The sad news that Progressio is to cease operating will have dismayed if not surprised many in the social justice world.
The organisation seems to have been in terminal decline for some years, becoming increasingly dependent on government money to perform its aid work. Now that this funding has diminished so the organisation has ceased to operate.Progressio has a proud record stretching back over 70 years to its founding in the 1940s by Cardinal Hinsley.
Originally called the Sword of the Spirit, it was renamed the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) in 1965 before its most recent metamorphosis into Progressio in 2006.
A major strength of the organisation has been its ability over the years to read the signs of the times. It provided aid via sending out skilled workers overseas but also developed an education and advocacy role at home. The latter function brought international injustices to the attention of politicians, opinion formers and media.
The development of the education and advocacy role, under the leadership of Mildred Nevile, saw the organisation again well ahead of its time, doing something that would later be copied and effectively taken over by the big agencies like Oxfam, Christian Aid and CAFOD.
Attending the then CIIR conferences in the 1980s and 1990s there was a feeling that they really had their finger on the pulse of coming developments. It was the place to be if you wanted to be ahead of the game.
One notable initiative saw renowned US political thinker Noam Chomsky invited to address a conference in the early 1990s.
There were also important initiatives on the drugs trade and the importance of trade unions as central structures in building community. It was borrowing from the south to inform the north.
Important relationships were built with those in struggle across the world from Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua to the ANC in South Africa. CIIR had strong links with those involved in liberation theologians like Gustavo Guttierez, Jon Sobrino and Albert Nolan.
There was also excellent work in Zimbabwe and East Timor, helping lay the paths for peace.
More recently the organisation took principled stands against the use of germinator gene technology.There were though fundamental problems in the background. The organisation was always split between the education role it had played and provision of aid overseas. There was also a period of seeming constant reorganisation of the staff in the UK, which saw an obsession with managerialism.
There also seemed to be a tension in the relationship with the Church, CIIR/Progressio never had the close ties with the hierarchy that operated at CAFOD. The organisation preferred very much an arms length relationship. Neither did it develop the close link that CAFOD did with more progressive elements of Church like the justice and peace networks.
Both CIIR and Progressio also rarely came to terms with the need to have a properly funded and resourced communications operation. A number of well meaning people served in the press function over the years, most notably Jo Barratt in the early noughties, but there always seemed a suspicion of media and a failure to give it the priority required.
CIIR/Progressio could be cited as one of the many agencies which produced great detailed reports identifying crucial issues but then failed to communicate the information in such a way that it reached the widest possible audience.
There were other developments that ran against the organisation. In the earlier days, CIIR did much of the policy work for other agencies but as time went on the bigger organisations like CAFOD, Oxfam and Christian Aid developed their own policy operations. To some degree, CIIR was a victim of its own success.
The education role declined, whilst the aid provision element became more dependent on government. The justifying arguments of non governmental organisations across the board relating to dealings with government is that they are pushing the boundaries but in many few seem to know where the boundary stands.
What Progressio should have done was to have pushed ahead in the direction it seemed to be going in the 1990s, moving to become an organisation that critiqued the neo-liberal market system across the world. It could have brought that expertise in the developing world together with what was happening in the developed world – essentially the same thing but not recognised as such for a very long time.
Much of the work now done by organisations like the New Economics Foundation and Global Justice Now (formerly the World Development Movement).could have come under such a remit.
There should have been a stronger link developed with the National Justice and Peace Network. Though the dominance of CAFOD in this area would have made such a development difficult to achieve.
There should also have been more prioritisation of media operations, maximising the impact of much of the vital work done by the organisation, ensuring it reached as wider audience as possible.
But this is all conjecture about what might have been. Sadly, Progressio will soon be no more. Perhaps now should be a time to celebrate its many achievements down the years and accept that maybe it’s work in present form is now done. Time to move on.