"I think it is an exciting moment for Africa and we have to work to channel all potentials"
Pete Henriot, a Jesuit from the U.S. and specialized in Constitutional Law, started his political activism while studying at the University of Chicago, during the Martin Luther King movement. His stay in Colombia and his work in several social centres ended when he arrived in Zambia in 1998 to work in a rural programme and finally as director of the JCTR, Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection, that le leaves behind in September after a hard and important work.
Q.- Could you explain what are those social centres?
A.- The social centers work mainly on four issues: research, education to raise awareness, advocacy for the defense of human rights and consultancy, since many institutions like the UN ask us for studies on different issues. We are not a think tank, we are an act tank, but actions based on thinking. For example those regarding debt ( we have a big campaign to cancel external debt) or those related to the revision of the Constitution.
Q.-Which are your lines of work?
A.- On one hand we have the DAT Programme that checks the macroeconomics of Zambia. It is one of Africa´s richest countries in resources: agriculture, water, land, minerals, tourism, even peace. We have been able to live in peace for 45 years, 72 different tribes, we're the envy of our neighbours in Congo or Sudan. We are rich, but according to the UN Poverty Index, we are 166 out of 177regading life expectancy. This is our challenge: how to put our potentials to use.
We have to take into account external influences, such as debt, aid and trade. For example we have done a lot of research on debt since Zambia became debtor when one of our main exporting products,copper, lowered its price and one the main imported products, fuel, raised its price in the 70s.
We then started to borrow from the IMF or the World Bank that later imposed adjustment programmes: privatize industry, open borders to trade, cut the budget for education and health care for all... So in the 90s we were under a very deep and difficult restructure that lowered life expectancy, children topped going to school... this is why our centre became one of the strongest defendants of debt cancellation.
Q.- You are also very well known for your research on the food basket, what is it exactly about?
A.- It is done every month in Lusaka since 1996 and now in 11 cities and in 6 rural areas. It is very important since it is a very simple report: we go to the market and we take down the product´s prices , we work out the average price and we publish it. Not only food but also products such as soap, etc. When we revise it, we can see the raise in prices.
There are other issues which are not monthly such as education or transport and we compare them with the salaries of teachers or nurses which do not go up in the same proportion. It has become an important tool to negotiate salaries, Parliament uses it to study how to establish minimum salary and this is why it is becoming very popular.
We also do it in rural areas, where people grow their own products, they do not go to the supermarket. So we started to measure the calories they consumed and which they should consume and we saw many nourishment deficiencies and malnutrition. Zambia is the tenth country in malnutrition.
The food basket opens door to other studies. For example, Zambia is a country very much affected by AIDS, it is probably the fifth in the world regarding infected people. Very few receive the necessary medicines and a good nourishment to face it.
On the other hand, research opens other debates such as gender issue since many in charge of the food basket are women. Also agriculture is questioned: if the land is good for a certain type of crop, if it is well used etc. We also succeeded through research to encourage organic agriculture and not the products genetically changed since they would have a negative impact.
Q.- How can you reach everyone and not only the population of the main cities?
A.- We have what we call the far reaching programme where we work with local people, teachers, trade unions etc., in the Southern and Eastern provinces, in order to identify their needs and also so that we may travel to their regions to raise awareness and train them. For example, when the government prepares the budget, we supervise if it is carried out or not, what it has promised for each area and we explain to the people how much money was allocated for them and we ask them if they are receiving it in the schools and hospitals etc. It is a programme not only for the capital for as many areas as we can reach.
Q.- Which are your main strengths and difficulties?
A.- One of our main strengths is the good cooperation between the churches of Zambia and civil society. When I arrived in Zambia from the US, I was surprised to see how the three bodies of the church, Catholics, Anglicans and Evangelists worked together and supported one another in different struggles. This is not so in the US. The other type of cooperation is our work with society: we work well with women, trade unions, ecologists... We work together.
One of our main difficulties is the government. Africa´s leaders do not work to serve their people. Sometimes because our voices are not listened to, others because of corruption...For example, in Zambia we receive a great amount of aid to fight AIDS but a few months ago a government official was arrested because he was using that money to buy Mercedes Benz, Hammers... I suppose someone higher up also authorized it.
"I think it is an exciting moment for Africa and we have to work to channel all potentials"
Leonard Chiti, an African Jesuit, will become JCTR Director in September. After his trips throughout Africa, where he worked in Nairobi and in Europe where he spent two years in London and Dublin, this young Jesuit from Zambia faces the new challenge with calm .
Q.- What priorities do you have in mind for the JCTR?
A.- Basically to reinforce what has been done up to now, especially on education. We are a small group, we have to make an effort to work with quality. On the other hand we have the issue of how to be independent in our work, to avoid problems such as the economic crisis, where we have stopped receiving a considerable amount of aid. As of today we have a lot of aid from European churches. If this stops, we will not be able to continue with our work. We have to find a way to generate our own income. We have to look for alternatives, for example to invest in safe values, not to obtain benefits but to produce money to carry out our work.
Q.- Africa is one of the priorities for the JRS. What does this exactly mean?
A.- As you know, Africa faces many challenges, political, economic and social. Likewise the church in Africa is very vibrant, very active. This is why the Jesuits try to help in the process since they realize that both the church and the Jesuits in the future will be very developed, compared to Europe and America. In Europe there are very few young Jesuits on the contrary to Africa and Asia. This is why we think the future is in Africa.
This priority means that there are many common activities between Africa and Europe, such as for example Entreculturas which enables us to develop our ideas and options within a plan.
Q.- You are coordinator for the Advocacy Ignatian Network for Peace and Human Rights. What are the main objectives of this project?
A.- Mainly two: on one hand to develop synergies among the different Social Centres that work in peace building. We have four or five centres in Asia and another three or four in Africa, five or six in Latin America and some in Europe that are working on this. They are doing a very good job. Why do it alone? We want to work together . On the other hand we want to reach a global position of the Society of Jesus on the issue of Peace and Human Rights.
Q.- How is this coordination being carried out?
A.- Up to now, we are working well together. This is something new that had never happened before. At a local level, coordination was effective but not so at a global level and this is what we are working on.
Q.- Which are the advocacy priorities?
A.- Mainly the issue of immigrants. The Jesuits accompany them and facilitate services such as education; they explain to the world that they are human beings with rights. This has to be done in network, we have to help those European Jesuits who face the problem of helping the immigrants. In Africa, probably one of the main problems is the one related to women and their empowerment and also the promotion of an economic and social culture. One can divide human rights in two: the political ones that everybody knows and if they are not complied you can denounce them legally ( the right to freedom of speech etc.) but there are also other rights which we think should be taken into account like the former ones and therefore be respected, such as the right to food, drinking water etc. We should come to a point where all human beings should have those type of access.
Q.- What is Zambia´s situation at present?
A.- The main problem is poverty. We know that more than 65% of Zambia´s population lives with less than 1 dollar per day. We also have to face the problem of improving governments that are weak and some sectors of the population, especially the children, do not have access to basic social services. Summing it up there are three lines of work for me: to reduce the level of poverty, to improve governments demanding transparency and democratic election processes and good ethical practices in politicians; and to assure access to social services.
Q.- How do you see the African Society's future?
A.- With a great potential. Many young people are doing a great job in the Society of Jesus, not only teaching the Gospel but also in achieving an improvement for people living in inhuman conditions. I think it is an exciting moment for Africa in which we have to work to channel all potentials to achieve development.