Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 24 May 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence
World Vision Ireland: Discussion
I welcome Ms Helen Keogh, Ms Niamh Cooper and their colleagues from World Vision Ireland to discuss the work of their organisation and receive a report of their recent visit to South Sudan. I understand Mr. Liam Cunningham accompanied their staff on the visit to South Sudan and that he has prepared a video for the benefit of the committee.
Before we begin, I remind members, witnesses and those in the Visitors Gallery to ensure that their mobile phones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference, even when left on silent mode, with the recording equipment in the committee room.
I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or body outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. If, however, they are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I call Ms Helen Keogh and her colleagues to make their opening statements.
Ms Helen Keogh:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to discuss the incredible work World Vision is doing in South Sudan among other places. The Chairman has shown a great interest in this work and I thank him for that. I am accompanied by Ms Niamh Cooper who recently returned from South Sudan, which she visited along with our ambassador, Mr. Liam Cunningham. She is our head of communications.
I am also accompanied by my successor, Mr. Niall McLoughlin, as I am retiring next week, as well as by Ms Andrea Finnegan, our programmes officer on the humanitarian side, and Ms Sheila Garry, our programmes director, all of whom have deep knowledge in this area.
World Vision is the largest privately funded non-governmental organisation, NGO, in the world. It works in over 100 countries and the World Vision partnership employs over 44,000 people, many in the countries in which we are working. We engage in long-term development work. We stay and work with communities for many years to take them out of poverty and ensure they are self-sufficient. We also advocate on people's behalf to help them to have a voice. The voice of vulnerable children, in particular, must be heard.
On the humanitarian side, we provide an emergency response and rehabilitation services where the need is vast. We will talk about that side of things and our work in South Sudan. It is more interesting to hear about the work we do. I, therefore, invite Ms Cooper to tell the committee about her recent trip to South Sudan and the work we are doing there.
Ms Niamh Cooper:
I thank committee members for having us. It is an honour to be here. After travelling to places like South Sudan, it is wonderful to be able to come back and let people know what is happening there. That is the reason we do it and it is essential that we do so. Therefore, we are grateful to have this opportunity.
I will start with an overview of the context of what is happening in South Sudan and then go into detail on the work of World Vision. My colleague, Ms Finnegan, will speak about our Irish Aid focused work.
Ms Niamh Cooper:
There are 7.1 million people who are severely food insecure as a result of the conflict in South Sudan. That is the projection for the period between May and July this year. That means that the people concerned do not have access to food - they are starving. It is leading to malnutrition and death. Some 1 million children under the age of five years are acutely malnourished. That is horrific. I have travelled to many places with World Vision and never seen the severity of the conditions in South Sudan at the beginning of this month. I had to walk out of nutrition centres a few times because they were overcrowded, with queues outside. They were like what we see on those terrible television advertisements, with starving children who were skin and bone suffering from malaria and severe malnutrition. One woman had on her knee two very small twin babies who were desperately trying to breastfeed. However, looking at her it was possible to tell that there was no chance they were going to get any nutrition from her. When I asked her about it, she said they were actually improving. When she had first arrived, they were in an even worse state. They looked like newborn babies, but they were actually six months old. That is the type of situation with which we are dealing and it was multiplied by hundreds on any one day. It is serve.
Some 4 million people have been displaced, one third of them within South Sudan and the rest in neighbouring countries. They are running from horrific conflict. When we spoke to the children, so many of them told us that they had witnessed their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and friends being murdered in front of their eyes. That is from what they are running. There is no number 999 to dial. They just have to run and flee.
The economic situation in South Sudan is horrific, with hyperinflation running at a rate of up to 500%. The humanitarian budget is providing for the provision of services in the country. It is two to four times the national budget and used to provide health and education facilities.
