Concern seeks to return to founding principles

Charity’s new five-year plan to focus on fragile environments and long-term poverty

“The core message is: aid works.”Concern  chief executive Dominic MacSorley in Juba, South Sudan. Photograph: Concern Worldwide US

“The core message is: aid works.”Concern chief executive Dominic MacSorley in Juba, South Sudan. Photograph: Concern Worldwide US

 

The past few years have been trying for aid agencies. Global progress in reducing extreme hunger has coincided with a spike in large-scale armed conflicts, reversing some advances, prompting millions to flee their homelands and posing acute challenges for humanitarians seeking to reach those most in need.

Recession in the main donor states has resulted in cuts to aid budgets and a falloff in individual donations.

In Ireland, a difficult climate has been compounded by controversies over salaries and governance in domestic charities.

Only recently have there been signs of recovery. Concern Worldwide saw a drop of about 20 per cent in its individual non-emergency donations during the economic crisis, but in the past few months the trend has begun to reverse.

“The Irish public’s response to major disasters has always been very strong and this was maintained even during the economic crisis,” says Concern’s chief executive, Dominic MacSorley.

“Outside of emergencies raising income has been challenging, reflecting the difficulties that households themselves faced in making ends meet.”

Concern’s new five-year strategic plan, published recently, shows how far the organisation has come since it was founded almost 50 years ago in the front room of a young Dublin couple, John and Kay O’Loughlin, who were outraged by the starvation and deaths in Biafra, the first televised famine.

Its budget in its first year in operation, 1968-69, was £414,000. Today it is €182 million. The target is to hit €200 million, and benefit 25 million people annually, by 2020.

Strategic shift

It commits to making greater impact on long-term poverty, beefing up emergency response capacity and focusing more on fragile environments – a category that encompassed just 20 per cent of the world’s population in 1990 but now describes the reality for more than half the people on the planet.

The process is in train. In recent years Concern withdrew from Cambodia and Laos. Last month it pulled out of Tanzania. It has moved into Syria and Central African Republic and hopes to begin work in Yemen. “We are now very much an organisation that is predominantly seeking to work in fragile areas,” says MacSorley.

“It’s about making choices and saying, as an organisation that is coming out of Ireland, what is your area of specialisation in the world?”

MacSorley began his career with Concern as a 26-year-old working in refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border in the 1980s. He is a veteran of crisis response, having worked in some of the most difficult regions in which the agency has been based.

He takes pride in recent achievements. In parts of Ethiopia in which Concern is based, for example, the “hunger gap” has reduced from nine months to below six. “That is huge,” says MacSorley. “That has got a dramatic impact on the ability of somebody to feed their family.” In villages in which it works in Haiti, access to clean and safe water has risen in three years from eight per cent to 82 per cent. “The core message is: aid works. In a world of scepticism, it’s really worth saying.”

Parts of the aid sector have long been squeamish about private sector involvement in humanitarian and development work, but MacSorley is emphatic about the need for more partnerships.

“My view is that we’re moving away from the point where we’re saying, we have the resources on our own”, he says. “The private sector is engaged anyway, like it or not. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a bigger budget than anyone.

“In Haiti, we can work on improving the literacy of vulnerable women in slums. But we don’t build factories. We can ensure that the poorest are better equipped to get a job in a factory that somebody else builds. That is inevitably where it needs to go.”

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Yet he insists on optimism. In 2014, he returned to Rwanda for the 20-year commemorations of the genocide. It was his first time back since a three-year stint in the 1990s.

“To see how far a country had advanced within a 20-year period. It’s got strong economic growth, it’s got security. Yes, there are issues, including poverty issues. But to see it is hugely encouraging. When you look today at Syria or the Central African Republic, the one thing you cannot afford to be is defeatist. You wouldn’t be in this business if you were.”