A half-century on, Concern still shows readiness to adapt to new crises
International aid agency looks to its next 50 years in a smaller, more insecure world
Former US president Bill Clinton and Irish businessman Denis O’Brien shake hands at the Concern Worldwide 50 years Tackling Extreme Poverty Conference in Dublin Castle on Friday. Photograph: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland
In 1968, John O’Loughlin Kennedy, his wife and a legion of like-minded volunteers launched an appeal to help hungry Biafrans in west Africa who were starving from famine and blockaded from food relief.
Ninety days later, the first boat with relief supplies, funded by their efforts back in Ireland, docked off the coast of Africa.
“If you tried to do it today without a famine, it would take you a year and a half what we achieved in 90 days,” recalled the 85-year-old humanitarian best known as “Loughy”.
“We had a famine working for us.”
The group had set out to raise £100,000 and ended up bringing in £3.5 million – the equivalent of €70 million in today’s money. It forced the group to turn their extraordinary act of humanitarian benevolence into something more permanent, leasing and then buying a boat and calling in favours.
“It was the bag-loads of mail coming into Northumberland Road that financed this. It was a bit hair-raising,” recalls O’Loughlin Kennedy, who was an economist by training.
That relief mission, started by a group of concerned Catholics and Protestants in a flat on Northumberland Road in Dublin, was the genesis of Concern Worldwide, the Irish aid and humanitarian agency that now has a budget of €200 million and 3,500 staff and 2,000 volunteers in 25 countries.
Reflecting on what Concern has become during a conference in Dublin on Friday to mark its 50th anniversary, the co-founder says the agency has “a readiness to try something new still”.
“It is easy for a bureaucracy to get concerned about its own place in the world and forget the people that it is supposed to be serving but Concern still has that direct focus,” said Mr O’Loughlin Kennedy.
The importance of independent aid agencies was stressed repeatedly at the conference as multilateral bodies like UN agencies face funding cuts and what President Michael D Higgins on Friday called “a culture of indifference” with the Trump administration and other nationalistic governments turning inwards.
Lavishing praise on Concern’s five decades of humanitarian work, UN deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammed also spoke at Dublin Castle of the “dire situation” in the world not seen in generations with 200 million people receiving insufficient humanitarian aid, 40 million displaced people and 20 million at risk of starvation and disease.
Recent budget cuts by US president Donald Trump for the UN are “sending a chill across the humanitarian world at a time when we should be increasing funding due to the scale of the crisis,” said Dominic MacSorley, chief executive of Concern.
He points to the chronic under-funding of humanitarian missions in the Central African Republic as “evidence of this bankruptcy of humanity”.
This is pushing Concern further into public fundraising and the reason why it opened in South Korea, a place familiar with famine which will have “a resonance to the kind of work we are doing,” said Mr MacSorley.
“It is critically important for organisations that want to maintain independence and flexibility to have the support of the public, always has been,” he said.
“Concern has always prided itself on leaving no one behind and getting to the poorest of the poor,” said Ann O’Mahony, Concern’s international programme director.
She sees the agency working more closely with developing countries, helping them to strengthen their systems for their peoples and looking at engaging more on conflict resolution and mitigating against conflict.
“What hasn’t changed and what needs to change an awful lot more is the focus on women and the role of women as decision-makers within their own families,” she said.
Mr MacSorley said Concern’s “fast humanitarian response, staying on to help to rebuild communities” has not changed in its half-century of helping the world’s most vulnerable.
“What has changed is the world is smaller, more insecure and more vulnerable,” he said.