There has been an attempt to seek a cessation of hostilities. I am moving to the next slide in my presentation. The pink dots on the map of South Sudan are the areas where there is conflict. There is conflict almost everywhere now and it is horrific. That is what is causing the crisis. People are being forced from their homes and cannot farm to produce food. That is why there is no food available in the country. The UN World Food Programme, WFP, shared the map with me when I was there. I thought it was a powerful illustration of how the country was deteriorating. From the top of the slide downwards, the red zones are the areas in which there is food insecurity. In January 2016 there were no red zones. There were orange zones, areas in which there were food crises. The last image on the bottom right of the slide shows that there are emergencies across the entire country. The situation was bad to start with, but it is getting worse daily. From our perspective, we are desperate for the international community to be made aware of this, step in and do something to help the people of South Sudan.
The key issues affecting children and the with which communities we are working are conflict, displacement and violence. Children are mainly affected by the violence. They have been murdered, sexually assaulted and forced into military and armed groups. They are traumatised.
I have commented on the economic situation. Some 33% of the people in South Sudan have access to health services; the rest do not. There is malnutrition, as well as malaria and, as a result of 3 million people not having access to water, cholera. It is severe.
Most children in South Sudan are not in school. As a result, illiteracy rates are among the worst in the world. Only 16% of women and 24% of men can read and write. The position is dire.
I will give a quick overview of World Vision. It is the largest NGO in South Sudan where it has been operating for over 30 years, including when it was part of Sudan. It has a presence in 30 states represented by the grey areas on the map. Irish Aid is supporting our work in Melut and Renk in the extreme north. World Vision is dealing with a total of 1.3 million people, mainly children and women. We have almost 1,000 staff, run 68 projects and are investing $100 million. We have listed our major donors which, of course, include Irish Aid. We provide non-food items such as blankets, cooking equipment, water and sanitation facilities. There is a desperate need for water, without which, as we know, children die as a result of diarrhoea and diseases such as cholera. It is essential that we provide help. I refer also to the provision of health services, livelihoods and protection. World Vision is the World Food Programme's leading partner in providing food assistance. We are providing food for over 1 million people throughout South Sudan. World Vision is on the ground, even in the most dangerous areas. We work with local and national staff. The World Food Programme airdrops food and World Vision distributes it. It is still very dangerous for staff on the ground. There have been many security issues. We call on the international community to ensure humanitarian workers can continue to provide food.
We focus mainly on maternal and child health services. We provide children under five years with nutritional and malarial support. Malaria is the biggest killer of children in South Sudan. Malnourished children are much more susceptible to it. It can be contracted by up to 70% of children during the rainy season.
That is a huge number and up to 30% of these children do not make it. Our focus is on providing support in that area.
We also deal with water and sanitation. We are providing hundreds of thousands of people with clean water. Nutrition entails emergency feeding for children who are severely malnourished. We also provide protection. We have what are known as child-friendly spaces throughout the country. These are essential spaces where children are safe to play. They learn, are educated and receive psychological support in these spaces. There are also football pitches and they children sing, dance and colour pictures. The children, who have been through the most horrific experiences, smile and laugh in these places, which are essential. We have also worked with the United Nations to release hundreds of child soldiers whom we are rehabilitating after their experiences.
We are also working in Uganda, where 1.3 million South Sudanese people are currently displaced. I do not know if the committee is aware that the Ugandan Government has a strong policy on accepting refugees and pursues an open door policy. Uganda provides refugees with land and tries to help them support themselves while living in the country as refugees. More than 100 people a day are still entering Uganda, whereas last year, the figure was 2,000 per day. While the figure has decreased, people are still entering the country and 61% of them are children. People go to Uganda to try to get education and healthcare for their children.
World Vision is responding. We are providing nearly 700,000 refugees with food and 70,000 children with protection programmes, mainly through our child-friendly spaces. We provide education and we have provided clean water to more than 30,000 people. We are supporting livelihoods also, for example, training people to be carpenters, even in camps such as the Bidi Bidi refugee camp. I was just reading about one young man who trained to be a carpenter in the camp and whose business is booming. Life continues and we are supporting that. My colleague, Ms Finnegan, will speak about our Irish Aid funded work.
