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Relief Agencies Concerned Over Effect of Inquiry

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Times Religion Writer

Private relief groups are expressing concern that publicity about the alleged misuse of funds earmarked for African famine victims by a Christian aid organization in Camarillo may discourage public giving at the very time the need is growing more acute.

Already two other Southern California-based Christian relief agencies report alarming declines in their contributions since the disclosure last week of federal and state investigations into International Christian Aid, which has apparently failed to deliver relief goods and money to Ethiopia as advertised.

“This has cast a shadow over the whole relief effort in Ethiopia,” said Brian Bird, a spokesman for World Vision International in Monrovia, the nation’s largest private Christian relief and development agency. “It paints us all with the same brush and gives an excuse to people who are looking for a way not to give.”

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L. Joe Bass, president of International Christian Aid, also known as InterAid, has denied charges that money and supplies promised by his organization to Ethiopian relief distributors has not been sent or received.

Pledges Canceled

World Vision, which has a staff of 250 and a fleet of 75 trucks in Ethiopia, raised $8 million in the last three months for famine relief.

“Between 100 and 150 regular donors to World Vision have canceled their pledges or said they would not give any more money,” Bird said Tuesday. “That could amount to at least several thousand dollars. . . . But we’re more worried about those who don’t call in, but simply give up on giving to any agencies.”

Bird added that his group’s most frequent problem was givers who confuse World Vision with International Christian Aid: “Our formulas in TV fund raising are very much alike, although we’ve never had any work or dealings with them (ICA).”

Mission Aviation Fellowship, an evangelical organization that provides planes and pilots to fly personnel and relief goods into remote places, has also felt the ripple effect of the InterAid controversy.

The Redlands organization’s president, Chuck Bennett, said pledges to a television fund-raising special, “Famine Airlift,” had fallen 30% since the appearance of news stories reflecting unfavorably on ICA.

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“All of a sudden over the weekend it (giving) dropped dramatically,” Bennett said. He added that although his organization would be glad to work with ICA, he had met with the field leaders of 10 or 12 relief agencies in Ethiopia in mid-December but “never heard ICA mentioned at all.”

“They (ICA) could have sent money but it’s highly unlikely they have an office (in Ethiopia) or anyone on the ground (there),” Bennett said.

Bennett’s observations were supported by leaders of other established relief agencies working in Ethiopia.

Bob Hindmarsh, a finance secretary for the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that the ICA controversy had apparently not affected giving to his relief and rehabilitation agency. But he agreed with leaders of other religious aid groups interviewed that it “may tarnish everybody.”

“It raises questions in people’s minds about whether their contributions are going where they want them to go and where the agency has promised them to go,” Hindmarsh said.

Lowell Ditweiler of the Mennonite Central Committee in Akron, Pa., said his office had an increase in calls from people asking, “Are your foodstuffs getting through? Do you have people there? What kind of overhead expenses do you have?”

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“When people read these reports and don’t give,” Ditweiler said, “that’s what really hurts. The dollar that isn’t given doesn’t help. And the food that isn’t sent definitely doesn’t get there.” He said his committee was “getting strong support” and that “the goods are getting through.”

Catholic Relief Services, with 42 years of assistance in Third World countries--including 10 years in Ethiopia--is feeding 1.6 million people there each month, according to spokeswoman Beth Griffin.

She said that although contributions had not fallen off in the wake of investigations into the finances of ICA and Bass, Catholic Relief had been receiving more inquiries.

“We’re pleased when people ask questions,” she said. “When they are satisfied, they generally give a second time. People who respond to an emotional appeal generally do it as a one-shot deal.”

Agencies such as Church World Service, the relief arm of the 31-denomination National Council of Churches, have built-in checks to assure accountability to their members and the public. In Ethiopia, for example, Church World Service has worked for 10 years with the Christian Relief and Development Assn., a clearing house of 26 U.S., European and Ethiopian relief groups. The association holds weekly meetings to coordinate and monitor relief distribution.

“Having a working relationship with an indigenous agency like the Christian Relief and Development Assn. means that over a period of time we can observe . . . the reliability of that agency,” said J. Richard Butler, an executive with Church World Service.

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Responding to an inquiry by The Times, Brother Augustine O’Keefe, the director of the Christian Relief and Development Assn., said in a cable from Addis Ababa last week that InterAid had not been able to secure a visa to work in Ethiopia.

“We have been informed that they are purchasing a vehicle which has been shipped and . . . that they are shipping 25 tons of high-protein food,” the telex said.

O’Keefe added that although some medicines from ICA had arrived, “We have not received any donations from ICA during 1984 or to date this year.”

At a press conference in Camarillo last week, Bass said that since November, ICA had collected about $334,000 for Ethiopian relief.

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