“Churches have to raise awareness for global justice”

Cornelia Füllkrug-Weitzel on a boat trip on the Congo River, Democratic Republic of Congo, 2010. Photo: Christoph Püschner/Brot für die Welt
Cornelia Füllkrug-Weitzel on a boat trip on the Congo River, Democratic Republic of Congo, 2010. Photo: Christoph Püschner/Brot für die Welt

Interview with Rev. Dr Cornelia Füllkrug-Weitzel, former president of Bread for the World

(LWI) – For twenty years before her retirement in March 2021, Rev. Dr Cornelia Füllkrug-Weitzel served as president of Bread for the World (Brot für die Welt), the development and relief agency of the Protestant churches in Germany. Over this time, she left a strong imprint on the organization, which – together with its humanitarian arm Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe - collaborates closely on a large number of projects with the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), especially in areas of human rights, urgent humanitarian aid, and climate change.

Lutheran World Information talked to her about the transformation of development cooperation, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and the vital role of the churches in the struggle for a more just world.

You have just retired. What did you take with you, and what did you – perhaps gladly – leave behind?

I was happy to leave behind all kinds of committee meetings and institutional processes, and management tasks. Now I can spend more time on political and theological content. My passion for global justice, peace and human rights will continue to keep me busy – they won’t disappear from my mind or my heart.

Are you already thinking of specific projects to get involved in?

One topic is climate change from the angle of global climate justice. The second is empowering civil society and combating the shrinking space for civil society worldwide. And the third is women’s rights, empowering women, and opposing sexualized violence. I would also like to get involved in mentoring young women as potential ecumenical leaders.

Perhaps I will keep writing about COVID-19. The coronavirus will occupy us all for a while to come. What is COVID-19 doing to civil society, what does that mean for low-income groups worldwide, and what does it mean to “build back better”?

How has the coronavirus changed humanitarian and development aid?

The pandemic has brought all existing inequalities into focus and uncovered injustices that had gone unnoticed.

We must now analyze how the world community can, in the future, prepare for a pandemic, or a similar kind of global catastrophe, so that it doesn’t have such devastating impact. These catastrophes affect mainly the poor and marginalized populations. We need to think about that in tandem with the effects of climate change and global biodiversity losses.

Churches and church organizations in every country have been weakened economically. Less bilateral aid is flowing, and local fundraising is difficult. The total funding for aid for civil society in the global South has also diminished: states are granting less development aid, companies are investing less, and remittances from migrants have declined because they were the first to lose their jobs.

Politically, many governments have used the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext to limit further freedom of opinion, press freedom, and freedom of assembly. They have used the pandemic to put financial pressure on civil society organizations and criminalize and prosecute them. I am afraid that many civil society organizations worldwide will be unable to operate at the end of the pandemic.

All these points have changed the prospects of development since civil society, including the churches and religious communities, are indispensable for development cooperation that leaves no one behind.

Where do you see the unique approach of churches and ecumenical organizations?

Churches and religious communities are close to the grassroots. They are constantly talking to people, not only in the cities, where most NGOs congregate, but also in very remote regions. They know the people’s needs. Even without assistance 'from outside,' they can mobilize communities and organize self-help and solidarity. Their work can strengthen hope, the will to survive, and resilience.

Churches shape social values, for example, in the context of domestic violence. The churches can (and must) critique the idea that it is socially acceptable to inflict physical or sexualized violence on children and women in the family. They should feel encouraged to become agents of change in these matters.

International ecumenical organizations like the LWF, ACT Alliance, and the WCC amplify the voice of the churches. They can continue to give a voice, not to their institutional interests, but to those who have lost out or are likely to become marginalized. Together the ecumenical organizations can stand up for the life, rights, and dignity of all.

There are many for whom the global cooperation of the churches in development is a thorn in the flesh, precisely because we still focus on people's rights and dignity and not on some ideology, profit interests, or purely technological solutions.  

Empowering people

Empowerment and resilience are also core topics when working with communities affected by climate change. How can people in this situation be empowered?