Ms Andrea Finnegan:
Irish Aid has been a very committed and strong supporter of World Vision's programme in South Sudan. Looking at the map, Irish Aid is supporting our programme in the far north, in the state of Upper Nile. The current programme is part of a two-year multi-annual programme. It is part of a multi-country response. In South Sudan specifically we are working towards three objectives, namely, child protection, education and women's protection. Our total funding from Irish Aid for 2017 and 2018 comes to just under €1.2 million. In comparison with other years, the shift to multi-annual programming this year has been a real benefit to our team in South Sudan, because the team has been able to plan for two years. I know that is an obvious point, but multi-annual programming gives us a sense of stability for the longer-term in planning for internally displaced persons, IDPs, and the host communities.
Regarding child protection, as my colleague, Ms Cooper, stated, we are working on child-friendly spaces, raising awareness of the rights of children and child protection issues, and working with community members in order that they can take action to make the community safer.
We provide education in emergencies. We are building semi-permanent and temporary learning facilities, providing girl-friendly latrines and providing school learning materials. We work with the community through parent-teacher associations and community education committees. That is important for raising awareness of the importance of education, maintaining enrolment rates in the schools and providing a sense of stability to the children who have been displaced in Upper Nile state.
We are also working on women's protection and gender empowerment, including raising issues around gender-based violence, GBV. We work with partners in the area on the referral pathway of response services for GBV. We also provide women with life skills to help them along the way and build their resilience in responding to the challenges they face. That is our broad-brush programme in South Sudan.
In Renk and Melut, World Vision also works on food security, livelihoods and nutrition. The organisation tries to link up the programmes. The women and children targeted under this programme are also targeted in our food security and nutrition programme. As such, there is an integrated approach to what the children can receive.
The focus on education and child protection is vital. Trends show that education and protection are most likely to be the underfunded responses in an emergency. It is very much a lifesaving activity for World Vision, along with Irish Aid, to provide these services for the children. It gives them a sense of belonging and, as Ms Cooper said, it helps them to feel safe. The programmes provide a place for them to play, learn and feel like children again. It is a vital response and we welcome the funding from Irish Aid to enable us to be flexible and to fund areas of protection and education. Some 6% of children in South Sudan are displaced. Most of them are not in education. In 2017, almost 10,000 children accessed education through this programme, a significant number considering the challenges and population movement.
Ms Niamh Cooper:
I want to share a couple of stories from the people. We have been sharing big figures and numbers in the millions, and sometimes humans get lost in that. The boy pictured in slide 12 is called Geoffrey. He witnessed his parents being killed. He is now attending school in Juba, which is supported by World Vision. Considering what he has been through, he is exceptionally positive. He has been through what we could never imagine but he hopes for his future. When one asks him and nearly everybody what they want or what is most important to them, the answer is peace. They just want peace. Geoffrey is focused on his education. He want to be a doctor and he wants peace.
Slide 13 shows a baby who is in one of the nutrition centres. The baby was much more unhealthy a few weeks earlier but his mother received nutritional support to enable her to breast-feed him and help him to be much healthier.
Slide 14 shows an amazing woman who was part of our cash programming. We have a programme in which we give people $40 a month for six months, along with training on how to set up a business, create small kitchen gardens and so forth. She had a stall in the market where she sold peanut paste and she had managed to start saving a large part of the $40 she received each month. She has started to put her three children through school and she says one child will be a pilot, a second will be a pastor and the third will be a doctor. She was already planning on expanding her business before the six months had elapsed. This shows the resilience of these people. They are amazing. They have been through hell but they are not giving up. They are powerful. They just want peace and they deserve peace and a future. I call on the Government to do all it can to help bring about peace in South Sudan. Ireland is highly respected internationally in this area.
What is needed now? Funding is obviously needed and we are exceptionally grateful for the funding that Irish Aid has given already. The recent funding announcement is very welcome, but we will always ask for more because much more is needed. As I said, conflict resolution is vital. Nothing can happen and we cannot move forward until there is peace in South Sudan. There are so many possibilities for these amazing people who, like everybody else, including our own children, deserve peace and opportunities. Please God there will be peace.
After conflict, we will need to focus on long-term development and helping people to get back on their feet. Let us not forget what these children have witnessed. While they are smiling now, there is no doubt they will need psychological and psychosocial support to deal with what they have experienced and move forward.
