How Ireland benefits from our aid work overseas
John FitzGerald: Irish Aid’s activity boosts our influence and opens doors to trade
President Michael D Higgins on a state visit to Vietnam in 2016. The president was visiting a district in Vinh Linh to see work Irish Aid had completed. Photograph: Maxwell’s
Ten Ministers and former ministers, from four political parties, attended the launch in 2012 of Ronan Murphy’s history of Ireland’s official aid programme. This reflected the wide support Irish Aid has received from across the political spectrum.
The broad backing for Irish Aid reflects a long tradition of development work undertaken by our Christian missionaries and NGOs since the second World War.
While the original motivation for the missionary work may have been a desire to spread Christian beliefs, in the postwar context, with rapid decolonisation, the missionaries focused on promoting educational, health and broader social initiatives among the poorest communities they worked with.
While the objective of the Irish Aid programme is to better the lives of those living in the relevant communities, there is an indirect benefit for Ireland in building goodwill
They left their mark in building institutions; in India a good English speaker used to be someone with “convent-school” education.
Today, nearly all of the missionaries have retired and, in their place, are representatives of a wide range of Irish NGOs and official bodies.
Their work is often difficult, sometimes lonely, but it has been carried on by generations of Irish experts from different backgrounds.
The primary focus of the Irish aid programme has been firmly on developing the local economy and society in the countries we work with. We are not there to sell people arms nor to cement global alliances.
Instead, we are trying to meet the needs of the local community and build up their own capacity. To ensure that these local needs are best met it is essential to work with the local administration.
In turn, to make such a partnership work resources may be needed to support that administration.
Our official aid programme, which assists some of the poorest countries in the world, grew from less than 0.1 per cent of our national income in 1974 to reach 0.6 per cent by 2008.
There was a reduction in this percentage during the economic crisis, and it currently represents about 0.4 per cent of national income, though it is due to increase again over the coming decade.
While the percentage share has fallen, in absolute terms the programme is substantial at about €800 million a year.
Appropriately, there is an increasing emphasis on counting the outcomes that are achieved, and improving its value, rather than measuring inputs. Management expertise is an essential ingredient to success.
The role of Irish Aid in promoting development has evolved over time. While media attention may focus on the latest disaster, the bulk of Irish Aid activity is targeted at producing a long-term impact.
There is an indirect benefit for Ireland in building goodwill through aid
To promote real development it is important that it is done as part of a continuing programme. Dipping in and out of a particular country would be totally counterproductive. Thus it is essential to concentrate the direct Irish effort on a limited range of countries and locations.
The need to ensure that the Irish Aid programme makes a real difference means that it cannot be ramped up, or down, rapidly. Compared with earlier years, today a higher proportion of Ireland’s aid is delivered directly by Irish agencies, rather than being channelled through multilateral European Union or United Nations programmes.
Inevitably, some projects work better than others and programmes need to evolve to reflect the evidence as to what works best. Some failures are inevitable but what is important is to learn from them and move on.
Characteristic of the work of Irish Aid is a small programme targeting some of the poorest and most marginalised communities in Vietnam – ethnic minorities living in mountainous areas – that focuses on education and gender empowerment. A cultural by-product of this work is a women’s GAA team in Vietnam there.
A much bigger programme operates in Mozambique, a country which is vulnerable to climate change, with substantial damage already being done by flooding. Part of the programme there involves supporting the development of crops that have a short cycle and, where drought is a problem, crops that are less water intensive. In each case, the programme is tailored to the needs of the local community.
While the objective of the Irish Aid programme is to better the lives of those living in the relevant communities, there is an indirect benefit for Ireland in building goodwill.
For example, I recall meeting a senior official from the Vietnamese foreign ministry on a flight. While he had no direct involvement with Irish affairs, he was well informed about Ireland’s aid programme and about the work of our embassy in Vietnam.
Indirectly, we are building influence and goodwill for Ireland in our target countries, which can help our broader policy interests, and also open the door to future trade as these countries become more prosperous.