Caritas Portugal's President, Mr. Eugenio José de la Cruz Fonseca talks about the social impact of the crisis in Portugal and the work of Caritas to help the most vulnerables.
Brussels, 07 November 2011 - In the aftermath of EU negotiations around the Greek crisis, Portugal’s Prime Minister Passo Coelho has declared that Portugal wants an easing of the condition imposed on the country to access the international aid plan of € 78 billion.
"The austerity measures put in place as a condition to receiving the international aid are actually aggravating recession instead of helping as the measures are not creating any growth," says Mr. Eugenio José de la Cruz Fonseca, president of Caritas Portugal. He knows the social impacts of the crisis in Portugal inside out.
Caritas Portugal was the first organisation to pull the alarm signal even before the crisis became broadly visible. “The government didn’t appreciate our statement. They disregarded our concerns and classified them as unjustified. According to them we had nor evidences nor real facts to support our claims,” says Mr Fonseca, “But we were very much aware that the number of people coming to us to get help was worryingly increasing. And we were also noticing that the government was not paying sufficient attention to international alerts on a looming economic crisis.”
Since the end of 2008, the crisis in Portugal has been steadily deepening and worsening. The pressure put on the population has been aggravated by the series of austerity measures installed by the government to comply with the conditions imposed by international lenders spearheaded by the EU and the International Monetary Fund. Because of the low development of welfare in Portugal, most of social relief activities in the country are conducted by charities and NGOs, Caritas Portugal among them.
“We are living in constant anxiety. We are anxious about not being able to cope with all the needs existing on the streets, among the families,” explains Mr. Fonseca. “We have even been obliged to set up a waiting list… but the poor can’t wait, can they?”
Caritas Portugal has also been assessing its activities, identifying new priorities and adapting its budget to the needs created by the crisis. Some existing projects have been laid down in order to reallocate resources where they are most urgently needed. “We are moving backwards, socio-economically speaking. It feels like if we had travelled 100 years back in time,” remarks Mr Fonseca.
Mr. Fonseca agrees with Prime Minister Passo Coelho in the sense that the austerity measures are mostly hampering Portugal’s way out of the crisis; “The austerity measures are not creating any growth, employment… So far, we cannot see that any visionary plan aiming at taking us out the crisis is put in place. On the contrary, these measures have a huge negative impact on Portugal. The country is losing young and educated people. Black market activities are dangerously rising, worsening even more the finances of the state.”
According to Mr. Fonseca, this crisis is not only an economic one but also an ethical crisis. “Politicians have no control over the market. They are trapped by the market. This situation challenges everything, even justice. The powerful and rich are better defended than the man in the street. Thus, there are no fingers pointing to those responsible for the crisis. There is neither transparency nor accountability. No one has been brought to court for their share of responsibility for this crisis and for destroying the life of millions of people. And at the same time, our law-makers the general population to tighten their belt while their own are still well loose.”
Finding alternatives to the banks
With the crisis, banks have become reluctant to lend any money. They are facing liquidity shortages and they have stopped supporting public investments and new starting businesses.
In order to secure some funding to address the impacts of the crisis, the Portuguese Bishops’ Conference launched in August 2010 a solidarity fund. The fund is managed by Caritas Portugal, along with the St. Vincent Board Society, Justice and Peace Commission, and Justice and Peace Commission for the Religious Orders.
Initially, the fund started with € 30,000 collected through the national campaign 10 Million Stars. Today, thanks to private donations, the fund counts some €800,000. The fund is used at diocesan level. “The people from the parishes are in direct contact with the people in need and can best assess the required solutions. The fund is a tool of help but also of empowerment of the parishes,” says Mr. Fonseca.
The fund is helping some 3000 families across the country. Mostly to help them make ends meet every month. Only a small percentage of the fund goes to job creation or similar programmes. “This is because many project proposals are not adapted to today’s economic reality in Portugal. They are not sustainable. So for the time being, the fund is mostly used as a tool to prevent families from becoming homeless or kids from dropping out of school,” explains Mr. Fonseca.
Caritas as one solution
When asked about the future, Mr. Fonseca is not very optimistic; “The general feeling in Portugal is rather pessimistic. Many middle age people, who have lost their jobs during the crisis, now fear that they might never get back to the labour market. In other words, they might be condemned to live on permanent assistance from social institutions like Caritas.”
Fortunately, Mr. Fonseca also sees opportunities in this crisis: “There are ways out of this situation! And Caritas can be one of them. The network must strengthen its identity and mission, and seize this time of crisis to empower the most vulnerable people!”
This interview was conducted with the help of Joao Pereira, Caritas Portugal, who interpretated Don Eugenio from Portuguese into English.
For more information, please contact
Maria Luísa Correia
+351 (218) 454 220