Seanad debates

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

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


3:00 pm

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Costello, and wish him well in his important role. Our purpose today is to obtain statements and inputs from Seanad Members in respect of the review of the White Paper on Irish Aid. I welcome the fact that the White Paper places the fight against world poverty at the heart of Ireland's foreign policy. The Government will demonstrate its commitment to the poorest people of the world by allocating, through Irish Aid, €639 million for the purposes of poverty reduction in the current year.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to review the White Paper. It is timely and appropriate that this is being done now, particularly in light of changing national and international circumstances. As Senators are aware, the Irish Aid programme budget of €639 million is by far the largest component of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade overall budget. In order to ensure that scarce resources are targeted effectively, it is vital that a number of matters should be addressed. These relate to the amount of progress that has been made since 2006, how we propose to manage the aid budget, identifying the key issues which must be dealt with and examining how we can improve the effectiveness of Irish Aid.

The Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, of which I am a member, has responsibility for oversight of the policies, administration and expenditure of the Department. The Irish Aid budget forms a significant part of the Department's overall budget. As part of the oversight process, discussions were held with the Tánaiste and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Minister of State, Deputy Costello, the UN assistant director general and the EU Commissioner, Ms Kristalina Georgieva, as well as hearings on specific issues such as the food crisis in the Horn of Africa and development challenges in Haiti. The committee also held numerous meetings with departmental officials, NGOs and ambassadors in respect of aid-related topics. A delegation from the committee undertook a field trip to Ethiopia in November 2011 in order to assess the effectiveness on the ground of projects and programmes supported through Irish Aid and its partner organisations.

Some of my colleagues who were on that visit will elaborate on their findings. Significant progress has been made in meeting the commitments in the White Paper on Irish Aid. We should examine some of these as we assess the effectiveness of the Irish Aid budget.

The White Paper states Africa will remain the principle focus for Irish Aid. Between 70% and 80% of the aid programme funding has been directed towards sub-Saharan Africa, one of the highest proportions among OECD donors. A commitment was made to increase the number of partner countries and Malawi was designated Irish Aid's ninth programme country in 2007. However, as the Minister of State said, there is disappointment that we did not add a tenth partnership and that the development bank was not established. A commitment was given to focus on working in fragile states, with programmes developed in Sierra Leone, Liberia and the occupied Palestinian territory. Timor-Leste will continue to be a programme country, despite the fact the Irish Embassy there has been closed for financial reasons. There were commitments in the White Paper to build regional programmes in South-East Asia, southern and west Africa, all of which have been delivered on.

The promotion of human rights, directly and indirectly, is central to Ireland's foreign policy. Irish Aid's expenditure on governance and civil society programmes amounts to 15% of its total budget. In her 2011 report the UN independent expert on human rights and extreme poverty welcomed the strong focus of Irish Aid programmes on social infrastructure and social protection initiatives. Other issues in which we have seen significant progress include placing a greater focus on quality standards through transparency and accountability in its funding mechanism for civil society partners. There has been closer co-operation with UN funds and programmes as we have members and observers on the executive boards of UN programmes. There has been a strong development perspective as a result of Irish Aid, the Department of Finance and our embassies working closely together. The development of the rapid response initiative to respond to sudden emergencies which has been in place for four years, was instrumental in responding to emergencies in Haiti, Pakistan, Liberia, Libya and, recently, the Horn of Africa.

The gender equality programme has now been mainstreamed across all Irish Aid programmes. In addition, expenditure on specific gender initiatives increased from €3.3 million in 2005 to €5.1 million in 2010 in addressing such issues as gender-based violence. Robust oversight systems are in place to protect and account for the spending of Exchequer funds, with rigorous accounting and audit controls involving independent auditors. The Committee of Public Accounts also has a key oversight role.

Irish Aid has honoured its commitment to combat HIV-AIDS and other diseases by spending over €100 million per annum in developing countries, with more than 35% of the total aid budget spent on health education on HIV and AIDS. Investment in water and sanitation measures has been increased significantly since 2006. Irish Aid plays an important role in conflict resolution through the UN's Peacebuilding Commission. The Defence Forces have a peacekeeping role in Lebanon following their two year deployment in Chad. They have also trained Ugandan peacekeepers for deployment in Somalia.

The world is changing and some progress is being made in combating poverty. Aid provision is playing a key part in that progress and must be continued. Global poverty is reducing and the millennium development goal of halving the level by 2015 will, I hope, be achieved. Up to 40 million more children go to school now than in 2000 and health programmes mean 12,000 fewer children die every day. Since 1990, 1.6 billion people have gained access to clean water and the numbers of malaria cases are down by over 50% in 11 African countries. As we review the White Paper, we need to consider some key issues. Up to 1 billion people, one seventh of the world's population, are hungry, while more than 1.5 billion live in countries in which there is serious conflict. There is the negative impact of climate change on poorer people. We must look at governance, accountability, human rights and gender equality issues across the developing world, as well as the involvement of the private sector in advancing innovation, job and wealth creation, thus contributing to poverty reduction.

Looking to the future in these times of economic difficulty, we have a responsibility to ensure maximum benefit for the world's poorest from Exchequer expenditure. We need to place the financing of aid on a more predictable footing. We need to work better with key partners, the nine programme countries, civil society and multilateral organisations. We must ensure Government policies support positive development outcomes and have accountability for development results, with greater public engagement. I welcome the Minister of State's efforts to engage with the public. Ireland should be proud of its reputation as an international aid donor. In a recent opinion poll 85% rated overseas aid as important and very important. In addition to Exchequer funding of €369 million, Irish people contribute significant amounts annually to organisations such as Concern, Trócaire, GOAL, Oxfam and many others. In 2011 Concern alone received almost €37 million in donations for its many projects across the world. It is appropriate to salute the many and wonderful volunteers and missionaries, religious and lay, who do so much every day to improve the lives of the poorest people in the world, often putting their own lives at risk at the same time. We all know such people who deserve our support. The review of the White Paper on Irish Aid will ensure a significant and successful programme will become even more effective in the years ahead in tackling the scourge of hunger and disadvantage in developing countries. I compliment the Minister of State on the work he has done so far. As I said recently in the Seanad, many public servants who took early retirement should be encouraged to share their valuable work experience with others. I hope they could use that experience to help the poorest people in the world.


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