Seanad debates

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Review of White Paper on Irish Aid: Statements, Questions and Answers


2:00 pm

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)

It is a pleasure to be in the Seanad again to address this august assembly of Senators in the Upper House. I am grateful for the opportunity to address the Seanad and to seek its views on the review of the White Paper on Irish Aid. Members of the Seanad play an important role in supporting our efforts to reduce global poverty. Many Members have served on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade over the years and have visited the developing world themselves to see at first hand how Ireland is working in partnership with communities, civil society and partner governments to reduce poverty and inequality. I appreciate this support and engagement. I look forward to discussing the inputs of Senators to the review and engaging with them in the period ahead as we shape our aid programme and build on its successes.

I am proud to lead Ireland's overseas development programme. It has earned an enviable international reputation and is rightly recognised as one of the best in the world. The primary objective of the development aid programme is the fight against extreme poverty and hunger. It is concentrated in some of the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa, has a rigorous focus on achieving results and provides strong international leadership in making aid more effective. Ireland's aid programme enjoys strong cross-party support and consistently attracts high levels of public support. Last week, an Ipsos MRBI poll commissioned by Dóchas found that 88% of Irish people are proud of Ireland's overseas aid programme. That is very gratifying, especially at this time of economic difficulty.

In my remarks today, I would like to first outline the process we have taken for the review on the White Paper on Irish Aid. Second, I would then like to raise with the Seanad some of the issues which are emerging though this process - issues which we will be taking on board as the review moves into its final stages. This will, I hope, set the scene for our discussions. The current White Paper was developed in 2006. The paper set our clearly why we give aid and what we are trying to achieve by doing so. At its heart was a commitment to reduce poverty and increase opportunity. We made a commitment to help children survive their first years and to go to school. We also committed to support people to have enough food to eat.

The White Paper was far-reaching and comprehensive. It has served the programme well by providing a solid policy basis for the decisions we have made. However, over the past six years, the world has changed. The context for international development has changed, and as Members of this House are all too aware, the context here at home has also changed. It is against that backdrop of transition that a review of the aid programme was included as one of the commitments in the programme for Government. We thought it was necessary and prudent to step back and assess the progress we have made and the challenges we have faced. We must assess the changing context at home and abroad and reassess how key issues, such as hunger, climate change, governance and human rights and gender equality are impacting on poverty. We recognised that it was time to set out the future priorities of our aid programme. From the start we have consulted widely and in an open and transparent manner. Our objective is to hear the views, suggestions and recommendations from those who own the programme - the people of Ireland. We published a consultation paper to inform the discussions and to provide guidance on how people could get involved. In order to provide independent oversight, the Irish Aid expert advisory group was requested to ensure that a meaningful consultation is undertaken and that the eventual review report is representative of that.

I pay tribute to Ms Nora Owen, the expert advisory group chairperson, and her colleagues on the group for the important role they have played to date. The public consultations have included more than 1,000 people. Public meetings took place in Limerick, Cork, Dublin and Sligo. The Human Rights Forum in February was dedicated to the review of the White Paper. We have conducted focus group discussions with key stakeholders such as NGOs, the private sector and, importantly, diaspora communities living in Ireland. We have undertaken consultations with other Departments, including through the interdepartmental committee on development which I chair. We have also encouraged individuals and organisations to make written submissions for the review. We have received more than 150 written submissions. We also have had active engagement through our website, and by using social media to reach out to as wide an audience as possible. We asked our embassies to hold local consultations in Africa to ensure that we hear clearly the voices of our civil society and government partners. The fruits of these discussions formed the basis of a regional consultation in Malawi in which I was pleased to participate. Consultation with members of the Oireachtas has been very important. I have appeared before the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs to hear the views and inputs of members. The public consultation process has now come to an end. I am satisfied that we have had an open process and that those with an interest in international development and Ireland's role have been given the chance to air their views and to influence the future direction of the programme. In the coming months, I will publish the review report which will set out a clear vision and priorities for how Irish Aid can continue to deliver real and lasting results for people living in poverty.

The evidence is emerging that aid is working. Development results in the past ten years have been the best ever recorded. Between 2005 and 2010, the total number of poor people around the world fell by nearly half a billion. Millions of child deaths have been avoided thanks to greater access to vaccines. A total of 40 million more children are going to school today than at the turn of the millennium. Ireland is playing its part in realising these impressive gains. Today, Irish Aid is recognised internationally as a world leader in delivering a high quality aid programme which delivers clear results for the world's poorest people. The programme works closely with partner governments to empower them to lead their own development. We work closely with other donors to ensure that the impact of all our aid is maximised to deliver agreed results. We work with independent and genuinely representative civil society organisations and the media from the developing world, so that they can fulfil their promise to defend the rights of the vulnerable in an unequal world. We are supporting parliaments fulfilling their critical oversight role. We have increased our engagement with the Irish public, by establishing the Irish Aid volunteering and information centre and by promoting development education in schools and in the community.

