Friday, 3 October 2003

Rome (Fides Service) – Professor Kevin Cahill is a major world expert in tropical diseases. He recently published a book on his years of experience in some of the poorest areas of the world in which he says that the modern doctor must not overlook the social-economic aspects in which he operates and which are often no secondary cause of the spread of the epidemic. The doctor, in this dimension, must be a man of peace working at the highest level and he uses and flanks those who like him work to promote respect for the person and his or her full dignity. So not only professional ethics but also synergy of expertise and sensitivity in which “charity” becomes the pillar on which to base all levels of analysis to acquire the conviction that to overcome disease is to overcome bad consciences, party interests, demagogy of governments. The modern doctor working in these areas to be a true builder of peace must have in his professional bag adequate tools with which to make a profound analysis of the territory, its traditions, its modern history. Responding to our questions, we asked Professor Cahill to summarise this challenge in which the Gospel plays the leading role.

You are a Catholic physician famous all around the world for your commitment in Tropical and infective diseases. Could you tell us how did you begin, when you decided your job should have been your "mission" to safe needy people?
My own interest in tropical medicine began in 1959 when, as a medical student, I was fortunate to receive a grant to work in India. I spent six months in Calcutta and quickly realised that I was fascinated not only by the exotic diseases, but by the scope of illness and the different cultures and beliefs to which I had not previously been exposed. During that time, after working at the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine in the morning, I would assist a then-unknown Albanian nun caring for the dying. She later became well known as Mother Theresa and we remained in contact throughout her life. My career has included long periods in Africa and Asia and Latin America; throughout I have been impressed by the universality of epidemic diseases; the principles in addressing illness do not change with national borders. The medical profession also offers a universally respected common ground allowing unusual access to societies where foreigners are often highly suspect. I have tried to capture some of these thoughts in writings – back in the 1960s in articles and a book The Untapped Resource: Medicine and Diplomacy, and have continued to develop this concept in other books, A Bridge to Peace, A Framework for Survival: Health, Human Rights and Humanitarian Assistance in Conflicts and Disasters, and Preventive Diplomacy.

You worked for so long in Africa and you learn more about its reality, people, tradition and life condition. Could you tell us how it would be possible to promote humanitarian actions today, in this world clouded by the growth of cultures and behaviours that are intolerant of diversities?
I believe that the only way to promote humanitarian action is by endless education, education, education. Gradually one can win over supporters and providing those supporters use their good offices, one can slowly change existing governmental priorities that marginalise the health and humanitarian action. I believe very firmly that these disciplines should be central in the foreign policy of wealthy nations. Unfortunately they are rarely appreciated and powerful nations often give more lip service then sustenance to helping the poor and oppressed around the world. Over the last several decades a group of people from political, diplomatic as well as medical communities have come together to try to foster these basic ideas. We have done this largely through The Center for International Health and Cooperation. We would invite anyone to visit our web site But the final answer is education and persuasion.

In your last book "Traditions, Values, and humanitarian action" you talk about some universal values to be supported for human welfare. However, very often, volunteer contribution of those who want help the unprotected or marginalised, is "polluted" in the ideology, when it is the same ideology to creating suspects to those who help and offer their lives for these people. All this doesn't help the world and its people to overcome suffering. Which should be the action to undertake for overcoming this situation?
Voluntary contributions to the suffering of the world can indeed be polluted by ideology. This is not a new phenomenon. In centuries past missionaries of all denominations tended to use food and available medical supplies to force people to attend religious services. This was not proper then and is now, thankfully, very rare. Nevertheless the approach of using ideology as the basis for selecting who gets assistance has not faded from the earth.
Today politics influences so called voluntary contributions to an unfortunately great degree. There are many non-governmental “voluntary” organisations who overtly wrap their donations in the flags of their nations so that the poor and hungry can not miss the message that some great wealthy entity is deigning to give them sustenance. Some voluntary organisations have, on principle, refused to accept government funds; Doctors without Borders (Medecins San Frontieres), for example, adheres strictly to this noble line. Nevertheless, the amount of government aid funds is substantial, and the competition by voluntary organisations to accommodate to the political demands of the donors is equally great. There are other current examples where ideology affects the most supposedly impartial and neutral organisations. In recent years the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) have faced a demand by Israel to use the Star of David in lieu of the cross or crescent which had been used since its founding as the symbol of the organisation.
The Red Cross movement argued that using varying national symbols would be extremely disruptive to their global recognition and existing programs, causing them to lose an identity that had taken them a century to build. If every country had the right to put their insignia on what was universally respected as the sign of an absolutely essential health and human rights organisation, then it would experience a dangerous loss of neutrality in war and conflicts. In solidarity with Israel the United States withdrew their financial support from the Red Cross causing a severe budget crisis. Many critical programs and international staff were dropped. In the ideal world it is obviously appropriate to offer assistance solely because help is needed and suffering people should be assisted but, in the very real world of power politics, this, unfortunately, isn’t the case.
Nonetheless, As Thomas Jefferson, the author of America’s Declaration of Independence, once noted, “the best way to lose an argument is to absent oneself from the battle.” One cannot walk away from the needs of the poor and suffering of the world, bowing to improper impositions of ideology on charity. One must stay in the battle and try to correct these errors by example, by persuasion, and by education. (AP) (3/10/2003 Fides Service; Words 1,210 Lines 88)