And, right there in Ghana, some people did not know that mining companies were injecting cyanide into the ground to help extract the gold, even though it then seeped into the drinking water.

Appropriately scared, Fr. Aniedi and Fr. Barthelemy explained some of the “how-to’s” of advocacy. They asked the conference participants to identify a company involved in raping the land and pinpoint what the company does. Then, the participants were asked “who benefits” from the company’s activities? What effect is there on families, neighbors, the country and future generations? The conference broke into small group discussions to identify who is responsible for addressing an identified problem, what resources are available to help their advocacy, and what are the chances of success? Each group was asked to identify two actionable items for advocacy. Fr. Aniedi gave an example. He saw some children walking along unpaved roads and alongside the road there were bags of sand. Someone had received a contract to pave the road, and bought the sand, but there was still no road. Was this a local problem or did it involve the national government? What resources could the advocates marshal to get the road built?

At the end of the conference, each group set a goal to tackle a concrete project in their area. They small groups will reconvene on December 15 to report on any progress they have made and exchange ideas about the possibilities and the problems they encountered. And, before the conference broke up, the participants formed the first African chapter of AFJN.

Listening to Fr. Aniedi discuss the conference, his enthusiasm was evident. He is hoping to have similar conferences throughout the continent in the years ahead. I could not help wishing that similar conferences would be planned here in the United States! We, too, could use some crash courses in the fundamentals of Catholic Social Teaching.

As mentioned yesterday, AFJN is one of many small-scale Catholic groups that operate on a shoe string budget and achieve some amazing things. If you are thinking of making some end-of-year donations, you should consider going to their website and making a donation – after making an end-of-year donation to NCR, of course. But, one of the reasons AFJN can make such a large difference with such small resources is because Catholicism is an organized religion. There are networks of diocese and parishes throughout the world that groups like AFJN can tap into. It is common to hear people deride “organized religion” but its opposite is “disorganized religion.” I will take the organization, and all the good that it makes possible for groups like AFJN.



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