Missionaries created the template on which Ireland’s aid programme is built
They are part of the communities to which they’ve dedicated their lives
‘Speaking in Malawi recently, President Michael D Higgins said that the legacy of Irish missionaries “continues today through the inspirational work of their successors here in Malawi and across the globe”.’ Above, President Higgins and his wife Sabina arriving at the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa on the first day of his official visit to Ethiopia, Malawi and South Africa. Photograph: Chris Bellew / Fennell Photography
This year marks the end of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs were visionary, with clear targets to improve lives threatened by disease and hunger in developing countries.
Substantial progress has been made in the achievement of the goals. For example, in 1990, 50 per cent of people in developing regions lived on less than $1.25 a day, but this has dropped to 22 per cent.
That means 700 million fewer people are living in extreme poverty.
Much more remains to be done. Work on a replacement programme, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is well advanced. Last September, the UN General Assembly accepted a proposal for a new set of broader goals for up to 2030.
The secretary general has published his report on these goals, The Road to Dignity by 2030, in which he summarises them in “six essential elements”. These are dignity, people, planet, prosperity, justice and partnership, which incorporate the three pillars of sustainability - economic, social and environmental.
Ireland and Kenya have been appointed by the UN to co-facilitate the final stages of negotiations for this new global development agenda that will be approved by the UN General Assembly next September. This is a great achievement and honour for Ireland and Irish Aid. It demonstrates the positive reputation Ireland and our aid programme has achieved.
Unpaid ambassadorsAn international reputation takes decades to grow. Our reputation in development aid has been driven by values that underpin effectiveness. For many decades, Irish missionaries were the unpaid ambassadors of our country as they lived and ministered among poor and marginalised people in developing countries.
Their values were grounded in respect, dignity, compassion, integrity, and commitment to the poor. As various presidents and government ministers have acknowledged many times, our missionaries created the example and the environment upon which the country’s international aid programme was built.
Many of our leading business people operating internationally have commented on the positive reputation of Ireland that our missionaries generated, opening pathways that help international trade.
There are fewer than 1,500 Irish-born missionaries serving overseas. While vocations to the religious life in Ireland have seen a major decline, vocations in developing countries are growing significantly. An estimated 3,500 local or indigenous missionaries work alongside Irish colleagues whom they are gradually replacing.
Speaking in Malawi recently, President Michael D Higgins said the legacy of Irish missionaries “continues today through the inspirational work of their successors here in Malawi and across the globe”.
Those 5,000 missionaries constitute one of the largest groups supporting the poor to become more self-sufficient and extricate themselves from the cycle of poverty.
Development by missionaries is recognised by the Government as an integral part of Ireland’s overseas aid programme. It is a unique part because it gives geographical spread into remote rural areas.
Disaster responseWhen disasters such as earthquakes or typhoons occur, missionaries are on the ground ready to respond, as we witnessed in Haiti, the Philippines and in the current Ebola crisis in West Africa.
During a recent visit to Kenya and Tanzania, I observed the excellent work being done in very difficult circumstances by local and Irish missionaries. Their commitment and passion in helping the poor is exceptional. The uniqueness of their work lies in their being part of the communities to whom they dedicate their lives..
An outstanding feature is their ability to understand local communities, already rich in structures, which facilitates better organisation and capacity to help themselves with greater effectiveness.
Their ability to advocate and gain the active support of local state agencies and other support systems is remarkable. In many clinics and health centres it is common to find state employees involved.
The SDGs will provide further opportunities for missionaries. Many of the SDGs are aligned with missionary values – especially poverty and hunger; inclusive and equitable education; gender equality and empowerment of women; healthy lives and wellbeing; and sustainable agriculture, management of water, environment and climate change.
Misean Cara and missionaries look forward to working with Irish Aid in achieving these challenging SDGs for the poor and marginalised.
Matt Moran is chairman of Misean Cara – a company with charitable status set up in 2004 to distribute Irish Aid funds to missionaries in developing countries