A member of Caritas International, the worldwide network of Catholic humanitarian agencies, CRS provides relief in emergency situations and helps people in the developing world break the cycle of poverty through community-based, sustainable development initiatives as well as Peacebuilding. Assistance is based solely on need, not race, creed or nationality. Catholic Relief Services is headquartered in the Posner Building in Baltimore, Maryland, while operating numerous field offices on five continents. CRS has approximately 5,000 employees around the world. The agency is governed by a Board of Directors consisting of 13 clergy (most of them bishops) and 10 lay people.
Initially founded as the War Relief Services, the agency's original purpose was to aid the refugees of war-torn Europe. A confluence of events in the mid 1950s — the end of colonial rule in many countries, the continuing support of the American Catholic community and the availability of food and financial resources from the U.S. Government — helped CRS expand operations. Its name was officially changed to Catholic Relief Services in 1955, and over the next 10 years it opened 25 country programs in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. CRS's executive director during this period (1947–1976) was Bishop Edward E. Swanstrom. One of the key relief workers in those early years was Father Fabian Flynn, CP, who directed their efforts in Germany, Austria, and Hungary.
As the agency grew, its programming focus widened, adapting to meet the needs of the post-World War II Roman Catholic Church and the circumstances of the people it encountered. In the 1970s and 1980s, programs that began as simple distributions of food, clothing and medicines to the poor evolved toward socio-economic development. By the late 1980s, health care, nutrition education, micro enterprise and agriculture had become major focuses of CRS programming.
In the mid-1990s, CRS went through a significant institutional transformation. In 1993, CRS officials embarked on a strategic planning effort to clarify the mission and identity of the agency. Soon after, the 1994 massacre in Rwanda – in which more than 800,000 people were killed – led CRS staff to reevaluate how they implemented their relief and development programs, particularly in places experiencing or at high risk of ethnic conflict. After a period of institutional reflection, CRS embraced a vision of global solidarity and incorporated a justice-centered focus into all of its programming, using Catholic social teaching as a guide.
All programming is evaluated according to a set of social justice criteria called the Justice Lens. In terms of programming, CRS now evaluates not just whether its interventions are effective and sustainable, but whether they might have a negative impact on social or economic relationships in a community.
CRS programming includes:
promoting human development by responding to major emergencies, fighting disease and poverty and nurturing peaceful and just societies
emergency relief in the wake of disasters and civil conflict
long-term development programming in the areas of agriculture, water, community health, education, health, HIV/AIDS, micro finance and peace building.
Serving Catholics in the United States as they live their faith in solidarity with their brothers and sisters around the world
Overseas work is done in partnership with local church agencies, other faith-based partners, non-governmental organizations and local governments. CRS emphasizes the empowerment of partners and beneficiaries in programming decisions. Program examples include:
Agriculture — CRS’ immediate goal is to improve family well-being through agro-economic development and environmental stewardship. The long-term goal is to strengthen the capacity of local communities to take control of their own development.
Emergency Response — Natural and human-caused disasters disproportionately affect the lives of the poor. CRS works to ensure that disaster-affected populations are at least able to meet their basic needs and live a life with dignity. The agency works directly with affected communities and local partners to help restore and strengthen their pre-disaster capacities.
HIV/AIDS — CRS promotes community-based programs that help those infected, address the underlying causes of AIDS and reduce the spread of HIV. CRS is the lead agency in a consortium that is expanding the delivery of antiretroviral treatments to people infected with HIV in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. Funding for this venture comes from the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. In addition to this, programming addresses AIDS-related stigma, poverty and the special vulnerabilities and burdens faced by women. Included in CRS’ HIV/AIDS work is home-based care for individuals and families living with HIV/AIDS; support to orphans and vulnerable children affected by AIDS; behavior change and life skills education; voluntary counseling and testing; and projects that help increase beneficiaries’ livelihoods.
Peacebuilding — The agency's commitment to global solidarity led CRS to adopt peacebuilding as an agency-wide priority. Peacebuilding in this context is defined as the long-term project of building peaceful, stable communities and societies. CRS assembled a team of regional advisors and a headquarters-based technical staff to work with partners, and peacebuilding projects were started in dozens of countries. Each summer, CRS conducts training programs for its staff and overseas partners at the Mindanao Peace Institute in the Philippines and at University of Notre Dame's Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. An increasing number of bishops from developing countries have attended these sessions.
In the United States
The agency has also made engaging the U.S. Catholic population a priority. CRS is seeking to help Catholics more actively live their faith and build global solidarity. Program examples include:
CRS University - Provides direction and resources to connect college and university communities to the work and mission of CRS around the world, which is to promote human development and global solidarity.
CRS Rice Bowl — Established in 1977, by 2017 nearly 12 million parishioners, students and teachers participate in CRS’ Lenten program, which emphasizes prayer, fasting, learning and giving. Materials offer daily prayers, recipes for simple meals and stories that teach about life in the developing world. And the bowl itself, a symbol of both hunger and hope, is used to collect funds for those in need. Seventy-five percent of funds raised support development projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America - such as airdropping and distributing food, providing access to clean water and providing non-food items such as buckets, tarps and mosquito nets; the remaining 25 percent stays in the diocese for local poverty and hunger alleviation projects.