Those who live in remote areas, cut off from the media, find it hard to see that the phenomena they are suffering from have anything to do with climate change. People have to adapt their whole way of life to survive where they live – to do so, they have to understand their situation themselves.

One of my last visits before the lockdown was to the Pacific. There are islands where the villages are directly affected by the rising sea level and cyclones. For them, climate change adaptation comes too late, they need to be resettled. The Pacific Conference of Churches encourages the churches to become advocates and supporters for villages that have to be resettled, as local authorities are doing very little.

What can churches do?

In the Pacific – to stay with that example – the churches enjoy a strong reputation in society and politics. They could advocate for the villages to be assigned new land and for appropriate resettlement. In the villages, they can keep up people's hopes and stand by them in the relocation process.

Forced resettlement causes a lot of depression: in the Pacific, your land is more than a piece of earth or a means of making a living. It is the foundation of people’s identity and sense of community. Culture and spirituality depend on it – also for Christians too. The church can develop 'rites of transition' to accompany the departure from the ancestors, the farewell to Mother Earth, and help constitute a community on the new land.

With the resettlements, the churches must ensure and advocate for relocation plans to take into account the perspectives of all groups – in particular those of the women, who are responsible for farming. They have a different view of things, but have little say in the decision-making process. If they are not involved, essential aspects will not be considered.

Systematic impoverishment

Is it easier or harder today to help people?

What has become much more difficult is the public debate, and the proliferating compliance requirements and systems copied from the business world. These are not adapted to the contexts in which we are working. How can you prove, for example, that civil society has been strengthened? Community mobilization and advocacy cannot be measured like that.  

On the other hand, these requirements are adding enormously to the administrative costs, and consequently reduce the amount going into the actual work with the communities – the very opposite of what our donors want.

In public discussions, development aid then is systematically downplayed, saying that it does not achieve enough. But the slow progress in the fight against poverty and hunger is linked to the fact that economies in the global North have drawn resources from the global South for decades and continue to do so. Climate change is the most recent example! Development cooperation has for the past 30-40 years been fighting a systematic process of impoverishment.

In humanitarian assistance, national governments in the affected countries increasingly define where aid organizations can go, and whom they can assist. How do you handle that?

Unlike LWF, we are not in the field. International aid workers can be stopped by refusing them visas or throwing them out. It is much harder to control local organizations that way. We therefore work through locally based partners, such as the LWF.

Like the LWF, we are committed to humanitarian principles. One of them is impartiality, but that is not a given everywhere. In Syria for example, access to the population is determined by the security situation and government restrictions on movement. In this situation, it is hardly possible for us to support partners operating in war-torn or no-go areas. When it does happen, it requires enormous trust in local partners, and you have to take unorthodox steps if you want to assist everyone in need.

COVID has also impacted churches in the global North. Many congregations lost income because collections and events did not take place. Church members have lost their jobs. How do you explain to them that they should continue to give development assistance in other countries?

A lot of people in Germany have become impoverished in the past year. I take that seriously. Nevertheless, it should not play a significant role for Christians considering whether our neighbor is far or near.  We belong to the one body of Christ and share in the joys and sorrows of all members worldwide.

Many donors are already retired. They did not lose income and might have even saved money, because they spent less on visiting restaurants and cultural events. Hence resources have even been released, and people can think about what else they want to use them for.

We should also make it clear how comparatively well off we are. At a seminar, we had a working group on the topic of vaccine justice. The students thought it was because their grandma was now being vaccinated, but they were not. During the seminar, they came to understand the global dimensions of the topic had and they no longer wanted to demand that Germany gets more vaccine doses.

This is our task as agencies and churches: to raise more awareness for the global dimensions of justice.

Interview: LWF/C. Kästner

Bread for the World (Brot für die Welt) is the diaconal agency of the Protestant churches in Germany for worldwide development cooperation. Bread for the World regularly supports more than 1500 projects in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. The LWF is a local implementing partner. Bread for the World supports LWF in projects for human rights, land rights, peace, mitigation of climate change, and the rights of women and girls.