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Learning to handle the unthinkable

Responsibility for overseeing aid to five African countries would faze many people, but Angela O'Neill De Guilio takes it in her stride, she tells Caitríona Mc Bride. This article is part of a supplement published by the Irish Times about Concern and its work.

Responsibility for overseeing aid to five African countries would faze many people, but Angela O'Neill De Guilio takes it in her stride, she tells Caitríona Mc Bride. This article is part of a supplement published by the Irish Times about Concern and its work.

Every country has its own unique problems. In Africa, Zimbabwe has an unstable economy, and Malawi battles with an HIV epidemic – and so the task of assigning aid in these nations is a large one.

Angela O’Neill De Guilio is responsible for where the money you donate to Concern goes in five African countries, including Zimbabwe. As a regional director, she ensures that budgets are planned properly, programmes are implemented and the money, ultimately, goes exactly where it is supposed to.

“It’s a very demanding but rewarding job, and I constantly have to keep myself educated about what is going on in each country and do a lot of reading. I have to know what is going on politically, economically and socially in each country.”

O’Neill De Guilio first came to work with Concern in 1990 as an environmental health officer in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border. She had graduated with a degree in Environmental Health from Trinity College Dublin but after working in a few jobs, including with the Eastern Health Board, she wanted some adventure.

“Working overseas appealed to me because it was more exotic, but it was also a way of contributing something and had nothing to do with money. I knew I didn’t want to keep doing what I was doing, so when I saw the position advertised with Concern, it sounded perfect. So I went for it.”

O’Neill De Guilio ended up on a two-year contract and in a refugee camp with 150,000 refugees. She stayed for three years and during her time there she was working in areas like water, sanitation and health education.

“I absolutely loved it and found it immensely rewarding, as I had not done much travelling before that, so it was a whole new experience. I really was thrown in at the deep end and given a lot of responsibility quite quickly. I gained experiences there and dealt with diseases I had only read about in textbooks.”

After coming back to Ireland, O’Neill De Guilio completed a Masters in Equality Studies at UCD in 1994. She went back overseas in 1995 to work in Rwanda, in the aftermath of the genocide. She then left Concern and worked in the Caucasus region, before returning home to work in community development. She rejoined Concern in 1999 as a desk officer and in 2002, she became regional director for Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Eritrea and Sudan.

“In 2007, I became regional director for five African countries: Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique.

“On an annual basis, I’m responsible for funding of around €15 million in these countries, and making sure it is spent wisely,” says O’Neill De Guilio.

Concern went to Zimbabwe in 2002 at the invitation of the Zimbabwean government because of the South African food shortage. Between 2002 and 2004, Concern distributed food in four districts, to more than 400,000 people. In 2004, the Zimbabwean government declared that there was no longer a food shortage and advised NGOs to stop food distribution.

“We don’t just abandon a country after a crisis or emergency. When the food shortage stopped, we started working on longer-term programmes, which is, in essence, our whole focus. We try to find new initiatives to help with the root causes of poverty, like education and health.”

Since President Robert Mugabe came to power in 1980, Zimbabwe’s economy has experienced massive economic problems and inflation rates are soaring. Mugabe introduced controversial land reforms that forced the seizure of almost allwhite-owned commercial farms, for, Mugabe said, the benefit of black Zimbabweans without land. This resulted in devastating effects on the agricultural-based economy, and combined with droughts and a bad harvest last year, there is now a food shortage.

“It’s a complex situation there. Since the decline of the economy, a lot of the poorer population in Zimbabwe would have left and headed to South Africa to look for work, and the more qualified would have gone abroad to western countries.”

Concern now works on HIV and AIDs programmes, as well as agricultural programmes to help with the increasing food shortages.

“In Zimbabwe, I work along with the country director Peter McNichol. It’s very important that we have a good working relationship and have a mutual understanding on what we are working towards. My function is to support the country team in areas like recruitment, and support the director with running the programmes, based on the needs they have on the ground.”

O’Neill De Guilio and McNichol communicate every fortnight by phone and email regularly. She travels to each of the five countries once a year for about two weeks and every year, all the country directors come to Ireland for a meeting.

“It’s important that Pete is involved in the decision-making, as he is on the ground dealing with the reality of the situation. I consult him and his team for responses in relation to what is going on there. When I go to visit each country, I meet the staff and they are very inspiring. They are sometimes working in situations of extreme poverty, but they work so professionally.”

The position of country director can be an isolating one, says O’Neill De Guilio. Staff at that level have usually built up experience in dealing with emergency situations. However, Concern is aware of potential stress, and staff receive training in stress management before going abroad.

“It’s a busy and demanding job, and in some situations it’s exacerbated by the security situation, like in Darfur. It’s not always easy to recruit people to country director, because the job might be in a war zone or in the aftermath of a conflict. We try to prepare them as best we can, but you do get cases where you can get a phone call that they are stressed with the situation.”

Last year, Concern spent about €2 million in Zimbabwe, which is broken down into areas such as staff, projects and grants to partners and local agencies. Other expenses are transport costs, monitoring programmes and administration.

“The country team will prepare their budget for the coming year and bring it to us and we agree or change things as needed. We have to be very precise in our projections – you can’t just go into the year blind. We need to know where every single cent is going.”

For the future, O’Neill De Guilio says Concern will continue working on its HIV and agricultural programmes in Zimbabwe. But most importantly, she is supportive of her staff who are out in the field, making Concern’s plans happen.