By Ken Hackett

Special to The CS&T

As we Americans watch the financial crisis unfold, and our investments and retirement accounts plunge in value day by day, many of us are starting the New Year with an overwhelming sense of fear and helplessness.

We are beginning to reassess plans we’ve made, wondering whether we’ve saved enough for retirement or college tuitions. And in our neighborhoods and communities, we are seeing signs of economic stress. People are out of work. Auction signs are sprouting up in front of foreclosed homes. And food pantries are reporting depleted stocks as demand for their services rises.

This is a time of great uncertainty and anxiety. But imagine how much worse it would be if we could not afford basic food for our families. If we had to tell our kids, “There will be no dinner tonight – maybe we can eat something at breakfast tomorrow.”

This is what life is like for the working poor in the developing world. Poor families in places like Burkina Faso are really having a hard time. A sack of rice in this West African country that cost $28 last January is now going for more than $50 – more than a day laborer makes in a month.

As I’ve traveled recently in Haiti, Tanzania and Rwanda, I’ve heard first-hand how people are struggling – to feed their families, to pay school fees, to afford anything beside food. That’s not surprising when food takes up as much as three quarters of a family’s income, which is common where people struggle with poverty. And the global food crisis, combined with the world economic meltdown, is only going to make things worse.

With the current economic turmoil, the plight of the world’s hungry people is getting much less attention in the media. And with hundreds of billions of dollars devoted to bailing out huge corporations, foreign assistance directed toward the poor will likely be a candidate for budget cuts.

We are feeling the stress at Catholic Relief Services. The increased cost of food and fuel has made our work more challenging. We are calling upon the resiliency and creativity of our staff. I have personally asked them to make sacrifices and strategically cut back in some areas so that we can stretch our budget as far as we can. Employees across the agency have contributed to developing a plan that will generate significant savings.

But there is one thing we will never sacrifice, and that is our mission: serving the poorest and most vulnerable people overseas. Despite these cuts, we will continue to do what we have been doing. We’ll just have to do it smarter.

As Americans, now is not a time to turn inward. Now, more than ever, it is important to remember we are all part of one human family. Pope Benedict reminded us of this in his Lenten message two years ago, when he spoke of the compassionate “gaze”‘ of Christ toward the poor and suffering in the world:

“In the face of the terrible challenge of poverty afflicting so much of the world’s population, indifference and self-centered isolation stand in stark contrast to the ‘gaze’ of Christ.”

Please take time to thank the Lord for all your blessings. And please include our brothers and sisters living in poverty around the world in your prayers.

Ken Hackett is president of Catholic Relief Services, the official international humanitarian agency of the U.S. Catholic community. CRS alleviates suffering and provides assistance to people in need in more than 100 countries, without regard to race, religion or nationality.