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Irish aid in Africa: Five personal experiences

Point of View

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The Irish Section of AWEPA asked five TDs (Irish MPs) and Senators who have traveled to Africa to tell their personal experiences and answer the following question:

“Does Irish overseas aid really make a difference?”

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Pádraig Mac Lochlainn TD, from Donegal, is Sinn Féin spokesperson on justice, equality and defence.

I have been lucky enough to witness the transformational impact of Irish aid in Ethiopia. As we all remember, this was the country decimated by famine, when Bob Geldof started his “Live Aid” campaign a generation ago. The Tigray region in northern Ethiopia was at the epicentre of that disaster. Read more.

ireland-1 Twenty-seven years later, I travelled for hours into the rural heart of Tigray, visiting schools, health and nutrition projects. What was especially impressive was a range of projects that focus on environmental improvements – water stops and small dams to irrigate farms and to improve the self-sustainability of the local people.
The thread that ran through all these Irish projects was the old Chinese advice that “it is better to give a man a fishing rod than a fish”. I saw the effectiveness and the real impact of the support of the Irish people. Ireland can be proud that our money is being well-spent in Tigray by dedicated people, Irish and Ethiopian.

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Maureen O’Sullivan is a teacher and a TD for Dublin Central.

My first experience of Africa was going to Zambia with students and teachers from the school where I taught in Dublin. We went from our lovely school in Dublin – a voluntary secondary school with comfortable class rooms, a progressive pupil teacher ratio, science labs and sports facilities – straight to a school in Lusaka. Read more.

ireland-2Nothing could have prepared us for the contrast: classes of 40 to 60 students, few or no facilities, just desks and sharing of a limited number of books. None of the facilities that students in Ireland have.Actually, the students in the school in Lusaka were fortunate because they got one meal a day. In many cases, this was their only meal of the day. Many of the students were HIV positive, many had lost one or both parents due to AIDS. They were poorly dressed and many didn’t have washing facilities where they lived. Then, something took us by surprise. Despite all of these disadvantages, the pupils were smiling, positive, ambitious. They were such an example to all of us.I have had other experiences in Lesotho, the townships of Johannesburg, very deprived areas in Nairobi, appalling poverty in Sierra Leone.I suppose what I am trying to say is that everything is relative, especially poverty in Africa. Therefore our aid really does make a difference, and I have seen the difference it makes.

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Michael McNamara is a Labour Party TD from Scariff, Co. Clare, who travelled to Mozambique.

In a hospital in Massinga, Mozambique, I saw the difference between the new part of the hospital, built with Irish funding, and the old part, which housed leprosy patients in damp and dire conditions. Read more..

ireland-3The head doctor told me that he hoped Irish funding could continue so that the old building could be rebuilt. He also hoped that a generator could be installed so that the rolling black-outs, so common in Mozambique, would not make surgeries grind to a halt at a moment’s notice.

Visiting a HIV-infected family, I gained an insight into the reality of people living with HIV/AIDS, which affects over 16% of the population in Mozambique. I met a man who had HIV and was only able to get around by shuffling on his hands, due to a serious foot infection. He couldn’t get himself through the narrow, dirt streets to access the medicines he needed to survive. An organisation supported by Irish money now brings him his medicine and helps him feed his young family. Given the stigma and fear associated with HIV/AIDS in Mozambique, that man and his family would be left with nothing, without such help.

As a farmer, I was also impressed by the farm work that Irish Aid supports in Mozambique – teaching crop management techniques, new crop varieties and improved routes to markets. Ireland’s impact for the better is visible throughout Mozambique, even in the boy I took a photograph of about to board a bus in his green and red Mayo jersey.

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Tony Lawlor TD, from Kildare, took part in an aid monitoring mission in South Africa.

I was interested to see how aid had changed over the years. I spent two years in Vanuatu, in the South Pacific, as a VSO volunteer in 1984-1985. I worked as an agriculture teacher on the island of Epi. Read more.

ireland-4During my second year in Epi, the Australian army arrived to carry out road repairs and to build a bridge over a river which was often impassable. This illustrated to me the value of direct aid assisting the community, rather than aid money going to the government with just the hope of a knock-on effect further down the food chain. The Australians also used local labour in the construction and repairs works carried out, which really benefitted the local community.

Twenty-eight years on, I was fascinated to see if there was the same response to aid in Africa being created by organisations on the ground. I was lucky enough to link up with the Mercy Nuns in South Africa, who brought me to their educational facilities north of Pretoria. I saw the work of the nuns in educating students who had left school early and wanted to gain skills in woodwork, welding and needlework. This would help them gain employment locally or to establish their own businesses.

Again, it proved to me that funding directed to the local community, managed by organisations that are in the community, deliver the best results. The key to me was the relationship and trust that these organisations have within the local community, which make the benefits of aid clear and visible. Operations like this, which filter down to local communities on the ground, are of real value in South Africa today, just as they were in Vanuatu in 1984.

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Averil Power from Bayside, Dublin, is Fianna Fáil’s Seanad spokesperson on education and skills.

In Mozambique, I saw hope and despair – the scale of the suffering in one of the world’s poorest countries and the hugely positive impact that Irish money and Irish volunteers can have.Read more.

ireland-5The highlight of my visit was a day with volunteers from a home-care programme. Our first call was to an HIV/AIDS victim who was so ill that she looked like she was at death’s door. As I watched the carer bathe her frail body and give her medicine, I became very upset thinking that there was no way she could recover. But then, we called to another hut around the corner where a beautiful, healthy-looking woman was busily running her own business. When she told me that she had once been as sick as her neighbour, but had been nursed back to health by VSO volunteers, I couldn’t believe it. I left the village feeling a mixture of incredible hope and immense pride in the work of VSO and Ireland’s aid.

I have seen how aid can change lives and help communities in Africa to help themselves. The Irish people should be proud of what our aid programme accomplishes and, as a country, I believe we should be more committed than ever to protecting it.