Global Solidarity Partnerships — Tailored to an individual diocese or faith community, the initiative helps U.S. Catholics to connect with the poor overseas through education and awareness activities, reciprocal visits, shared faith and prayer experiences, as well as financial support for specific locally appropriate development programs.
Catholic Relief Services serves as a leading member of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a Washington D.C.-based coalition of over 400 major companies and NGOs that advocates for increased funding of American diplomatic and development efforts abroad.
2004 Indian Ocean earthquake
As part of the massive, worldwide humanitarian response to the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, Catholic Relief Services donated $190 million to fund a five-year relief and reconstruction effort to help 600,000 victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. CRS provided shelter kits to build tents and temporary shelters, as well as transitional, sturdier shelters meant to last for a longer time. Some of these efforts have now been codified and made a part of the Sphere Project, an international set of standards to be used by organizations providing emergency assistance.
2010 Haiti earthquake
Catholic Relief Services has served in Haiti since 1954. Over 50 years of experience allowed CRS to respond to the earthquake immediately and has positioned the agency to be a key development actor as the country rebuilds. The agency works through a broad network of partners, including the Catholic Church in Haiti. These relief efforts are in conjunction with the humanitarian response by other non-governmental organizations.
CRS is fostering local leadership and helping communities develop the knowledge, understanding and skills to build local capacity so that Haitians drive their own recovery. CRS has committed to a $200 million, 5-year earthquake recovery program in partnership with more than 200 local organizations, focusing on community revitalization and shelter, health, water and sanitation, and protection.
Highlights of the recovery programming include the $22.5 million reconstruction of St. Francois de Sales Hospital in Port-au-Prince, in partnership with the Catholic Health Association of the United States, turning the facility into a 200-bed teaching hospital; the Catholic Education Initiative, focused on building a vibrant Catholic school system throughout Haiti; and the development of innovative approaches for transforming camps into permanent housing communities, beginning with the construction of 125 housing units at Camp Carradeux.
Since the civil war in Syria began in March, 2011, CRS has been working with their church partners in Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt to provide urgent medical assistance, hygiene and living supplies, counseling and support for the nearly 1 million Syrian refugees who are children. Most now live in unfamiliar and uncomfortable surroundings, unable to attend local schools and traumatized by atrocities they have witnessed. To give them structure and a sense of normalcy, CRS is supporting formal and informal education, tutoring, recreational activities and trauma counseling.
Crisis in Central African Republic
Though this crisis in the Central African Republic has received little media attention in the United States, an estimated 930,000 people—20 percent of the population—have fled their homes since rebels ousted the president in March 2013. Millions of people are in urgent need of food, shelter and assistance. Although a new president took office in August, many embassies, including the United States, remained closed. Catholic Relief Services and Caritas Mbaiki, Bossangoa, and Bouar are working in the country to provide emergency food, shelter, and agricultural support, as well as supporting the work of Christian and Muslim religious leaders to promote conflict resolution and peace building.
CRS is a member of the Interfaith Partnership for the Consolidation of Peace (CIPP) in Central African Republic, a joint project launched in 2016 to support the process of national reconciliation and peace building. The CIPP brings together CRS, the Interfaith Peace Platform, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Aegis Trust, Islamic Relief and World Vision International in promoting social cohesion at various levels, supporting economic development and assisting those who have been affected by violence in the country.
2013 Typhoon Haiyan
Participating in the humanitarian response to Typhoon Haiyan, in the first 3 months after the typhoon CRS collaborated with communities and Caritas partners to provide 40,000 families–200,000 people–with emergency shelter, clean water and sanitation. We are now focusing on long-term recovery and are committed to a 5-year plan that will help 500,000 people. CRS has spent $23.7 million on their response as of September 30, 2014. During this first year of relief efforts (2013-2014), CRS rebuilt over 3,000 homes, had 5,000 under construction, and rebuilt 2,800 household latrines. CRS also created a Livelihood Recovery Program to help all those who lost their jobs because of the disaster. The program offers locals the choose of five programs and provides grants for training. The programs are: intercropping, livestock production, aquaculture, small and medium-sized enterprises, skills development, and communal nursery.
Villanova University: On May 18, 2008, the Rev. Peter Donahue, President of Villanova, conferred the degree of Doctor of Humanities, Honoris Causa on Ken Hackett for his work as President of Catholic Relief Services. Mr. Hackett was also selected to give the commencement address to the Class of 2008.
University of Notre Dame: On May 20, 2007, CRS President Ken Hackett received an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree and was among nine people recognized by Notre Dame in the fields of national and international politics, education, medicine, the arts, humanitarian work and the Catholic Church.
2007 Aurora Award: CRS earned a Gold Award from the Independent Film and Video Competition for our "Water for Life" documentary video, which explores why more than 1 billion people do not have adequate access to clean water.
