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Minister of State Costello’s address to the Dóchas AGM Conference

Irish Aid, Minister Joe Costello, Speech, Africa, 2012

Chairperson, Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to thank you for inviting me to open the Dóchas Annual Conference.   Since I took office as Minister of State for Trade and Development, I have met with many of you and have been struck by your passion and commitment to development and the fight against global poverty and hunger.  I have also been impressed by the commitment to critical reflection that characterises your practice and the way you run your organisations.

The theme of this Conference is challenging.  You are taking time out to honestly explore how NGOs are shaping public attitudes to development and global poverty. 

In many respects, this is a good news story.  The recent MRBI poll informs us that 88% of Irish people are proud of Ireland’s contribution to development and the eradication of hunger and poverty.  I believe this pride comes from a place of empathy; many Irish people have a deep personal interest in development.  Undoubtedly the depth of understanding and interest varies from person to person but I believe that there are few of us  who are untouched by our own history of conflict, famine and poverty.  This history, in part, shapes our world view as Irish people.  In turn it provides fertile soil for those of us who want to build a deep public commitment to a better world, free from poverty and hunger.  It speaks to the need for justice in our international relations, to the need for mutual support as we tackle climate change and the need for fairness as we address international trade rules. 

In recent times, many Irish households have experienced real hardship as the impact of a prolonged economic recession has resulted in a significant drop in income.  We have watched and listened to some debate where we are asked to choose between supporting a special care unit in a national children’s hospital or possibly supporting a health programme in a distant land.  The choice is actually a false one but nonetheless its presentation by the media can feed into doubts and questions about the very legitimacy of development aid in the current context.. 

I have travelled around the country during the White Paper consultation process and listened to many perspectives.    A number of the written submissions we received in the White Paper consultation process questioned whether Ireland can actually afford an aid programme at all. 

Part of the problem resides in the fact that development and charity are used interchangeably.  The analysis often presented reduces the contribution people are asked to make to a financial transaction., A transaction that may be sufficient until the next appeal. I am not underestimating the importance of aid budgets or aid appeals because I do believe that they make a substantial difference to the lives of people.  I also see it as a substantial achievement that, to date, we have managed to sustain public support and maintain the percentage of GNP allocated to the overseas aid budget. 

However if most of our messages centre on money, we can miss important opportunities to debate on the nature of political, social and economic transformation.

What is the long term aim of our communication and development education strategies?  Surely it must be a more informed and politically aware public who are ready to support the political and policy changes necessary for eliminating global poverty and tackling complex problems such as climate change? 

Communicating clearly with the public on development cooperation and maintaining public support is a challenge for both Government and NGOs.  To succeed, we must initially examine the messages we are disseminating to ensure they are presenting an accurate and modern vision of development.     Then we need to look at how the messages and images portrayed are utilised by all of us to garner support from the Irish public. Thirdly, we must develop tools and strategies to constantly improve our communications. 

Looking first to the messages and images we portray. Poverty and inequality are global problems – whether they manifest in Ireland or they manifest in the developing world.  Regardless of where poverty is experienced, its cause and effect are rarely simple. For decades, development education practitioners have provided leadership in presenting the complex underlying causes of poverty and inequality while emphasising the global interconnections between people and countries.  Yet often the messages and images portrayed in our fundraising and communications are at odds and focus on the negative and the simple. 

News reports and charity appeals reinforce stereotypes of disaster and relentless poverty.  People in developing countries are perceived as passive victims rather than active participants in their own recovery.  Images of violence, pain and death are becoming more commonplace, leading to ‘compassion fatigue’and for some a race to the bottom in terms of the level of horror they are willing to portray in the media.

We must deconstruct this somewhat patronising and simplistic model of development, yet we must also recognise that these images often garner support. You, as NGOs, need to examine further the way in which development work is portrayed .  I understand that images and messages are used for a variety of purposes – to engage and inform the public, to support advocacy, to account for funding and to support fundraising initiatives.  The latter is perhaps the most important to many of you in the face of more challenging economic times.  However, short term gains in terms of fundraising or profile should not, if at all possible, take precedence over the long term vision of contributing to a more just global society.

Many of the larger NGOs in Ireland recognise the need to examine and resolve the tension between the images and messages contained in their fundraising strategies on one hand and their mandate to tackle the underlying causes of poverty and inequality on the other.  These discussions are just beginning.  There is a need for the sector as whole to commit jointly to change if we are to achieve a greater coherence between fundraising messages and sound public awareness programmes. We can work on this together.  

I welcome the fact that you are here today to examine current strategies and tools around communicating development.  The Dóchas Code of Images and Messages sets out clearly a commitment to presenting development in a way which propagates the values of respect, equality, solidarity and justice.  It sets the standards for all communications.  I wish to acknowledge the excellent work on this.

A focus on standards is something to which Irish Aid is also committed in its work with partners.  It is easy to agree to something in principle.  The real test is in compliance.  I welcome the continued work Dóchas proposes to do in the area of monitoring compliance of the code.   

With the help of tools such as the Code, the discourse is shifting.  The new paradigm places development within the context of increased global connectivity and opportunity.  People, especially young people, have travelled to many continents and often have their own experiences of visiting developing countries and seeing absolute poverty at first hand.  Social media and the internet have also created new links between those living in developing countries and people in Ireland.

This new discourse needs to be underpinned by a strong emphasis on learning and reflection.  We must continue to critically examine our programmes of work; to see what interventions work and to try to replicate them; to focus on our intended results and be honest about what works, what does not and why.

This summer we will be showcasing the Nation’s football skills at international level in Euro 2012 in Poland and the Ukraine.  It could be argued that our skills in development are more effective than our skills in football.  Let us showcase this effectiveness – in Ireland and on the international playing field and most importantly in the communities where we work.  Let us get the support of the Irish people behind effective development.  Let us trust them to engage with the complex reality behind the images of poverty. 

To reiterate, one way of doing this is to reach for excellence in our imaging and messaging.  This is something on which we can can focus on and get right.

The next is to engage in clear communications with the public on development.  If this is done well the long term impact on support for development within Ireland could be immense.  We need to be clear why we are communicating and what we want to achieve from it.  Also we need to use the opportunities such as our 2013 European Presidency to showcase our development programme.   We can commence by portraying people in developing countries as citizens rather than victims; as people seeking to lead fulfilling lives with the potential to be active agents in their own political and economic change.  Our communications on development should reflect the excellence of our development programmes and the empathy we bring to development practice, we can and we should do better.

I would once again like to thank Dóchas for inviting me to open this conference today.  I wish you all a successful conference and look forward to not only a frank discussion but also the future impact this ongoing dialogue can have on how we portray the work we do globally.