Interview: Benjamin Homan, Newly Appointed AERDO President

In November 2004, the Association of Evangelical Relief and Development Organizations (AERDO) won an $8.2 million, five-year federal grant aimed at preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. The funding, which came from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), will mobilize faith-based and community organizations to help millions of youth and hundreds of thousands of adults avoid behaviors that increase their chances of contracting the deadly infection. Though PEPFAR—a $15 billion federal government initiative—currently focuses on 15 countries around the world that currently experience the greatest HIV/AIDS prevalence, the grant emphasizes abstinence-based education in three African countries and Haiti.

AERDO President Benjamin Homan, who was recently appointed to the position, also serves as president for Phoenix-based Food for the Hungry, the organization that requested the funds from PEPFAR in an effort to support AERDO. Food for the Hungry is one of the nine faith-based organizations working together to assemble a positive, proactive response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic through the five-year grant.

In a December 2004 interview with the Christian Post, Homan spoke of the gravity of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the role of the government, faith-based organizations, and Americans in supporting relief and development efforts. Below are excerpts taken from the interview:

Dr. Homan, could you briefly explain the ways in which AERDO functions?

AERDO is a member-agency. So AERDO itself is not operational as a humanitarian agency. We are operational through our members. So Food for the Hungry, World Concern, World Vision, and World Relief are all members of AERDO. What AERDO tries to do is increase the capacity of our member-agencies by holding up standards, by providing venues, partnerships. We give training for some of the staff for the different member agencies. So there are a lot of different ways that AERDO is active. HIV/AIDS is certainly one of those areas, but we try to support all the members. It’s really an amazing spectrum of service that is being provided around he world.

One of the things we’re trying to do as an agency is use the principal from scripture—‘As iron sharpens iron’—so we can sharpen one another. In all the things we do—whether it’s HIV/AIDS or micro-enterprise development, child sponsorship, a number of different areas that AERDO agencies work with—because of the principal of partnership and the principal of iron sharpening iron, I think we can help each other get better.

There are other very fine organizations that are committed to pooling resources and collaborating.

In November, AERDO won an $8.2 million, five-year federal grant aimed at preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Could you tell us how that came about?

The AERDO partnership has put together several HIV/AIDS projects—the first funded by USAID in September by PEPFAR (President Emergency Plan for World Relief). The first grant was for ten million dollar grant, and Food for the Hungry was one of the members involved for that first grant. The second grant for eight million dollars, about a month later, was issued and Food for the Hungry was also part of that grant. For the $8.2 million grant, Food for the Hungry is the lead agency. But all of the organizations that are in each of these grants are members of AERDO, and we approached the federal government unit as the AERDO organization. USAID and the administration were very interested in being able to address faith-based organizations through a partnership like what is represented in AERDO. We believe it’s a win-win especially for the communities that would be touched by the careful orphans and vulnerable children that are addressed in the first grant, and the second grant that focuses on reaching youth with messages that will prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic is an issue that many agencies tend to place great focus on. We recently spoke with the Vice-President of World Vision USA (Steven W. Haas), and he said he felt one thing that would unite the Christian community would be the HIV/AIDS epidemic. What are your thoughts on this?

I’m in complete agreement. I think the Church and Christian organizations have the opportunity to arise to one of the greatest challenges confronting the world today. If people come to reckon the magnitude, what it means for 40 million people to be HIV/AIDS positive, it’s huge. The statistics themselves really don’t fully get at the magnitude of the problem because the suffering is visited on families and individuals in terrible ways. I think this is exactly what the church is designed to respond to. To administer care to people who are dying, but also to give practical help to the living and giving hope for the future.

One of the things we’ve done in our HIV/AIDS work is we’ve designed some programs we call “Bringing hope,” and this is what HIV/AIDS communities need.

What area of relief and development do you feel should be one of the main focuses for the U.S. in terms of support?

