Seanad debates

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

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


4:00 pm

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)

I thank the Senators for their contributions. This has been a very wide-ranging and questioning debate and it has come at an appropriate time. We have just completed the review of the White Paper. The deadline for submissions was the end of last month but the odd one is still being submitted. There are approximately 150 formal written submissions and some have used social media. Many organisations and individuals have made submissions. Today's contribution is very appropriate. Many suggestions have been made and I will try to take as many on board as possible.

It is very heartening to hear the support from all quarters for Irish Aid. We have been asked to reach our targets as quickly as possible. The programme for Government sets an aid target of 0.7% of national income by 2015, which is that of the United Nations and European Union. This is a challenge in the present circumstances. There was a decrease of 30% between 2008 and 2011. This year, we have more or less retained the level of 2011. We must face up to the challenges posed by the budgets in 2013 and 2014 and also face up to our economic circumstances. These are matters we will seek to address in the strongest way possible. It is heartening to hear the support across the board in this regard.

Senator Daly stated we must account for 1.17% of the European Union's funding package. It should be remembered we are still net recipients in the European Union, as farmers are well aware. The cheque still comes in the post in many areas and we have been major beneficiaries. Interestingly, we will probably be making all the major decisions on the multi-annual financial framework next year. This will deal with the disbursal of funding, that is, the EU budget of more than €1 trillion to be disbursed from 2014 to 2020. Within that, approximately 9% is suggested as an increase regarding development aid. The concept of development aid is broader in EU terms than in Irish terms, however. It does not refer only to overseas development aid but also to development aid in the context of the EU neighbourhood policy, which includes Turkey, pre-accession countries and other countries in the vicinity of the Union, particularly to the east. Money is made available in this regard to improve facilities and administration, among other things, and is not limited in the Irish sense.

Human rights featured very strongly in the contributions. Human rights comprise a basic principle for us. All our work on Irish Aid is underpinned by our awareness of human rights. We take the UN charter as a basic starting point in this respect.

Senator Heffernan mentioned the 10% pertaining to Ethiopia. There have been some encroachments in that respect. Non-governmental organisations are now getting squeezed by the legislative provisions being applied in some African countries. The countries' authorities do not wish to see non-governmental organisations being funded by donor countries. Ethiopia, for example, passed legislation called the Charities and Societies Act 2009. Coincidentally, just before I arrived in the House, I met Fr. Hagos Hayish of the Catholic Church in Ethiopia and representatives of Trócaire. The issue to which I refer was raised because severe limitations are being placed on Trócaire and all the other non-governmental organisations operating in the country, such as GOAL and Concern. If they are funded by an outside organisation in the order of more than 10%, it is illegal for them to operate. The authorities are now squeezing the human rights agencies.

Trócaire is a very strong human rights organisation of the Catholic Church. It is being squeezed enormously in Ethiopia because, if more than 10% of its funding comes from external sources, it is told it is operating illegally. This has considerable implications for the operation of non-governmental organisations within a number of countries in Africa. We are working to address this very strongly through the embassies. We are well respected in this regard. When I met the Ethiopian Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Berhane Gebre-Christos, last January, he agreed readily to support Ireland's candidacy for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council. At the same time, however, Ethiopia had just put in place legislation that is detrimental to human rights. There are very difficult circumstances we try to address as strongly as possible. In Ethiopia, Ireland is the leading donor country in regard to human rights and it is trying to sort out the problem. Similar circumstances obtain in Uganda and Malawi with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex, LGBTI, rights. We are very much engaged in those countries internally and with other countries to resolve the issues.

With regard to conflict resolution, it was stated we should be doing more. Of course, we should, but we are very much involved with the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, an international centre for conflict resolution. The OSCE, under the chairmanship of the Tánaiste, has focused very much on conflict resolution as one of its major themes this year.

Accountability is a considerable issue and we are very careful about it. All the money we spend is taxpayers' money and we must be accountable. There are very strict auditing and evaluation measures applied by the Department for which both the Tánaiste and I are responsible. We are responsible for ensuring all the money is spent properly. Our embassies must keep an eye on all the money spent on the ground and we are very careful about this.

We do not give money to corrupt governments. Where money is given, it is on the basis of the observation of the practice of good governance, on which we insist. We give out money on a project-by-project basis. I could refer to some wonderful projects that we fund in their entirety. We give money to departments – for example, an education department – but it is for a particular purpose, such as the provision of teachers and teacher education. This expenditure, while it could feed into a government's budget, is monitored. While we deal with people locally and with projects and local, regional and national government, all the funding is made available under careful supervision by the local embassy. We have an embassy in all our major programme countries. I assure the Senators that our embassies are extremely effective.

