From flooding in Pakistan to earthquakes in Haiti and upheaval in the Middle East, there isn’t much in the evening news to fill folks with hope for the future. But Steve Hollingworth isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and get to work on a solution. As COO of CARE, an international humanitarian organization, Hollingworth organizes CARE’s fight against poverty in 87 countries—tackling everything from microfinance initiatives to HIV/AIDS education. The Elgin, Illinois native visited CARE’s Chicago office yesterday and shared his insights from more than 26 years with CARE.
What sparked your interest in humanitarian work?
As an undergrad at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, I studied abroad in South America—it was the first time I’d flown in a plane or gone south of Champagne. It had a big impact on me. I was shocked to experience abject poverty, but also as a younger person I was kind of angry that I wasn’t as knowledgeable or involved as I wanted to be. My mom said when I came back from South America, she knew I had changed because I didn’t want to take showers—I didn’t want to waste water. At that point, I became very interested in issues of global poverty.
What is CARE’s strategy for organizing relief efforts?
There are three things that guide CARE’s work. The first is to address human condition problems, such as health, education, income and asset formation. In the life of a very poor person there’s a deficit of some area, and everything we do has to address that.
The second critical thing is addressing the underlying causes of poverty—basically the social or political constraints that very marginalized groups face. People are poor because of social, cultural and political reasons, as well as economic or educational ones. So we really have to address a combination of concrete problems and do so in ways that give marginalized groups an opportunity for leadership and personal growth.
The third area is influencing the enabling environment, or making sure governments, institutions and financial markets are supporting the needs of the poor. We have a very active constituency and advocacy group here in the US to lobby Congress and businesses about those issues, and we also work closely with a wide range of partners in the developing world on government and business action to make sure the voice of the poor is heard.
How does CARE operate in challenging environments, such as the Middle East?
Community support is our biggest guarantor of safety when we’re working in unstable environments where there’s a lot of political unrest and the threat of tourism. It also gives us much greater reach and the ability to sustain the work for longer. If the communities value what we bring in, they become our biggest advocates.
Of CARE’s 11,000 employees, 98 percent are nationals of the countries that we work in, and they understand the cultural contexts very well. No one in CARE travels with arms or security—it’s really the goodwill of communities that allows us to continue to operate safely.
How can young people get involved in humanitarian efforts?
There are tremendous opportunities right now for folks to get involved. I would encourage people to try study abroad. That really changed my worldview. Many universities also offer courses that deal with international development, international affairs and public policy. Peace Corps is another major opportunity—it’s probably the most common way folks get their foot in the door at CARE. Another approach is to do a little crystal ball gazing about frontier issues, such as the impacts of climate change, water issues and social enterprise (addressing problems of the poor in a sustainable way). If people are thinking about future trends in the world, they can develop a skill set to address them.
Other resources include:
Ideaslist.org – a directory of volunteer opportunities
The Rotary Foundation– a foundation that offers scholarships to study abroad
One Campaign– grassroots advocacy and campaigning organization
Care Action Network– an advocacy group of CARE supporters
Young Professionals for CARE– group of young people dedicated to supporting CARE’s mission
What are the biggest risks to global health?
There are two areas of poor performance, and they both don’t get a lot of attention. Maternal mortality is a particularly difficult problem to solve. It’s basically an acute problem on top of a chronic one. Mothers need good medical care at the time of delivery, and then there’s the long-term problem of women’s status in the community–often they have little control over the timing and number of childbirths. Maternal mortality in many countries is 60 to 80 times greater than it is here.
The other one is sanitation. There’s a relationship between poor sanitation and malnutrition. Poor nutritional status is really at the core of any health issue—particularly children’s health. They’re more vulnerable to any kind of infectious disease because of poor nutrition and adding poor sanitation just compounds the issue and leads to high levels of child death.
Any final words?
Foreign aid is insignificant in the US budget—much less than 1 percent. But oftentimes it’s the first target in budget reduction. The upside of it is huge, and it’s a bad signal if we disengage from solving the problem of world poverty.
There has been a lot of soul searching in the US about the responsible posture we should take as a country toward humanitarian aid. And I sense there’s growing sentiment that we have to be more engaged in world issues, such as climate change and poverty. Our national values tell us to be engaged.