I think we’ve made some excellent advancements as a country over the last few years in reaching out to other nations. The Bush administration has advanced to some very creative and bold plans including PEPFAR that really is a massive and generous reaching out to the rest of the world. That’s a very positive direction that we’ve moved in. Another initiative by the administration is what’s called the ‘Millennium Challenge Account’ (MCA), which was advanced by the President in March 2002. It basically establishes a set of criteria that provides incentives for governments who are committed to good government, free enterprise, and making investments to programs that benefit their citizens. It’s a way of encouraging governments to make good decisions to benefit their people. And what the MCA does is it allows the government to put together proposals that are to be considered. And the U.S. government can access how they can get behind and reinforce and encourage the movement of foreign aid in a positive direction. It’s somewhat a new experiment. It’s very cutting edge and very recent. And it’ll be watched over the next few years to see how it unfolds. Right now it’s still too early to know what the outcome will be.

The U.S. is considered to be a wealthier country compared to many other countries. How big of a role do you feel the U.S. is in relief and development in various other countries?

The U.S. is playing the lead international role in Sudan, and I’m very proud of the efforts made by the U.S. government over the years—to say to Sudan and the world that we will not allow another genocide to happen like what happened in Rwanda and other places. I think that’s one of the ways the U.S. government has served the world—to stand up, particularly this year, and to shine the light of day on what’s been happening with human rights in Sudan. That’s exactly the kind of thing the U.S. should be doing and foreign aid throughout the world—standing up for the oppressed, speaking up for the downtrodden, opposing injustice. I believe the funding that is being provided for HIV/AIDS is another way of standing up for those who otherwise would not have a voice. I think it’s also important strategically for the government of the U.S. to be reaching out at a time when various people of the world are forming or reforming perceptions about the U.S.. So this is an opportunity to reach out in friendship and dialogue, forming positive relations with other countries. So it’s very important that this objective to be reaching out in friendship.

How big do you feel the role of faith-based organizations has been in relief and development?

If you look historically, over the past 50-60 years of private organizations or the U.S. reaching out around the world, at the cutting edge were faith-based organizations and churches. President Roosevelt was thinking through how to put together foreign aid back in the 1940’s and Truman later in the 1950’s. They called together leaders of American churches and faith-based organizations to help them think through the issues. So the history of private organizations reaching out around the world is also a history of faith-based organizations doing the same thing. So from the very beginning of humanitarian relief done by organizations, the U.S. government has relied on faith-based organizations. So to answer your question, faith-based organizations have had a huge role in advancing friendship and advancing the respect of human beings and the defense of human rights. It’s had a massive impact. Other organizations been founded and developed that are not faith-based. Those have also grown. But it’s been a very significant thing that faith-based organizations have been so prominent through the history of foreign aid.

In what ways do you feel the American people should be involved in supporting relief and development efforts?

We have a volunteer program at Food for the Hungry, and we very much encourage people to have direct involvement. We encourage churches, for instance, to adopt a specific community overseas. I think that’s an excellent way for people to reach out. The individual citizen here in the U.S. needs to be engaged in the world. Part of this is through educating themselves, reading articles, or perhaps taking college courses or other kinds of educational materials and using those to be better informed in their actions. I think we should also be listening to the news and communicating with our congress (congressional representatives). Becoming more aware of what the U.S. is doing in terms of foreign aid and supporting those things that are happening that are positive. Foreign aid has increased rather significantly under the Bush administration. I think that’s a recognition that the U.S. needs to have more relationships with the world rather than less in relationships with the world. That’s increasingly important especially in light of 9-11.

Do you have any other additional comments you’d like to make, in conclusion?

Let me point out the vision of Food for the Hungry. The vision of Food for the Hungry is to respond to God’s call to end spiritual and physical hunger. With that kind of call from God, we’d better be involved with other organizations. We must be thinking about partnerships. We’re never going to accomplish the end of physical and spiritual hungers if we work by ourselves. So we believe very firmly in the power of partnership and the effectiveness and efficiency of working together with others.

Founded in 1971, Food for the Hungry serves in more than 35 countries helping impoverished individuals become self-sustaining. AERDO, which was founded in 1978, brings together 45 major North American evangelical Christian relief and development agencies in an effort to effectively support the Church in serving the poor and needy.

The association was established to serve as a key communication hub for relief organizations in effectively planning the intricate and immediate logistics of shipping and distributing emergency gifts-in-kind to countries suffering natural disasters.