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International leadership needed on issues of Concern

In this article, published in today's Irish Times, Concern CEO Tom Arnold recalls Concern's origins and examines how Ireland can respond to the challenges posed by global poverty today.

In this article, published in today's Irish Times, Concern CEO Tom Arnold recalls Concern's origins and examines how Ireland can respond to the challenges posed by global poverty today.

Concern will commemorate the 40th anniversary of its foundation this year. In 1968, Ireland was in the early stages of economic modernisation. RTÉ was only seven years old and membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) was still five years off. Although materially poor, the country could claim a large spiritual empire, with thousands of missionaries working around the world.

One year earlier, political leaders in eastern Nigeria had declared independence from the Federal Republic of Nigeria, itself independent from Britain only in 1960. They called their new state Biafra. This led to civil war, resulting in a devastating famine.

Seven hundred Irish missionaries worked in Biafra. One of them, Fr Raymond Kennedy, a Holy Ghost missionary, mobilised his extended family, led by his brother, John O'Loughlin Kennedy, and his wife, Kay, to raise the alarm about the unfolding tragedy. The groundswell of public support led to the establishment in March 1968 of Africa Concern, later Concern Worldwide.

By the end of 1968, £3.5 million had been raised for Biafra, equivalent to €64 million today. The harrowing pictures of starving children shocked people: Biafra was the first famine on television. But stories coming home from Irish missionaries, into almost every parish in the country, also contributed to the massive response.

The late 1960s and 1970s were an important period of transition. Missionary numbers were beginning to decline and there was a growth in non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Concern, which was non-denominational from its beginnings, was followed by the establishment of Trócaire in 1973, set up by the Catholic hierarchy, and Goal in 1977.

As with the missionary orders, NGOs became part of Irish life. Many young volunteers worked in developing countries in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Concern fast and schools' debates have been part of growing up for two generations of Irish children. When President Mary McAleese acknowledges almost 200 Concern volunteers and staff at Áras an Uachtaráin tomorrow, she will celebrate the practical generosity of communities across Ireland towards less fortunate people in distant lands.

This will be the first in a programme of events to mark the anniversary. We want to acknowledge the many thousands who have supported Concern, whether by volunteering, organising debates or raising funds.

We aim to capture Concern's role in Irish social history by working with the media and universities. We are also collaborating with the Irish Film Archive to preserve and catalogue the many films about Concern's work.

But the main focus of the programme is to communicate with the public on the current realities of poverty in the world and Concern's approach to it.

We want to stimulate a wider discussion about how Ireland can be most effective in fighting global poverty.

Economic growth has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in recent decades. But between one billion and two billion of the world's 6.5 billion people remain in a poverty trap, in countries racked by conflict, poor governance, disease and the growing challenges of climate change. These people, the poorest of the poor, are Concern's target group.

The majority of them live in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where we work in some 30 countries.

We want to show how, with innovative methods, poverty can be defeated within a realistic timeframe. In May 2007, the UN adopted a new community-based approach to acute malnutrition, pioneered by Concern and its partners. If adopted widely, this can save the lives of hundreds of thousands of children.

We will highlight this and other innovations at an international conference on hunger in October, with former UN secretary general Kofi Annan as keynote speaker.

We want to engage young people through an art and writing competition on imagining hunger, and the winners will be announced at the conference.

Ireland's role in reducing global poverty is part of a wider debate on what role, through our foreign policy, we wish to play in the world. As in the late 1960s, Ireland is again at a moment of transition. We have made large economic gains, but our new-found wealth brings responsibilities and challenges.

The Government's commitment to contribute 0.7 per cent of national income provides the means to place our aid programme at the heart of our foreign policy.

We should use these means to take international leadership on big issues such as how to reduce drastically the number of hungry people in the world – 900 million – over the next decade. It was imagination of such daring that founded Concern and it is still needed 40 years later.

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