Ms Helen Keogh:
As Ms Cooper stated, World Vision staff go out to see what is happening for themselves, often in very dangerous situations.
I would like to reiterate some of the points that have been made. The people in question deserve to live in peace. In that regard, we would be very grateful for any intervention the Irish Government could make as it is not our place to intervene in that way. We are there to help the people who are suffering, but it would be wrong for us not to allude to it. We are very grateful for the extra funding that has been made available, but this is now a forgotten issue. Last year everybody was talking about South Sudan, but nobody is talking about it now. We really feel very strongly that we must highlight and focus attention on the issue in order that a remedy can be found. We are in it for the long haul.
I am not part of the joint committee, but I am attending this meeting because last September I travelled to Uganda with World Vision, with Deputy James Lawless and Senator Neale Richmond, among others. I saw some of the very good work being done there. I was sceptical about going because I am sceptical about many things which involve fundraising where one cannot see exactly where the money goes. There is, however, a lot of good work being done in helping children, particularly in schools. Alleviating hunger is a huge issue. When we asked what people felt they needed, we were told that many children were too hungry to go to school. World Vision alone will not be able to resolve that issue.
I have two suggestions which might improve matters. We came across people who were waiting to be transported to a refugee or resettlement camp and who were only being provided with nutritional biscuits, rather than hot meals. There were pregnant women and young kids there. Common sense has to prevail as much as possible in such situations. Hot food had been provided in certain place but was then withdrawn for some reason. Unfortunately, we did not get to learn much about the level of maternal health and the different health services being provided for women. I would have liked to have seen more in that regard. I know that good work is being done in the area and would appreciate it if more information could be sent to us.
I commend the work World Vision is doing. It is very difficult, but another big positive was that many people living in the area were employed by World Vision to work with others. That helps to empower them and give them the chance to work. I wish World Vision continued success. I do not want to speak on behalf of the committee because I am not a member, but World Vision should know that there are other Deputies with an interest in its work and that it should keep in touch with us.
Ms Niamh Cooper:
Mr. Liam Cunningham really wanted to be here and was very upset that he could not make it. He is very passionate about the work of World Vision and the issues involved. In October he travelled to Uganda to the Bidi Bidi camp where the South Sudanese refugees were. At the beginning of this month he travelled with me to Juba in South Sudan to experience the work we were doing and to see the situation there. In the video he reflects on what he saw.
We welcome that very strong presentation by Mr. Liam Cunningham and the presentations by Ms Niamh Cooper and Ms Andrea Finnegan. It is more than four and a half years since this conflict started. It has been said here already that there is not an awareness among our community or the international community around the terrible conflict, the loss of life, the malnutrition and the displacement of people. Ms Cooper spoke about the conflict, the hunger, the malnutrition and the displacement of people and the figures she quoted illustrate the huge humanitarian disaster. Some 6.2 million people, which is more than half of the population, is in need of humanitarian assistance. One in three persons is displaced. Two thirds of the population have no access to health services and there is only 16% literacy among women. It demonstrates very vividly for us the huge humanitarian disaster, and unfortunately there is not the public awareness of it that there should be. Public awareness about catastrophes, hunger and famines is important. When there is a crisis or a huge loss of life in different parts of the world that are well covered by the Irish and the international media people will contact us by email, by phone and by writing to us asking what is being done to try to help out in those conflict areas. In the last few weeks, we have had these contacts made about the terrible loss of life in the Palestinian community. All committee members, as Members of the Oireachtas, have received a huge number of emails - we were contacted through other means also - on the need to have the Middle East peace process restored to try to bring some order to the area. Having listened to Mr. Cunningham it is most disappointing that the conflict that has gone on for four and a half years is getting worse. It is frightening. Ms Cooper referred to the lady who, through the cash transfer, is doing so much for her children and has the ambition for them to be educated and to acquire skills and contribute to society. From that perspective, the resilience is clearly evident when one hears about the ambitions of that parent. Ms Cooper also spoke of the need for security for NGOs. Can I take it from her comments that humanitarian assistance is not getting to the most vulnerable people because of the security situation and because of the terrible conditions in which her World Vision colleagues and other NGOs work in that country?
