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Head of worldwide Catholic charity attends UN General Assembly

Speaker at UN General Assembly


John Burger - published on 09/22/23

Alistair Dutton speaks of importance for HIV program funding, condemns destruction of Caritas warehouse in Ukraine.

During his first participation in the United Nations General Assembly High Level Week, the new secretary general of Caritas Internationalis said he felt confident of securing future funding for an HIV program that the international Catholic agency runs in Africa.

“We’ve just had a meeting today with [the United Nations AIDS agency], and I think through doing that it was clear that they really appreciated the work we’ve been doing, and I think we’ve probably secured future funding for that,” said Alistair Dutton, who was elected in May to lead Caritas, a confederation of 162 humanitarian and development organizations.

He suggested that UNAIDS has realized that there is “a real value in the partnership with us as they tried to achieve their mission on eliminating pediatric HIV.”

Dutton said in an interview that his participation in the annual gathering of world leaders at UN headquarters in New York was mostly a chance to get to know other key players in humanitarian aid and development.

“As the new Secretary General, I’m learning the ropes, and in many ways I’m meeting many of the highest levels of Caritas’ partners for the first time So it’s a big speed dating exercise,” he said Wednesday afternoon. “I’m meeting all sorts of heads of agencies and heads of our partners, civil society, UN. … And in a way, it’s a week to build that network that then you’re able to activate and use for the rest of the year to get the day-to-day work done.”

Caritas runs HIV programs in the Congo, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, three of the countries that have particularly high prevalence of the disease and where the Church plays a big role in health care. 

“We have a program that is looking at how to integrate HIV care within the health system of the Church more broadly, how to raise awareness of HIV and tackle stigma so people are willing to engage with health care, get tested and get the treatment they need, how to look at behavioral change, so they’re not so susceptible to HIV,” he said. “And that’s been a huge work of Caritas worldwide.”

PEPFAR at risk

He added that he and others who are working to combat AIDS are concerned about uncertainty around the continuation of PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, “and the way that’s being politicized in American politics at the moment.” He said that if funding is cut off, there could be a million extra children who get HIV, about half of whom will die. 

“So the funding for that is no joke, and it’s really disappointing to see the way it’s being used as a political football at the moment,” Dutton said.

PEPFAR’s authorization expires at the end of this month, and Republicans in Congress are fighting reauthorization

Dutton said he also was meeting with a special representative concerning violence against children “and talking about the huge intersections between what she’s trying to do and the work of many Caritas members around the world and looking for opportunities, looking at ways we can collaborate in the future.”

Ukraine warehouse

Dutton commented on the Russian drone attack on the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv on Tuesday morning, which destroyed a warehouse holding humanitarian aid coordinated by Caritas.

“We lost 300 tons of humanitarian assistance in what is a flagrant abuse of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention and the Convention Against Genocide,” Dutton said.

Although he acknowledged with gratitude that no Caritas personnel were killed or injured in the early morning attack, he said, “Our people are in the firing line.” He lauded the “really courageous efforts of staff there in the country. … They’re all exhausted, psychologically and emotionally.” 

Of his visit to the UN, he said he will walk away with an impression of “the very highest regard in which Caritas is held in such a wide breadth of fields and that reflects the breadth of Caritas’ work. It’s really heartening to experience that high regard firsthand and to see the people who are the partners and the stakeholders that map out the breadth of our work. And it’s good getting to know them all. It’s good to put faces to names and build the network and bring some of that alive that I’m looking forward to using longer term.”

AfricaCaritasCharityUkraineUnited Nations
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