The eradication of global hunger is a key component of Ireland's foreign policy and a cornerstone of our development programme. We have taken a leadership role in this area by implementing the recommendations of the hunger task force, which sets out how we can tackle hunger most effectively. We have increased our focus on preventing and responding to humanitarian emergencies. We have established the rapid response register and financial systems to ensure our funding is provided within hours of a humanitarian emergency occurring.

In recent visits to Africa, I have seen for myself the impact of our aid programme. The number of households in Malawi with insufficient food has reduced from one in four in 2006 to one in ten today. In Ethiopia, agricultural production of grain more than doubled between 2004 and 2009. However, there are some areas in the White Paper where progress was less than expected. Ireland did not establish a tenth programme country, nor did we establish an Irish development bank. The White Paper was developed at a time of rapid economic growth in Ireland. The reduction in public expenditure, due to the difficult economic situation, has resulted in a decline of over 30% in Ireland's aid budget between 2008 and 2011.

It is important that by the end of the review process, we have a report which will guide us to prioritise further, and to focus on areas where we are confident that we will have the greatest impact on poverty. Our programme needs to provide full value for money for every cent that we spend. It needs to be fully transparent and accountable to the Irish public and to our partners. This has come out strongly in the consultations undertaken to date.

It is also imperative that we adapt effectively to the changing context globally and in our partner countries. To do so, we need to understand the changing nature of poverty, with emerging challenges such as rising food and energy prices, climate change and the global economic crisis. Africa is changing and developing faster now than ever before. In the first years of the new millennium and despite the financial crisis, annual economic growth in Africa ran at almost 5%. With this growth and development come opportunities for trade and a stronger role for emerging economies in world affairs. As countries drive their own development resources from increased trade and more efficient and fairer taxation, private sector investment, remittances and investments from emerging economies can all have a significant impact on driving sustainable inclusive growth, and reducing dependency on aid. It is important that overseas aid from Ireland complements but does not replace a country's own resources and energy.

The Africa strategy of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade recognises this new context and advances a new approach to Africa, upon which the White Paper review will build. This acknowledges the importance of complementing aid with efforts to strengthen domestic, regional and international relationships. This new reality in Africa is seldom portrayed in the media, or by NGOs that aim to engage and inform the public on global development issues. The portrayal of people in developing countries as passive victims of poverty and disease does not chime with the reality of their lives and the complexity of the societies in which they live.

While these messages may garner short-term financial support, we must unpack this somewhat patronising and simplistic view of poverty. We must have a more honest dialogue with the public on the political and policy changes necessary for eliminating global poverty and for tackling complex problems such as hunger and inequality. New tools and strategies must be developed and used to improve how we communicate global development issues. We must challenge those organisations whose messaging distorts, rather than accurately reflects, the often complex realities faced by poor people living in developing countries.

The review comes at a very important time in international development. Late last year we had the high level forum on aid effectiveness in Busan, South Korea, which set out a new agenda to improve the effectiveness of all partners in development. In June 2012 the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, will be held. In September 2013, the millennium development goals will be reviewed in preparation for the development of a new set of global development goals to come into effect in 2016.

The review of the White Paper, as well as the Irish Presidency of the EU in the first half of 2013, will give us an opportunity to draw from these international processes. It will allow us bring to bear our strong thematic focus on hunger and nutrition, and on the growing impact of climate change on the poorest countries and communities. A number of other themes have emerged strongly in the review to date, including the need for strong policy coherence for development, the need to maintain the focus on results and accountability and to use all of the tools available to the Government to bring about sustainable development. One practical example of this is the recent launch of the Africa agrifood development fund, which is a joint effort between my Department and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. This fund will support the development of new partnerships between the agrifood sectors in Ireland and in Tanzania and Kenya, in an initial pilot phase.

Other emerging issues include the need for a greater focus on post conflict situations and fragile states - countries which are home to around 1.2 billion people and are largely off track to meet the millennium development goals - as well as the problem of translating strong economic growth into equitable poverty reduction. The potential to make greater use of Irish institutional experience, as well as establishing a clear framework for volunteer exchange has also been emphasised. We are particularly anxious to engage with the cohort of public servants who took early retirement in February 2012 and who have significant professional and managerial experience. We also need to consider who we are working with and how. By providing substantial support to our partner countries, NGOs and civil society organisations, as well as to multilateral organisations such as the United Nations and the EU, we feel we are able to react to different contexts in varied and appropriate ways.

This is an exciting time for the Irish Aid programme. The programme has strong public and political support. We are recognised as world leaders in development, and we want to prioritise and build upon what we have achieved to date in order to have an even greater impact. I am interested in hearing Members' thoughts on the issues which the review is raising. In particular, I would like to hear opinions on how we can maintain strong public engagement with global justice issues, given the extremely difficult times in which we live.

To conclude, Acting Chairman, I would like to thank you again for the opportunity to address the Seanad. I look forward to our discussion today and to feedback on the issues that I have outlined.


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