Wednesday, 9 May 2012
Review of White Paper on Irish Aid: Statements, Questions and Answers
Lorraine Higgins (Labour)
I thank the Minister of State for his detailed and informative speech today and welcome him to the House. It seems he has been a familiar figure in this Chamber over recent weeks and I look forward to welcoming him back again during this Government's term. More seriously, I am glad to participate in and lead the debate for the Labour group in the Seanad on the review of the White Paper on Irish Aid. I am a fervent supporter of our aid agenda and recognise the important role it plays on humanitarian grounds, as well as the significant part it plays in keeping Ireland's international reputation up with the most benevolent countries. This cannot be underestimated when it comes to building political capital with other countries worldwide and being at the forefront of exploring economic possibilities and opportunities with aid recipient countries.
Ireland's aid programme is different from most others and we have a great approach in that at the heart of our donations is the philosophy that we should teach people how to fish rather than give them fish. This practice has been recognised internationally and we can be justifiably proud that our aid programmes are ranked first on the OECD aid effectiveness rating scale. An essential component in achieving this rank is the direction the 2006 White Paper on Irish Aid has given us. Following the publication of this paper, Ireland's aid programme has become more focused and effective, such that we have become a leader in the fight against global hunger and developed new skills and methods of preventing and responding to humanitarian emergencies. However, we must be mindful that this paper was developed in different times.
In 2006, the Exchequer's till was ringing, with increased revenue every day, but we now find ourselves in a very different economic space. In recent years we have experienced instability in every sense but we are now emerging from the abyss, and in this regard I acknowledge and recognise how difficult it has been for the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, to make a case for retaining the overseas development aid budget at more than €600 million in the 2012 budget. This is a specific and unique challenge facing the Department, and I commend the Minister and the Minister of State on working in the area in such difficult circumstances. I know there is a determination to meet Ireland's commitment to the UN target for official development assistance of 0.7% of GNP, although there can be no doubt we must systematically review all that is contained in the White Paper to make necessary changes in light of our current budgetary and human resource deficits.
I recognise it is very difficult to make a case to the Irish taxpayer for overseas aid when we have many social and economic problems at home stemming from the demise of the Celtic tiger. The Irish people should be incredibly proud of our achievements and the difference we are making to the lives of thousands of the world's poorest people. On a recent visit as part of the Oireachtas delegation to Ethiopia, I witnessed at first hand the remarkable work being done. Some of the non-governmental organisations I visited worked at the forefront of gender issues, with others educating people to escape the poverty trap through entrepreneurial studies and links with Irish and international universities such as University College Cork. I even spotted an Irish potato on a farm we visited in the Tigray region. All of the agencies are carrying out tremendous work and Ireland can justifiably be very proud for making such an indelible mark on Ethiopian society. Every day our aid is helping to eradicate poverty, assist in building the necessary infrastructure and widen the gap between life and death. I am glad to see our commitment remaining as steadfast as ever in 2012.
Under the review of the White Paper on Irish Aid there are a number of areas where we must focus our efforts if we are to ensure maximum aid effectiveness. In particular, we must ensure more money - or a higher percentage of the aid budget - is diverted to access to adequate water and sanitation facilities. Although Ireland has been to the forefront of ensuring this is a priority, it remains the biggest challenge to aid countries. Furthermore, we must divert more aid funding to bestowing our expertise on governments of aid countries in order that the integrity of our aid programmes can be upheld. We must train, help, advise and assist these countries with capital flight problems and educate people on the systems we have in place in order that there can be no difficulty with the outflow of resources through capital flight, tax evasion and tax avoidance. We must help such nations to be proactive in this regard and, ultimately, help them in helping themselves.
We must recognise that aid is only one part of the solution. In the past year, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade published the Africa strategy, which provides us with new political, development and business possibilities with Africa. Consequently, we must be serious about assisting trade and development in aid countries. In particular, our diplomatic staff, Enterprise Ireland and the Industrial Development Agency have a role to play. We should task them with seeking trade development opportunities in aid programme countries as not only would the benefits be enormous for the aid countries because they could find new markets for goods and produce but we could also benefit in circumstances where the countries could have markets for our produce and goods.
Trade development may not be possible immediately in some countries but we should develop and forge links now. For example, Ethiopia's economy is growing at 8% per annum, and although it is admittedly starting from a very low base, there will be possibilities that will be mutually beneficial in forthcoming years. I suggest a way of fostering such links by engaging in a town twinning procedure between the major urban centres in Ireland and these countries. In the BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China, the political, economic, social and trading relationships are evolving.
One of the most important features of our overseas development aid is the work done by non-governmental organisations, NGOs. These work hard at fund-raising for very worthwhile causes in many Third World countries, and in many cases the Irish taxpayer contributes to such activities. There is a requirement for greater focus on the achievement of maximum value for money with every cent spent, with an emphasis on accountability and measurable results.