Ms Niamh Cooper:
Yes. There are places in South Sudan in dire need that we cannot access. We are in places that are very dangerous. World Vision works with local staff working on the ground in those places. We have had to take staff out of certain areas because it has become too dangerous. It is an issue in many countries around the world, including South Sudan. This is one of the reasons we call on the international community to focus on it and do everything possible to assist us in bringing aid to those who desperately need it.
I wish Ms Keogh well in her term. These were very staggering statistics but it was also good to hear the positive stories. I did not quite catch what was said about the numbers of displaced persons within Sudan. Are they all Sudanese?
With regard to conflict resolution, I met with another NGO yesterday and we spoke of how there may be a need to refocus somewhat and that conflict resolution has to be nearer to the top of the agenda. I totally accept the fact that people have to be fed and kept safe, but unless we get to the crux of the conflict everything is just going to continue as it is. Following on from that is the need to look after countries that are in conflict and very fragile.
We must consider the role of the Government in South Sudan because I am sure life goes on in its own pleasant way for the Government there. I am sure that things are very pleasant in Juba for many of its members. Is there any urgency on the part of the Government in South Sudan to reach a resolution? Mr. Cunningham referred to beneficiaries. It would be interesting to hear exactly who he has in mind. We can all speculate about who is benefitting from the conflict continuing. What is the role of the main players in trying to bring it to an end?
We hear from the EU that part of the funding is for tackling the root causes of migration. Conflict is a major cause of migration but we do not see it putting it up to people that they have to sit down at the table to bring about a resolution. We are now talking about sustainable development goals, STGs, but how can we possibly achieve any of the STGs if we are still working in conflict situations?
World Vision has 44,000 employees, many of whom are local to the countries in which they work. They would have better access to some of the more difficult places. What kinds of employees are used? Do they get particular training for the work they are doing?
In 2015 there was a peace agreement but nobody seems to be driving it. As the Chairman said, it is going further and further down the agenda. Many countries believe that the Irish Government could do more on the conflict resolution aspect because they see Ireland as an honest broker. When the witnesses ask about Government support from Ireland, what exactly can it do at EU and UN levels?
We saw the cash transfer system operate in Malawi and Mozambique. It is amazing what a small amount of money, directly into a person's hands, can do. The person has that sense of ownership and makes the decisions about it.
World Vision Ireland has been there for 30 years. What has it achieved? I am aware that this discussion is about South Sudan, but I would also like to hear more about where the NGO works in Syria. I can talk to the witnesses about that after the meeting if they prefer.
Ms Helen Keogh:
I will ask Ms Sheila Garry to respond to some of these questions also.
The issues in South Sudan, which is the newest country in the world, have been going on for many years. We want to work there but every single day there are issues for our staff there so it is very difficult for us to engage very publicly on a political level.
That is the reason we make presentations, as we are doing here today, and in this instance to appeal to the Government to do whatever it can to address these issues within the EU. We find in all the countries we work in, particularly in Africa, that the Irish Government, of whatever hue it may be, is very highly regarded because our aid programme is probably regarded as one of the best in the world.
If I were to say at this forum what we in World Vision Ireland believe a political solution would be, the fear, from our point of view, is that we would be compromised in some way, which would be very inhibiting and frustrating for us, in dealing with the people who are in such dire need. We advocate to Government, the UN and so on. Our senior people within that country deal with the government there but it is always in an informal manner. There are glaring issues sometimes that we wish to speak out about but that would put our workers in danger, which is very frustrating for us. However, we continue to advocate. We are grateful for this opportunity because this committee has a remit to inform Government. Given that the aid programme is in place, the Government is in a position perhaps to address these issues within the EU or directly with the South Sudan Government. The situation is very complex. It is heartbreaking for us to see a deterioration when we have worked for so hard for so long and have seen progress. Perhaps Ms Sheila Garry would like to speak about some of the detail of that work as she has been working there for many years.
