An Interview with Sean Callahan, CEO of Catholic Relief Services

An Interview with Sean Callahan, CEO of Catholic Relief Services

The Fletcher Forum recently sat down with Sean Callahan, CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), who was visiting The Fletcher School for the 2017 Religion, Law, and Diplomacy Conference: Approaching Religious Literacy in International Affairs.

Fletcher Forum: To begin, how would you sum up the Catholic social values that are vital to Catholic Relief Services’ mission? How do Catholic social values differentiate CRS from other humanitarian aid organizations?

Sean Callahan: Human dignity is one of the key principles behind what we do, which is respect, promote, and care for the human dignity of people; save, protect, and transform human lives; and assist people in reaching their own empowerment.

We are a relationship-based organization. We don’t go out to tell people how development needs to be done, rather we find out what they want to have happen, and we try to work with them and assist them to flourish in their particular environment.

FF: With anti-immigrant and nativist sentiment on the rise in the United States and around the world, do you see opportunities for CRS to get involved in opening public dialogue on this issue based on interfaith solidarity?

SC: We see tremendous opportunity. We do not do interfaith projects; we are an interfaith agency. Everything we do, everyday, is interfaith. For example, my staff of over 300 people in Afghanistan are all Muslim. In India, they are mainly Hindu. In the different countries in which we work, we are a reflection of those countries.

When you look at Catholicism, there are two ways of thinking about it. The first is religion, and the second is about universal values. We are part of an organization called Caritas International, which is a 165-member catholic organization that reaches out throughout the world. We are invited into countries through the local churches and by the governments, but then we see ourselves as establishing an interfaith platform once we’re there.

The Catholic Church is a social service network around the world and is second only to local governments. That outreach allows us to connect with all different groups. The idea is not that we are promoting our religion but that we are promoting the values of our religion.

FF: You talked about the interfaith nature of CRS. How does such an organization contribute to conflict resolution in the future? What are the challenges and limitations of that interfaith nature and what are the opportunities?

SC: I really think we are only limited by our own imaginations. I am very much an optimist on what we can do and I have seen the tremendous efforts of what we have done so far. Sometimes when we talk about religion, a lot of things that are misunderstood. When we go out to the field in Afghanistan, for example, we don’t go with armed escorts. We go with the local people protecting us. When I was in India and some of the rebel movements in different areas called on foreigners to go, the villagers said “no, the foreigners are with us.” It is the local people with whom we build those relationships. We break down barriers. If we can show that religions are together, that we can work together in different ways, we can hopefully break down a lot of these barriers that are being created by others.

FF: Based on your experiences and knowledge, how have you seen the field of international development change over your decades of work in the field? What trends do you see for the future?

SC: First, the local capacity of the people where we work has shot up exponentially. It is absolutely incredible. When I go out to the field now, our staff on the ground for the countries where we serve is top notch; they are the best people out there.

Second, when I grew up in the United States and learned history, I used to learn about the old world and the new world. The new world was this dynamic, energetic place where you could do anything. The old world was more closed and concerned about different people and languages coming in. Today [in the United States], we are the old world. There is a youth bulge in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America. These demographics could be a problem, but they could also be an opportunity and an engine of growth and entrepreneurship for Africa. We just have to figure out how we can assist on and provide that little bit of investment that these greatly talented people need.

FF: With the rise of populism around the world, do you find it a challenge with people assuming you, as an American, believe what President Trump believes? How do you convince someone about what your organization believes versus what is being tweeted by the President?

SC: It’s a great question. I understand a policy of America First, I think there is a lot to that, in trying to help your domestic constituency. At the same time, for organizations like us, it ties our second hand behind our back. When we go into a community, right away there are questions about why we are there. To blatantly say “America First” puts us in a position where we now almost have to doubly explain ourselves.

I think the advantage that an organization like ours has in being a faith-based organization is that people can see that there is something beyond our nationalism, where we’re from, and that we have higher values that are critically important to us.

People see that we not only practice what we preach, but frankly, we employ what we preach, because we have people from different religions who are there. For example, I’ve got a staff member who is working here who is from India, then she became an international staff member and worked in Africa, and now she’s working in the United States. Although we are an American agency, people see in us that positive, pluralistic part of America. But again, I think the values also help us touch base with the values of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and others and people can see we are working for the common good.

FF: You have spoken in the past about pushing CRS to be a little bit bigger and bolder and to be the best technical agency it can be by providing the right services to the most people at the most critical time. Could you explain or elaborate on your vision a little more?

SC: The key word in development for me is trust, because with trust, you can stimulate behavior change. I think we need to do two things. One, insure that we have that trust. Two, think boldly about what we’re going to do next.

I asked my staff, “why the heck did we not think of covering all of West Africa with mosquito nets?” Someone said that’s an outrageous idea. Yes, it is an outrageous idea, but it’s a good idea. Because we can stop malaria by doing it. Right now at CRS we cover the country of Niger –19 million people with mosquito nets. We were just asked last year to do it for 30 million people in Nigeria, and they just asked us to up it to 80 million people. This is what I mean by being bold.

The two things that hold us back are, one, our own imagination, and two, that organizations and groups try to do it alone. We’re not going to try to do this alone. We’re going to do it with the Global Fund, with the President’s Malaria Initiative, and the local governments. In Guinea, we’re working with the Ministry of Health there on computerizing their supply chain management and warehouses. These technologies, what we call ICT4D, ICT for Development, can be really powerful.

FF: We also want to talk about your time here at Fletcher. Who was your favorite professor, what skills did you learn at Fletcher that helped shape what you wanted to do?

SC: Two of my favorite professors – one was Professor Hewson Ryan, and the other was Alan Henrikson. They were just really helpful to me. My areas were public diplomacy, history, and Western Hemisphere.

My Fletcher experience provided me with the right credentials. It also tested me and challenged my thinking in various ways. I also really thought I was lucky to have this opportunity. I said to myself, I need to give a year back. Someone came from CRS and said, will you give a year back working with us? They sent me to Costa Rica, and then a hurricane hit Nicaragua at the time, and they switched me to Nicaragua. That one year turned into four and a half in Nicaragua. My mother gave up that I was going to get a real job.

I also continue to use my studies out in the field, because we are continually students. Sometimes when you come to Fletcher you can think that we are the masters of the universe, and I think when you go out to these countries you come to realize that they are the masters of the universe. Maybe jointly, we can benefit from that mutual collaboration.

About the Interviewee


Sean Callahan is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. A 28-year veteran of CRS, Sean, had held a wide variety of leadership roles overseas and at agency headquarters. For the past 5 years, Sean served as the chief operating officer for CRS, responsible for Overseas Operations, U.S. Operations and Human Resources. In this role, he ensured CRS’ commitment to its mission to cherish, preserve and uphold the sacredness and dignity of all human life, foster charity and justice, and embody Catholic social and moral teaching. He enhanced performance, stimulated innovation and positioned CRS for the future. Callahan holds a master’s degree in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School and a bachelor’s degree from Tufts University.

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