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Opening Address Jan O Sullivan, T.D, Minister State Trade Development Dóchas AGM Conference

Irish Aid, Speech, Africa, 2011

Opening Address by Jan O Sullivan, T.D, Minister of State for Trade and Development

Dóchas AGM and Conference

Guaranteed Irish?  A conference examining what Irish organisations bring to international development

Wood Quay Venue

 Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased and honoured to be invited to open the Dóchas annual conference and to have the opportunity to share in discussion and reflections at a critical time for all in involved in international development.   As a newly appointed Minister, I have enjoyed meeting a number of you over the last few weeks.  I have been struck by the open, thoughtful and critical manner with which you address issues of concern to the sector. 

What do Irish organisations bring to international development? The question being posed by the conference is topical, appropriate and relevant.  Perhaps if it opens up an honest debate, then it is a question that is also courageous and brave!

The sudden and dramatic change in our own circumstances has led to much soul searching across Irish society.  Many people from all walks of life are re-examining their values, their contribution and their achievements.  This is no less a task for international NGOs as actors in an inter-dependent world.  As global dynamics shift and change, international NGOs are forced to redefine their role, understand their unique selling points and to build a quality trademark. 

We are all acutely aware of profound changes in the global context.  Events are being reported today which only a short time ago would have seemed impossible. 

It is hard to imagine that a single man driven to a desperate act of protest in Tunisia just months ago, has sparked mass demonstrations across North Africa and the Middle East and the dramatic events unfolding across the region today.  Five years ago, it was unthinkable that Ireland would be a recipient of assistance through an EU – IMF programme, or that developed economies would hold levels of public debt that may be unsustainable in the long-term.  Developing countries now hold most of the world’s foreign exchange reserves and drive global economic growth through increased South-South economic cooperation. 

Africa which was previously viewed by many as an object of charity is now looked to for business and trade opportunities.  Dependency on aid is reducing as domestic tax revenues have overtaken aid inflows. But the challenges of hunger, poverty and inequality deepen and persist; and middle income countries host the largest percentage of the world’s poor.   Against this background, aid programmes need to be recast to serve as catalysts for change rather than the source of basic service provision. 

These wider shifts in international development demand sharper thinking and better analysis.  The concept of development cooperation needs to move beyond the confines of programmes and projects to incorporate policies on trade, investment, tackling climate change and engaging with political and democratic processes. 

Since taking on my current position as Minister of State for Trade and Development, I have been struck by the intensity of the debate around aid effectiveness and by the considerable commitment to it.  I know that the debate is particularly strong within Irish Aid, where there is a spirit of continuous examination of how aid can be delivered more effectively.  I am very proud of the fact that Irish Aid has been commended internationally for the leading role it has taken in this respect.  Ireland has a reputation for being a flexible, collaborative and knowledgeable partner.   

Let us build on that reputation and define our uniqueness by listening to citizens in recipient countries and defining our role and intentions based on their views and on our capacity to respond.   We should not be intimidated by the need to define our objectives and results nor should we understand it as a straitjacket to confine our work or our imagination. 

Defining what we want to achieve arguably demands a more mature, and transparent partnership with citizens in recipient countries.  It is they who understand how change happens, how that outcome might be measured and how resources should be deployed to achieve that change. 

I know that Civil Society Organisations at an international level have drawn up a set of principles on development effectiveness and that Irish NGOs fully endorse these principles.  The essential characteristic of Civil Society Organisations as distinct development actors is at the heart of these principles. 

I was very pleased to see that one of those characteristics is stated as ‘working and collaborating for change’.   In coming years, collaboration will become more significant as all of us commit to eliminating duplication and reducing the complexity and layers within the aid chain.

As Minister of State for Trade and Development, it is part of my job to defend our aid programme.  The Irish public has always been a strong supporter of our work.  However, times have changed and at the household level in Ireland people are examining every area of expenditure.  As we all know, government is also making very difficult expenditure choices.   

Against this background, we need more than ever to be able to define what change is being brought about in the lives of poor communities by the investment of Irish tax payers’ money.   We need to be clear what an effective aid programme looks like and be able to measure and communicate the impact of Irish tax payers’ money on reducing poverty and hunger in developing countries.  

You, as Irish NGOs, have a particular role to play in this regard.  I ask you to play your part in convincing the Irish public that our aid programme does make a difference.  At the same time, we all have a responsibility to portray people in developing countries as active citizens and not simply as passive recipients of aid. 

Guaranteed Irish must be synonymous with quality.  In international development there is no internationally recognised quality mark or standard for development practice – no ISO 9000.  Therefore it is incumbent on us to set our own standards.  

Last week, I launched the Sphere handbook, which signified an important milestone in the humanitarian sector in setting new standards and enhancing quality.  I am aware that a number of you are also going through the Humanitarian Accountability Programme certification process.  I recognise the important work that Dóchas does to promote and set quality standards in the sector. 

I encourage you to redouble your efforts, to move beyond codes of conduct to compliance in order to demonstrate improved performance and delivery. 

As Minister for Trade and Development, I have prioritised a number of tasks for 2011.  As stated in the Programme for Government, I intend to carry out a review of the White Paper on Irish Aid.  I want to ensure that our aid programme remains at the cutting edge in reducing poverty and vulnerability, while increasing opportunity in developing countries.  I am still exploring how to build more coherence between Ireland’s trade involvement and our development programme.  I invite you all to share your ideas on these deliberative processes during 2011. 

In conclusion, I want to congratulate you on your work and to commend you for constantly re-examining what Irish NGOs can bring to development in the context of changing global circumstances. 

There is an opportunity, but also a need, to redefine your roles as international NGOs.  The current debate on effectiveness and results has sharpened the focus on measuring change.  We should measure that change not because we have to, but because we want to be able to articulate the difference we make in the world. The narrative must be understandable yet not simplistic.  

I wish you well in your deliberations here today and look forward to working with you in this crucial year ahead.

Thank you.