Surprise! Our government and Congress do work!

At a time when government bashing is a favorite sport, no matter which side of the aisle you’re on, it’s easy to forget some of the great achievements those in public service have made: achievements that have literally saved and improved the quality of millions of lives.  

After decades of working with universities and corporations, five years ago I entered the world of international development as the CEO and president of Catholic Relief Services. Our work necessitates close interaction with the United States Government, particularly the executive branch and the houses of Congress. I came armed with a good dose of skepticism. I mean, when was the last time you heard someone compliment the government, saying that it did the right thing the right way?
{mosads}My first meeting with a U.S. government agency dealt with a country in which ethnic rivalries had erupted into violence, forcing people from their lands and resulting in starvation. The meeting was focused, with extensive brainstorming to determine possible solutions, weighing of pros and cons, and understanding each other’s perspectives and objectives. A course of action emerged and when we were to leave, our government counterpart provided her cell number and emphasized her accessibility to us.
In the prep for my first meeting with a Member of Congress, I was told to be concise and make my case within ten minutes as their schedules tend to be frenetic and overbooked. Expecting a short conversation and a polite but distracted hearing, I was completely stumped by the response “tell me more.” The individual settled in, put down the papers in her hand, and listened intently to the issue and what we thought needed to be done. She ended with a note to herself to pay a personal visit overseas to see for herself.
So after five years of frequent interactions, my appreciation for those working in the U.S. government and respect for their service took hold. Serving over 100 million people in over a 100 countries through a wide spectrum of programs in emergency relief, agriculture, health, education, water, micro-finance, peace-building and most recently impact investing, Catholic Relief Services works with different U.S. government departments and Members of Congress on funding, protocols, legal restrictions, humanitarian access, and relationships with local governments.
Through all these interactions, I noted three attributes of our government counterparts. 
1. A focus on mission: on what the U.S. should and could do as the wealthiest country in the world to relieve global suffering.  Stepping up to respond to natural disasters, severe droughts, epidemics, violent conflicts, or massive displacement of refugees around the world, government officials lifted up our country’s most genuine display of leadership: compassion and action. 
A good example is one that most people are not aware of: the bi-partisan support for an additional $1 billion of humanitarian assistance in the FY 2016 budget for the Syrian refugees whose homes, families, livelihoods and health have been decimated; and nearly an additional $1 billion in FY 2017 for people displaced by ISIS in Iraq and elsewhere.
2. Accountability: You read a lot about government waste, but you see few stories that showcase money well spent. One of them is the collective achievements of the global development community over the last 30 years.  These include the dramatic reduction of mortality by 5 million children per year, 29 percent fewer deaths caused by malaria, and more than one billion people with access to potable water. And the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) makes its case to Congress by presenting data and evidence of the scale and impact of its work.  For the latest report on what has been achieved with American tax payer dollars, go to
This progress is realized with limited resources – less than 1 percent of the federal budget goes to alleviate poverty overseas. 
3. Professionalism: I found agency and congressional staff to be approachable, collegial, and never condescending. With so many different perspectives bearing on various decisions and pieces of legislation, it is important that all parties listen, speak honestly, respect differences, find common ground, or if that does not exist, to separate without rancor and acrimony. These have been largely the way our government counterparts worked with us.  In fact, they relied on us to bear witness to what is happening around the world.
At CRS, we regularly don’t see eye-to-eye with the U.S. government. We have been disappointed with certain outcomes.  Yet, these do not change our appreciation for the dedication, expertise and results achieved by the many people in public service.
Carolyn Y. Woo is the outgoing president & CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. Before coming to CRS, Carolyn served from 1997 to 2011 as dean of the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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