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Global vision driving Concern's future

Building on a bedrock of Irish volunteer work, Concern has built its international future on local concerns, writes Louise Holden. This feature was originally published in an Irish Times supplement on 13 February.

Established in 1968 in response to the famine in Biafra, Concern International is now working in 30 different regions in Africa, Asia and Haiti. Over 40 years the agency’s approach to development work has changed radically from its beginnings. Concern now mobilises the best of global expertise, local resources and its own considerable experience in the field to find better ways of delivering aid.

In fact, the agency is increasingly contributing to international policy on development issues.

“In the 1960s Concern’s activities were rooted in the concept of the Irish volunteer,” says Concern chief executive Tom Arnold. “This built up a bedrock of support connecting Concern back to the communities of former volunteers. “Since then we have changed the way we operate. The majority of our staff are people who are local to the areas in which we work.

“We currently have 4,000 people working for Concern in their own communities. We have 250 international staff based in three fundraising headquarters in Ireland, the UK and the US.” Over the years Concern has built up expertise in areas such as disaster relief and malnutrition and the organisation has built up the trust of the local communities in some of the most politically turbulent regions of the globe.

Concern workers get a close view of how development work stands or falls in different humanitarian contexts. The challenge now, says Arnold, is for the organisation to learn from its experiences and to use its learning strategically to make development work more effective.

An organisational learning model, established by Concern to research and treat severe malnutrition, was so successful in 2007 that its outcome is now part of international nutrition policy. “In 2001, Concern and Valid International agreed a three-year action research programme in South Sudan, Ethiopia and Malawi, supported by Irish Aid.

As a result of this research Concern and Valid International developed the Community-Based Therapeutic Care model (CTC).” [Editor's note: Since 2011, CTC is known as community management of acute malnutrition, or CMAM.] An integral part of the CTC model is the mobilisation of local healthcare workers and other volunteers from the community to raise awareness of malnutrition and how it can be recognised and treated.

As a result many more malnourished children are reached and treated, leading to better recovery rates. The evidence is so strong that in May 2007 the World Health Organisation, the World Food Programme, Unicef and the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition issued a joint statement endorsing Concern’s CTC approach, committing to its implementation and recommending the model to national governments.

The success of the CTC project has given Concern a modus operandi for the future, says Arnold. “There were four key stages to the project and they form a template for our future development work,” says Arnold. “We looked at the context in which we were working and its unique challenges and researched new ways to deal with old problems. We put the new methods in place on a pilot basis and then captured the evidence.

“We translated what we found into a new model and then we talked to the right people about extending it. This is a new way of working. We are learning as an organisation and in the process we have changed the way the world deals with malnutrition.”

According to Arnold, Concern wants to get better at learning from its own experience. The organisation is currently paying for a graduate to study for a PhD in Organisational Learning in the context of development work.

Another strategic priority for Concern is to continue to build on the resources of the communities in which they work, so that local, sustainable solutions can be put on a surer footing. In parallel to the local focus is the effort to make the most of a global corporate culture to find solutions to local problems.

Harnessing the strengths of the global scientific and industrial network is the intelligent way to deliver development solutions in situations of extreme poverty and crisis, he says.

Concern’s recent partnership with the Kerry Group demonstrates this synergy. The Kerry Group was asked to fund a researcher who would provide an expert link between Concern and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

This expert researcher is now working on the ground with Concern and communicating what he finds at the highest level. The Kerry Group are playing an active role in the partnership, far beyond just signing cheques.

This kind of bespoke support, that utilises the expertise of the contributor, is the future of corporate fundraising, Arnold believes. The objective of work like this is to find sustainable solutions to humanitarian crises that will equip agencies and local people to build on the aid that they receive. However, Arnold concedes, there will always be situations where the politics of a nation will not allow for anything more sustainable than direct aid.

He cannot see a day when Concern will “give up” on a region because they cannot lift the community out of poverty, but as an organisation they are determined to find smarter ways of delivering aid that offers human beings real routes out of poverty.