Ms Sheila Garry:
Yes. Reference was made to the period of 30 years, and during that time the face of the conflict and all the issues in the southern part of Sudan, as it was, have been constantly changing and looking very different. It is difficult to say how much the entire nation of that very large country has improved over the course of that long period. We do what we can among certain targeted communities. We have been working in the Maloote area with Irish Aid funded support. The contribution from the Irish Government has had an enormous impact for that particular population, those people, their families and children. It is one small area of South Sudan but for those people it is everything. As was mentioned, the vast majority of children throughout South Sudan are not in school.
For the past four years in that area of the Upper Nile, it has meant that children have had access to basic primary education. It is challenging to have a permanent presence of teachers who are fully trained and qualified. There are many difficulties in that programme. For those communities who are displaced, who might have travelled from one county to another and who plan to move on to another one as their local situation becomes volatile, it has meant they have been able to return to the normality of the availability of education and their children being able too access schools. In those particular camps, as people are mostly based in a camp situation, we have been co-ordinating at a very high level with other agencies, and thousands upon thousands of children are accessing education who otherwise would not be. Likewise, thousands of the smaller children are able to access a child-friendly space who otherwise would not be able to do so. For that number of children to be able to get that type of counselling and work through the trauma they have experienced is a major achievement.
For us, we always need to be able to bring it back to the fact that these are the communities with which we are working. The large-scale picture is that a great number of issues need to be tackled in that country. Every agency is doing what it can in a particular area, and for that affected population, it is making a gigantic difference. Other agencies may be intervening in other sectors in that area but we are the only agency working in the education field in Maloote county. Without that Irish Aid support, there would not be education for those primary school aged children.
All our staff are trained up to the standard required for their positions. World Vision has very strong human resources, HR, policies and a code of practice in respect of care practices for staff, and we will always prioritise the safety and well-being of staff. We have a mix of local staff with some international staff when some of the required skills cannot be found locally in the areas. For example, an accountant or highly qualified medical staff may not be available locally and those staff may be international, but our approach is always with a view to building up the skills and resources of the local staff we hire. The hiring of staff is always done with sensitivity, for example, to the ethnic group from which they might come. We have an approach which is called "do no harm". That means, for example, when we are engaging in a new area with a new population or hiring staff, we as an agency need to make sure that in whatever way we work with that community, no difficulties are created by the fact that we are there. In addition to that, we always incorporate elements of peace building and are mindful of the way our work can bring different communities together. A part of that is ensuring there is transparency with respect to our being seen to be clear regarding who the people are whom we employ.
I have to admit ignorance about this. I appreciate the representatives being here highlighting these tragedies, but this message has not come across generally to people.
There are always conflicts that have a sexy appeal to the media but these places tend to be forgotten. Our missionary work over the years concentrated on Africa. All of this good work is a constant struggle. I hope the opportunity of this meeting will highlight and benefit the work of the witnesses. That we could invite them here may be rewarding for them but listening to them has been equally rewarding for us.
Where does one start with this type of situation? The financial aid we provide is only a drop in the ocean in terms of what needs to be done. I appreciate that it is not the business of World Vision to try to find a political solution to what is going on but in the witnesses' experience is any progress being made such that there might come a day when they will be able to withdraw and say they contributed to that success? Many of the problems in different parts of the world tend to be ongoing because new generations tend to keep the struggle going. It seems that we are not getting to the grips with the real problem. I accept this is not the concern of World Vision in that its job is to help people through aid and education. As a committee, what can we do to help identify the real problem? Is the issue tribal differences and so on? I am ignorant as to what is the problem. Perhaps the witnesses would elaborate on what in their experience is causing this problem. For example, is it a religious problem or a dictatorship problem? What is the underlying problem that has not been dealt with? I am ashamed to say that these parts of the world are forgotten. We hear so much about other conflict areas but we rarely read or hear about South Sudan and the horrific stories relayed to us this morning. I sincerely hope that through the media this story will get out to the general public. This is not about the amount of money the Government is giving to World Vision. It is important but is only a drop in the ocean. What is more important is World Vision's obvious commitment to dealing with this situation, in respect of which it deserves moral support as well as financial support. Perhaps following this meeting the media might give this problem the exposure it needs.
