Tom Arnold and Ireland’s Commitment to Development

The CEO explains Ireland’s strong humanitarian spirit.
  • Transcript


Question: When did Ireland’s commitment to Africa begin?

Arnold:    In 1968, there was a civil war in Nigeria. A bit of Nigeria, the eastern province, wished to break away and set up an independent state which they wanted to call Biafra.  That didn’t happen.  There was a civil war, and it led to a very significant famine, and it was the images of that famine, coming back to Ireland, and we haven’t had television for too long.  Television in Ireland was only brought in in 1961, and so the images, for many Irish people, Biafra was what they called the “first famine on television.”  So, those images were coming in to the households and people were responding, but there’s another factor which was important.  In those days, many, many Irish missionaries worked in Africa, and particularly worked in that area in Nigeria called Biafra.  So, almost every community in Ireland knew somebody who was already there, as a priest or a nun, and so that added to, you know, I suppose the shock, the outrage of seeing what was happening there, and that gave rise to a most extraordinary outpouring of generosity at the time, and it led to the establishment of an organization called Africa Concern, which was the forerunner of the organization which became Concern.  So, that’s the story about how Concern started.  It went on from there, and this was where Bangladesh became important because Bangladesh was created as a state a couple of years later, and then Concern was in there at the very beginning also, and over the next few years, a lot of Irish, young Irish volunteers went to work in Bangladesh, and they, I think, created the, you know, the foundation of support for the organization throughout Ireland which, you know, which remains to this day.

Question: Did the Potato Famine inspire a humanitarian spirit among the Irish?

Arnold:    I think the effect of the Irish famine in the mid 19th century, from 1845 through to 1848-49, the consequence is it had a million people left the shores, a million people died, a million people emigrated.  It had a profound impact on the Irish psyche, and I think it’s one of the reasons why there’s been almost an extraordinary empathy on behalf of the Irish people with poor people in other parts of the world, and I think it is part of the reason why organizations like Concern has had such support from the Irish people over the 40 years of its existence.  I think the other factor, though, which is important is the Irish missionary tradition and, again, that really started really from the second half of the 19th century, and over the following hundred years, there were many, many thousands of Irish men and women went to work on the missions, and they would have brought back stories, they would have reflected back the realities of life all over the world, not just Africa, Asia, Latin America and so on.  So, there was a, I think a certain basic understanding on the part of many Irish people and a basic sympathy for, as a result of those stories.  And so, they, that I think is very key to understanding the underpinning of support for NGOs like Concern, but also the fact that Ireland is one of the relatively few countries in the world, at this stage, that has made a formal commitment to reach the UN aid target of giving 0.7% of its national income by 2012, and that’s based on a very strong cross party political consensus within Ireland, and that, in turn, I think goes back to the factors that I already spoke about, the famine and the missionary tradition.