February 15, 2007

A modest Irish proposal to fight global hunger

Tom Arnold is a remarkable man. When he is not running Ireland’s largest non-governmental international aid agency, Concern, or sitting on the United Nations Task Force on Hunger, he takes time out to think deeply about the progress of the Northern Ireland peace process.

In a speech to the Irish Association’s annual conference last October, he ranged across the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two Irish economies; the vital role of education in building prosperity on the island; and the difficult business of healing in a post-conflict society like Northern Ireland.

And he made what he called a modest – but others might call exciting – cross-border proposal, both to help that healing process and to make “a distinctive Irish contribution to dealing with the global problem of poverty.”

He pointed to the example of Norway – another recently wealthy country with a small population – which has built an international reputation for being able to contribute to efforts to resolve conflict in different parts of the world. “It has done this because its government decided this was to be a priority in its foreign policy, and because it developed a capacity, through its universities, institutes and civil society organisations, to deliver something useful to other countries which sought assistance in conflict prevention or resolution.”

He now proposes that the two parts of Ireland should work together to become “the Norway for hunger.” This would have “the useful effect of putting our problems on this island into a different perspective. The divisions between the traditions in Northern Ireland, the genuine problems and grievances of those traditions, can seem much more resolvable when placed alongside the realities faced by the poorest people in the countries where Concern works.”

He then outlined some of these realities: 850 million people going to bed hungry every night, about 15% of the world’s population. This is not the kind of dramatic hunger we see on the TV screens at times of famine, but chronic hunger from lack of adequate nutrients on a constant basis, due to deep and persistent poverty. 11 million children under five die each year from the effects of hunger and associated diseases, and countless more millions are permanently physically and mentally stunted.

Arnold notes that because of our own history of famine, Ireland and Northern Ireland have a “particular legitimacy” in choosing hunger as one of the key priorities of our aid efforts. He commends the Irish Government for setting up its own Hunger Task Force – along the lines of the UN body – to map out how this can be done.

And Northern Ireland could have a role too. He proposes that development assistance should be one of the policy areas to be devolved to the reinstated Assembly (in the previous Assembly there was an active cross party committee dealing with development issues). He notes that there are “obvious possibilities for linkages” between that part of the British aid budget devolved to Northern Ireland and the rapidly growing budget of Irish Aid, the Irish Government’s official development co-operation agency (Ireland is committed to joining the very short list of countries devoting 0.7% of their GNP to international aid by 2012). Combining our resources and skills to tackle hunger in Africa could be an enormously fruitful outcome of such an imaginative collaboration between Belfast and Dublin.

The Centre for Cross Border Studies is already starting to play a small part in this. Wearing its hat as the administrator of the all-island Universities Ireland network, it is currently putting together a funding bid to Irish Aid to assist a number of African universities to develop their research capacity in areas like health, education and ICT in order to help tackle the scourges of hunger and disease, and – in the longer term – build the kind of modern and sustainable economy which is the only way out of poverty and underdevelopment.

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