I am 40 years in politics. I am horrified to admit that I have only ever heard of some of these parts of the African continent in the context of what I knew in the past about the black babies and so on. The idea that in this day and age hundreds of thousands of people have to flee their homes and countries into a neighbouring country is unreal. I reiterate that it is extremely rewarding to hear about World Vision's commitment to this area, as is the knowledge the witnesses are passing to us today. I sincerely hope that the committee will follow up with it on how matters are progressing. I ask the witnesses to be straightforward, if they can, in telling us what we can do that would be of practical assistance in making this an issue of which people are aware. I wish Mr. Keogh the best of luck in her future career.
I thank the witnesses for being here. I am always grateful for the Irish organisations and the example they set worldwide. There is no doubt that Ireland is one of the leaders in providing aid. I welcome that in this instance we are aiding people in these countries to become self-sufficient, which I believe is the right route to go. I am very involved in immigrant rights. Irish people were once refugees. We sought and took refuge in other countries. Many Irish Americans have short memories of where they came from. I am proud of World Vision and the many other organisations which do this work throughout the world. It is in our DNA and I hope that will always be the case, never forgetting what happened to us 150 or 160 years ago.
I would like the witnesses to elaborate on the refugee camps. It is incredible to think that Uganda has an open border in light of what it went through many years ago. It is to be complimented and helped as well because I am sure that puts a severe strain on its budget. It was mentioned that there are 2 million people displaced internally and 2 million in neighbouring countries. Perhaps the witness would elaborate on whether this is the case in South Sudan only or in other countries as well.
Yesterday, the Seanad had a discussion on the Palestine-Israel conflict. In this regard, I believe there is inactivity on the part of the European Union. Ireland has shown before that it can take the lead in taking on these countries and showing them up for what they are. Like Deputy Seán Barrett I would like to know why these conflicts are continuing. In terms of the EU, there is much talk but little action. As a member of the EU, Ireland needs to stand up and be counted on this matter. We did so previously in respect of other countries, which I am sure I do not have to mention. We need to take action ourselves because what is being done with regard to the conflicts in these countries from a European Union point of view is inadequate. I know Sudan has split into two countries. Perhaps the witnesses would elaborate on whether other countries are taking in refugees from South Sudan and, also, on the issue of internal displacement.
Ms Helen Keogh:
I thank members for their questions and their support. The political initiative which members spoke about is really important. World Vision is operating in many different countries. Leaving aside the particular situation we are discussing today, it is not all doom and gloom. Through our work in west Africa, we have seen countries that are succeeding.
They are democratic, and while they struggle, they are on the correct road and are getting the support they need. South Sudan, the newest country in the world, is going through a civil war, which seems to be inevitable in the aftermath of independence, as the experiences of many countries suggest. After independence, civil war seems to ensue. We are talking about a place with many different tribes, which exacerbates the situation. There are people there who want and need peace. The children there need a future. We have to help them in whatever way we can, through our advocacy or by other means.
We empower people on the ground. We encourage people and help them to realise that things like equality and justice exist. We are not imposing anything on anybody but are empowering people so that they can deal with issues for themselves. The issue is that if people are struggling so badly that they are just existing from day to day, they cannot concentrate on anything beyond that. We are trying to help those people to get out of the very basic situation they are in. As Ms Garry has said, however, even in the area we are working in, we can see light at the end of the tunnel, and progress is being made. We very much hope that some of the young people we are helping at the moment can help to bring their country out of conflict.
Ms Niamh Cooper:
South Sudan was fighting for independence from Sudan for years. There was a war and it achieved independence. Two South Sudanese leaders are now fighting for control. As an NGO we cannot say much more than that, but it is very similar to what happened here in Ireland. We cannot question what they are doing or say that they are not as civil as we are. The same thing happened in Ireland. It is to be hoped a resolution can be reached there, as was the case here.
RTÉ was with me and Mr. Cunningham in South Sudan and reported from there each day. We also appeared on "Morning Ireland". Our national broadcaster has made an effort to raise awareness of the situation.
