Extending a hand to the world

Q&a : Sean Callahan


A year ago, Sean Callahan's sister was listening to the news while driving back to his home after dropping a friend off at the airport on the day after Christmas. When she got there, she told her brother, "Your vacation's over."

An earthquake near Indonesia had set off a tsunami that devastated coastal areas across South and Southeast Asia, one of the most horrendous natural disasters in history.

As director of overseas operations for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, Callahan had already been very busy working on the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, with its ethnic killings, displacements and food shortages. The tsunami meant he was about to become even busier.

And that was just the beginning of what turned out to be a very busy year, dealing not only with the post-tsunami rebuilding process and the problems in Sudan, but also food shortages in Africa, a volcanic eruption in El Salvador, the hurricanes that devastated areas of the Caribbean and Central America before slamming into the United States, and then a powerful earthquake in Pakistan.

"It was an incredible year for emergencies all around," Callahan said. The 45-year-old Massachusetts native oversees CRS activities in more than 90 countries. He is responsible for a budget of more than $500 million and a staff of more than 3,500. From 1998 until 2004, he was CRS' regional director for South Asia, overseeing operations in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Catholic Relief Services, considered one of the most important nongovernmental relief organizations in the world because of its long-term presence in scores of countries, is headquartered in Baltimore, where Callahan works when he is not on the road.

The tsunami of a year ago seemed so devastating that it was almost overwhelming. When you visit the areas it hit now, has there been a change, or is it really too soon to see a difference?

There has been tremendous progress. I was in Banda Aceh in Indonesia a month ago seeing construction going on, water systems put in place, communities coming back with employment opportunities, agriculture, fishing in the coastal areas, other small businesses. You are seeing hope coming back.

Progress was slow to begin with in part because of concerns over land tenancy in many areas. The government needed to know who owned the land, and many people had lost all of their records, especially in parts of Indonesia and Sri Lanka. There was just no way to verify ownership. In some places, the whole geography changed due to the earthquake. In others, a tremendous amount of water came in and, in some areas, did not recede. So some people needed replacements for land they had lost.

There were places where it took five or six months to rectify those matters. But once that happened, and people got their land titles back, you saw a lot of energy flowing into the reconstruction efforts.

People naturally feel more identification with a disaster that strikes near to them. So when you have something like a Hurricane Katrina hit, does that take away from concern among Americans for disasters in far-off lands?

To a certain degree, Katrina and Rita might actually have brought home to people in the United States the reality of some of the situations people face in disasters throughout the world. There was actually a nice solidarity expressed there, some genuine generosity from people overseas who did not have a lot to give, trying to aid in recovery and assistance for Katrina's victims. Something like Katrina makes people realize that they are not impervious to these events. Disasters can build bonds between different communities.

There is naturally the concern that people will give to Katrina relief and not to other causes, but we have found people really dig down deep to give great support to assisting those in need outside of the United States. There was great response to the needs in Sudan and the tsunami-affected countries, and that continued with the emergency in Pakistan.

There have been so many major headline disasters in the past year; are there any problems that you fear are being overlooked?

There is a major food insecurity issue in southern Africa, in the countries of Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi. With a shortage of funds from other sources, CRS has spent its own money for local purchases to help these countries over this period of hunger. Attention also needs to be paid to the Sahel and countries in West Africa, such as drought-affected Niger. Those are two situations that have not received the kind of attention they would have if there had been no Katrina.

How did you get into this line of work?

I was finishing up a graduate degree at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University near Boston when someone from CRS came in and proposed that students sign up for a one-year internship, making about $10 to $12 a day. I was offered a position down in Central America.

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