Central African Republic is one of the world’s poorest countries. Caritas discussed the situation with Bishop Edouard Mathos, President of the Central African Episcopal Conference, his vice-president Bishop Albert Vanbuel, and Fr. Dieudonné Nzapalainga, in charge of Caritas activities there.
Caritas: What are currently the main difficulties in the Central African Republic?
Bishop Mathos: The country has very rich soil and a lot of natural resources. There are forests, water, gold, uranium and diamonds. But people live in poverty with no medical care and their children cannot go to school.
Bishop Vanbuel: The population doesn’t benefit from these resources. A few people take all the profit. There is a lot of corruption. Most people try to survive on agriculture. Malnutrition is very widespread and industrial production hardly exists.
Fr. Nzapalainga: A lot of parents are too poor to send their children to school. They have to make them work in the fields. But you see, a child labourer will remain illiterate and unskilled. It is a potential rebel.
Bishop Vanbuel: There have been coups, rebellions and wars for years. The population suffers. In my diocese Kaga Bandoro, in the North close to the Chad border, there were 10,000 displaced people last year. They had neither food nor water.
Caritas: The fighting continues?
Bishop Vanbuel: There was a peace agreement between the government and opposition movements in December 2008. Its implementation is difficult though. Even rebels who would like to put down their weapons and reintegrate society often remain armed because we cannot offer them any future, like vocational training.
Then, other rebellious movements have emerged. In my area, more than 1,000 rebels from Chad don’t think about demobilization. There is no real peace. That is why the presidential elections that were to be held in May, have been delayed.
What pushes people to join the rebels. It is because of the poverty that we cannot to live together. And if we can’t solve the problems of poverty, rebellion will always come back.
Caritas: What can be done to trigger a long-lasting improvement ?
Fr. Nzapalainga: As many children as possible need to go to school. That will strengthen tomorrow’s society. And we will have responsible elites that can contribute to the country’s development. Women also need to be empowered. Many women don’t even have a birth certificate and can’t vote. Parents prefer boys. Mentalities need to change so that people understand that women have an important role to play in society and can succeed just like men.
Bishop Vanbuel: Our country is huge. Bigger than France for only four million inhabitants. There is a lot of land available for agriculture. Cassava, nuts, carrots, rice, all sorts of farming are possible. But people need to learn how to grow them. There is hardly any vocational training in the country. In my diocese, three times the size of Belgium, there is nothing.
Bishop Mathos: The value we would like to transmit is that people need to help themselves. They shouldn’t just wait for foreign aid to arrive. They need to get things going together with foreign partners.
Caritas: What kind of projects does Caritas run?
Fr. Nzapalainga: We work in the fields of health care, education, agriculture and peacebuilding. We support HIV-infected women with income-generating activities and help them fight depression. Aids orphans get their tuition paid so that they can go to school and have a future.
Caritas also supports agricultural projects in poor villages. Villagers often want to change their situation, but are lacking the means to do so. Caritas gives them the necessary seeds and tools. It makes sense because when there is a meal to share and some solidarity, that is already a step towards peace. Caritas also provides nutrition complements for malnourished children to make sure they can fully develop and go to school.
Caritas: Central African Republic receives substantial international aid. What is the impact?
Bishop Mathos: Some NGOs or international institutions arrive in this country with their ideas all set. They will find for example that a certain village needs a school. They will then build it without worrying about who will teach there. The school is then handed over to the villagers but very often, the village doesn’t have the money to maintain it. Some parents don’t even believe in the concept of school. But most foreigners don’t know that work is needed to raise awareness on this. The church tries to get mentalities to evolve and includes this sort of problem in its social work. Institutions like the United Nations, the World Bank and others ask us and Caritas for advice because they know that we are very close to the people and know the conditions very well.