The members here are better known than I am. I ask them please to speak about the situation as often as possible and in as many places as they can to raise awareness of this issue. They must make sure that our Government and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade continue to prioritise it, not just through funding but, if possible, through conflict resolution. When the people of South Sudan are asked what it is they want, they do not say food or health but peace. They know that without that there will be no end to their troubles.
The majority of the people who are internally displaced are South Sudanese, but there are some people in the north of the country who have come from Sudan and are now refugees in South Sudan, which adds another layer of complexity to the situation.
The Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda has had an open door policy, which is very progressive. It has provided refugees with plots of land, and we have supported those refugees in terms of trying to teach them how to look after that land. There is, however, a desperate need to help Uganda to fund this. Uganda has its own problems, so the fact that it has done this means that the rest of the world has no excuse. It definitely needs funding and support.
Ms Sheila Garry:
A question was asked about the external movement of people and where people were moving to apart from Uganda. While there has been huge movement to Uganda, over the years many South Sudanese people have moved to Kenyan refugee camps. Recently there has been movement of people in the northern area of South Sudan to Sudan, including to areas such as the east Darfur area, which is in the very north of the country. If a person is near a border, it becomes a good option to move across it, and when he or she gets across it, that person might find people from his or her own community living there, providing a kind of security.
The conversation we are having has not changed. We support the work of World Vision and it is very important. A political resolution is required, however, and there is no impetus to find one. Are both the President and Vice President of South Sudan in Juba? Does anyone know where they are? Are there any other parliamentarians? Is government functioning with either the President or Vice President at the helm, or are there parallel governments?
Ms Sheila Garry:
There was a split between the President and the Vice President, and the Vice President is now out of the country. I believe that is a current topic of discussion between them. The South Sudanese Government knows where the Vice President is. The relationship between the two and how to get it back on track is one of the central issues in the discussions.
Ms Niamh Cooper:
In all of our programmes throughout the world we work as closely as possible with governments to facilitate access to health, education and support that we offer. The situation in South Sudan is very tricky. The Government is in control in Juba, but outside Juba its control in certain areas is questionable. When one is in Juba one does not feel particularly secure. There is a feeling that anything could happen at any stage. There is peace there at the moment, but it feels insecure, and things could get worse at any stage. We are hoping that is not the case and that it improves.
The world could offer support to South Sudan, help it bring about peace and advise it on how best to go about it. Ireland has experience in this area, so rather than dictate to South Sudan and say it is not doing a good job, we would ask that Ireland supports peace by supporting those involved in peace talks.
I thank all of the witnesses for their presentations today.
Since the joint committee was established in 2016, we have laid a particular emphasis on giving the opportunity to non-governmental organisations, NGOs, and other groups to address members on regions or countries where humanitarian disasters or conflicts are taking place. The purpose is to raise public awareness of and give the committee's endorsement to the work of many people in the most difficult areas of the world. The figures cited by the witnesses clearly demonstrate how difficult the situation is in South Sudan.
The committee will write to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade outlining the issues discussed at this meeting and the need for the international community to do more. We will also raise the political aspect of the issue and the likelihood of the 2015 peace agreement being revitalised. I understand from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that our ambassador to Ethiopia and her colleagues engage in any way they can with local, regional and national leaders in South Sudan. We will emphasise that engagement in our letter to the Tánaiste.
The Tánaiste will appear before the committee next Thursday to report on the meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council of Monday next. I and my colleagues will no doubt raise this particular issue. We want to send a message to the public at large who are very strong supporters of the Irish aid programme, including through the taxes they pay. Ireland is the eighth largest donor of humanitarian aid to South Sudan in the European Union. That South Sudan receives the second highest amount of Irish aid demonstrates a clear commitment by the Government and the Oireachtas to assist in any way we can. This is not to underestimate the serious difficulties involved.
I compliment the witnesses and their colleagues on the ground in South Sudan who are working in very difficult circumstances. We wish them well. I also compliment Ms Keogh on her work. She was a good colleague in the Oireachtas over the years and it is good to see her back. I wish Mr. McLoughlin every success in his new role as he takes over as chief executive.
On behalf of the joint committee, I formally thank all of the witnesses for their presentations and for answering members' questions. Our next meeting, on Thursday, 31 May, will be with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.