Dóchas Responds to Calls to Slash Overseas Aid Budget

Dóchas Policy Officer Éamonn Casey responds to Deputy Ned O'Keeffe's call last week for Ireland to halt aid payments to the Third World, because we can no longer afford them.

While Ireland, like many other industrialised countries, is focused on bank rescues and spending cuts, we should not forget that poor people in developing countries are far more exposed to the effects of the economic crisis – and its impact for many of them could be fatal.

Poor countries are also being hit hard by lower demand for their exports, shrinking foreign investment, lower commodity prices and shrinking credit at higher cost. And this all comes on top of terrible recent hardship caused by high energy costs, soaring food prices and the accelerating effects of climate change.

Yet Irish spending on overseas aid has been cut significantly – with a €95m cut announced in February, on top of a €15m cut in October's budget – and now Cork East TD Ned O'Keefe has called for the overseas aid programme to be pulled until the country's financial situation improves (The Corkman, 19 February 09).

"We have been overgenerous in the last number of years", according to Mr O'Keeffe, who says that "charity begins at home".

While Ireland's overseas aid has been generous in recent years and increasing until 2008, it has not been "over-generous". In fact, Ireland still has some way to go towards achieving its international commitment to spending 0.7% of GNP on overseas aid by 2012. This year, Ireland's contribution looks like slipping backwards this year to 0.53% of national income after a cutback of more than 10% in the 2009 aid budget.

The recent cuts in overseas aid appear to have targeted the world's poor, just as Mr O'Keeffe does, since the cut in the aid budget was disproportionately bigger than the overall spending cuts.

It's also a mistake to consider official development assistance as charity, which can be turned on when Ireland is feeling "generous to the Third World" and then turned off when we are feeling the pinch.

Ireland's commitment to overseas aid is a solemn national commitment, repeatedly spelt out at the United Nations, the European Union and the OECD group of developed economies: any reneging on it would damage Ireland's international credibility.

The commitment was also written into official government policy in 2006, a policy brought forward by Fianna Fáil in government after a wide public consultation. There is broad, crossparty and public support for Ireland's development programme and the call to halt funding is out of step with both popular and political opinion.

The government has described the overseas aid programme as a central part of Irish foreign policy, recognising that Ireland is able to 'punch above its weight' diplomatically because of its reputation for missionary work, development and solidarity.

Every day, Irish development funding helps provide rudimentary health services to poor people in developing countries, safe drinking water to reduce the risk of disease, urgent humanitarian assistance following natural disasters, and life-saving drugs to people living with HIV and AIDS.

In taking Mr O'Keeffe's approach, Ireland would abandon international commitments, breach agreements with partner countries, abandon communities at risk and endanger poor people's lives – all for the sake of a short-term, expedient gain that would do little to address the substantive problems in the Irish economy.

It is an affront to our shared humanity with the world's poor to suggest that we should halt overseas aid. If our aid programme is a practical expression of Irish values, then what would it say about us to abandon our promises to the world's poorest – even as life is immeasurably tougher for them than it is for us?

Whatever the options politicians consider to get out of the economic mess we find ourselves in, the needs of the world's poor must be kept on the table.

Dóchas is the umbrella group for Ireland's Development NGOs.

Reprinted with permission from Dóchas.