A number of Senators, especially Senator Quinn, referred to trade and the changing nature of the countries with which we are engaged. It is important for us to recognise there have been considerable changes in Africa. Senator Higgins stated we expect 50% of the world's poverty will be in sub-Saharan Africa in 2030. This is a significant statistic.

On the other side of the coin, the millennium development goals were established in 2000 for the period up to 2015. The expectation is that by 2015, because a lot of progress has been made, we will have halved the level of world poverty. That represents substantial progress. We are carrying out our own review, which is appropriate, but others are also taking place. Rio+20 is due to take place in June and 50,000 people will attend this gathering to discuss sustainable aid and development. In September 2013 there will be a worldwide review of the millennium development goals and by the end of 2015 there will be a new dispensation. Between now and then there will be a detailed review of the situation to see where we are going. For that reason, it is important to look at emerging countries and those countries where we have programmes. We have developed a new strategy, the Africa strategy, to look at how we can complement what we are doing with Irish Aid through the promotion of Irish trade by bringing the private sector into the equation and the Irish development agencies into play, including Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and Glanbia. We are bringing them in to obtain advice, while encouraging the private sector to get involved in business and investment in Africa.

On HIV-AIDS, we were one of the major players in the global forum on HIV. We put €9 million into that programme annually. It has effected considerable change in most African countries, with considerable reductions in the incidence of HIV-AIDS in most countries through greater access to better vaccines.

We do not want to approach the trade issue in the way suggested by Senator Feargal Quinn, whereby we would replace some of our aid with grants in promoting trade. We will do it in kind; we will retain our aid programme and not make it conditional in any way, but we will also provide assistance and expertise for the private sector through our embassies. There is now a team in each of the embassies in Africa which focuses on trade. Using our reputation gained through our missionaries and Irish Aid opens a lot of doors. Enterprise Ireland also has a base in South Africa from which it will feed into other African countries.

Eventually we will have to look for an exit strategy from all countries. We do not intend to go around in circles in providing aid, unless we are moving forward, and the best way to do this is to see how a country can become self-sufficient. That is a major part of the way we are looking at things.

A specific question was asked about the Shannon hub, at which we are looking closely. It is included in the programme for Government that we will establish a humanitarian hub in Shannon for the containment and dispersal of humanitarian aid. We have Irish Aid supplies located at hubs throughout the world. Only the United Nations can provide these hubs; the European Union does not have any. Arising from the Lisbon treaty which places a specific legal responsibility on the European Union to deal with humanitarian and development aid, there are two Commissioners dealing with these issues, Commissioner Georgieva who is responsible for aid matters and Commissioner Piebalgs who is responsible for development matters. We are anxious to put the case to the European Union that the renewed focus on the provision of humanitarian aid means it should have its own hub and that Shannon is the ideal location for it. I am establishing a feasibility study and have had tenders submitted which will be approved by the end of the month. There will then be 60 days in which to issue a report. We then hope to make progress. I have spoken to Commissioner Georgieva about the matter and she is sympathetic.

We deal with the issue of disabilities in dealing with the provision of aid in poor countries. It is something on which we will work for the review. We have our homework to do in Ireland because we have not yet ratified the UN Convention on Disabilities. Until we do so, we are not in a position to lecture anyone. This should be done before the end of the year; legislation is being brought forward on the topic. The issue should be a focus of the review because people who are impoverished are at a disadvantage, but those with physical and other disabilities are disadvantaged further.

Senator Susan O'Keeffe asked about the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We have taken an initiative in conjunction with that Department in which we are focusing on two countries, Tanzania and Kenya, in a pilot scheme. In all areas of Africa agriculture is a key sector. As there has been little development, there is little industrial activity. By and large, societies are mainly rural; therefore, we are bringing to bear in these countries expertise from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to provide for the best quality production, regulation and marketability of products. The first trip took place two weeks ago. The people from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine are starting work on this initiative to ensure products are made to the highest quality and can be marketed globally, with processing taking place in these countries to ensure added value. We are also looking at this initiative in the context of other Departments also. Every Department has something to say and there is now an interdepartmental body in which all Departments come together. I chair its meetings.

We had the first meeting recently and are examining how each Department can contribute to what Irish Aid is doing in order that we can adopt a whole country approach rather than a single Department approach. The Department for Finance, for example, can provide expertise on tax and revenue matters, anti-corruption measures and so on. We can go further down the road and adopt a more holistic approach. These are issues that have been thrown up in our discussions, which we will consider carefully.

The debate and the questions posed have been fascinating and interesting. If Members have something further to add, I am more than willing to listen to suggestions. I thank them for what has been a positive and enlightened discussion. I look forward to returning to the House to discuss the report and establish whether Members think it is worthwhile, whether we have made good progress and whether we are moving in the right direction.


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