2006 Pakistan Star of Sacrifice: On September 21, 2006, CRS was awarded the prestigious Sitara-i-Eisaar (Star of Sacrifice) honoring the agency's comprehensive and timely response to the devastating October 8, 2005 Pakistan earthquake. CRS was among the first agencies to respond, providing emergency supplies, shelter, education, water and sanitation materials, and livelihood support.
2005 Caritas Flame of Hope Award: Catholic Charities saluted CRS' work around the world in bringing the very core of Christianity to millions suffering from natural disasters as well as human cruelty and injustice.
Knight Commander of Saint Gregory the Great: On October 31, 2004, CRS president Ken Hackett received the Knight Commander of Saint Gregory the Great medal, one of the highest papal honors. The ceremony took place in the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore, Maryland, and recognized Hackett's outstanding service to the papacy and the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Millennium Challenge Corporation: On July 13, 2004, following the recommendation of Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, President George W. Bush nominated CRS President Ken Hackett to sit on the Millennium Challenge Corporation Board of Directors. Hackett was unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate. The Millennium Challenge Corporation is charged with improving the accountability and impact of foreign assistance.
In April 2008, theologian Germain Grisez, a critic of Pope Francis, noted that in 2007, Catholic Relief Services had established policy on its HIV related projects which included the provision of "full and accurate information" on condoms. CRS's position paper states that "CRS-supported projects should provide full and accurate, age-appropriate information about HIV prevention strategies including abstinence, fidelity and condoms in all of its HIV projects. However, these projects cannot purchase, distribute or promote condoms with funds obtained from CRS." The policy paper also said that "All information provided about the use of condoms must be medically and scientifically accurate and include the public health benefits and failure rates of condom use."
In the same article, Grisez said that CRS included a flipchart in its educational materials which promoted condom use. A cover-letter from CRS's Chief of Party, Jared M. Hoffman claims that "The comprehensive and accurate information on prevention contained in this material is consistent with CRS policy, and we are confident that the flipchart will be useful in all settings, requiring only minor adaptations to ensure cultural competence.” However, even though Hoffman claims that the flipchart is consistent with CRS policy, he also notes that "“CRS has chosen not to include the CRS or AIDSRelief logo on the flipchart, due to the potential sensitivity of the information contained in these materials among Church partners.” Not only does the flipchart promote condom use as a means of preventing the transmission of HIV (in contradiction with Catholic moral teaching), but it also promotes artificial birth control, also in conflict with Catholic moral teaching. The flipchart says on page 132, "If the client and partner do not want to have a baby, explain that you can give them information about family planning choices."
On August 14, Red State also said that CRS is a dues-paying member and on the executive committee of MEDiCAM, an organization that pushes contraception and abortion in Cambodia. In fact, a CRS regional director was a member of the planning committee for MEDiCAM when it created a policy paper for 2011 indicating the intention to train abortion-providers.
Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act noted that CRS implemented a condom-promoting program called Shuga. CRS responded to this allegation as well by confirming that "The SAIDIA FY2011 annual report to CDC correctly notes that the video was used as part of the abstinence and be faithful (AB) activities in FY2011, but stopped at the end of quarter three when CRS learned the materials were being used and were not appropriate for use within our programming." However, CRS's claims to have protested against the use of Shuga are again contradicted by documents bearing CRS's letterhead which were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. According to these FOIA documents, CRS ended the Shuga program, not because it was morally objectionable, but because it was no longer implementing non-evidence based behavioral interventions. Shuga was discontinued along with at least seven other programs. In fact, in April 2012, CRS submitted to PEPFAR its continuation grant application for year five of the SAIDIA project. On page 342 of the FOIA documents is a very clear statement from CRS about how it is considering both Shuga I and II for year five of the SAIDIA project. CRS said in its grant application to PEPFAR, “SAIDIA is considering Shuga I and II to help address the gap particularly in ages 17-19 years. Shuga I and II addresses issues of multiple concurrent partnership, peer pressure, alcohol and substance use and status knowledge among youth.” Not only does this contradict CRS's claim that they “informed CDC that SAIDIA would not use this video within our abstinence and fidelity work,” but it calls into question its last line about continually reviewing and adjusting programs to ensure that they are in line with Catholic teaching.
2011-2014 American Institute of Philanthropy: Catholic Relief Services has been named a top-rated charity and given the rating of A or higher by AIP for efficiently using the majority of funds toward programming versus fundraising.
2011-2014 Better Business Bureau/Wise Giving Alliance: CRS was found to meet all 20 Standards for Charity Accountability, which take into account an organization's governance, financial accountability, truthfulness and transparency. The September 2011 audit found that only 3% of the CRS's expenses were for administration, leaving 4% for fundraising and 93% for program costs.
November 2011 Chronicle of Philanthropy: CRS was ranked 51st out of 400 charities in Chronicle of Philanthropy's Annual Top 400 Philanthropy List.