How did you get involved in aid work?
I grew up in Belfast. I come from strong medical family. Father was a
doctor, Mother, a nurse; four brothers all doctors; two sisters nurses. I never
seemed to know what I wanted to do, except that I didn't want to
study medicine. So I drifted into law. I studied at Queens University,
qualified and practiced as a solicitor in Belfast for two years. It was an
interesting profession but at the age of 25, I wanted to travel, wanted
to get out of Belfast, away from the troubles, the depressed
economy, the conflict all around me. Like most young, people I just
wanted to see more of the world before I settled down. I saw an ad in the
local paper for Concern looking for volunteers to work overseas for
two years and I applied. I really only expected to do the two years but
became very interested in the work. Quite honestly, I felt I found my
niche and so I never went back to law.
How did your background in Belfast influence your work? Do you feel that
you have a deeper understanding of the people you're helping?
Only later did I make the connections between what I was doing and where
I had grown up. It's ironic in a way that I went overseas to get away
from 'the troubles', conflict and prejudice of Northern Ireland...only to
end up in more extreme situations of conflict overseas Cambodia,
Rwanda, Burundi, Kosovo, Afghanistan. On one level now I see that I
was drawn to those situations and felt that I had something to offer from my own experiences. It gave me a deeper understanding of the
brutalities of violence and the impact that this has on ordinary peoples
lives. It also reminded me that there are no quick fix solutions to
ending conflict, it can take decades to end not just the fighting
but to bring about a cultural and attitudinal change. Also, we realized the
importance of engaging an outside influence to broker peace
negotiations (e.g., the US role in Northern Ireland). Interestingly we are
now using the experience of conflict management groups from Northern
Ireland to work with Concern, with different communities in Kosovo.
What was your first experience in aid work?
I joined Concern in September 1982 and began working in the Cambodian refugee
camps in Thailand. There were over 350,000 refugees housed in miserable
conditions. Concern was conducting a wide range of health, education,
construction and social programs. I was responsible for supervising
the Youth Training Centre that provided skills training, sports and education opportunities for the youth in the camp. It was the only
project of its kind in the camps. It was a great experience. Concern
stayed working with these refugees for the 15 years that they stayed
in the camps and assisted with the repatriation program when they
finally went back to Cambodia in the early 90s.
Tell us about the organization Concern.
Concern Worldwide is an international relief and development organization,
working in 29 of the poorest countries of the world. Concern is best
known for its immediate emergency response capabilities and its long-term
commitment to those most in need.
In conjunction with local communities, Concern's 2,500 experienced
personnel implement a wide range of emergency relief and long-term
development programs including food security, water and sanitation, credit
and savings, agriculture and forestry, primary and adult education.
The recent 2002 emergency operations Concern has responded to include:
food distribution and earthquake response in Afghanistan; emergency
shelter in the aftermath of the volcano eruption in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo and
famine relief in Malawi, southern Africa.
After my 20 years with Concern, I think what has kept me committed and
loyal to Concern is its commitment to reaching out to the poorest people
and our people are prepared to work in the most difficult of circumstances
with poor people and our response to each emergency is unique to that
situation, be it famine or war or natural disasters and the response to
people is in a caring and very personalized manner, which is respectful of
their well-being and dignity. Concern is also very strong on managing
its funds in adherence to professional accounting standards with
accountants in each field of operation. It's important to demonstrate our
commitment to financial accountability to our donors and supporters and
also our project beneficiaries. I like that all of our staff are mindful
of delivering aid in a caring, but very efficient and effective manner. I
guess what is first and foremost in my mind is I sign on to Concern's
ethos which is based on a respect for the integrity, dignity and
development of all peoples with whom we engage.
Where else have you worked?
I have also worked in:
Can you/should you compare those situations with Afghanistan today?
- Thailand 1982-85
- Sudan 1985
- Thailand 1986-87
- Somalia 1987-88
- Cambodia 1991-94
- Vietnam 1994
- Rwanda & Democratic Republic of Congo 1994-97
- Burundi 1997-98
- Kosovo 1999
- Afghanistan 2001-02
While every emergency is unique, there are always comparisons that can
be drawn with other emergency operations. One refugee camp, sadly, is
very similar to another. And regardless of the location, the level of
services, they are unnatural. In human environments that strip
people of their freedom and self esteem, one hungry child will display
the same symptoms as another. But Afghanistan is unique in that its unenviable position as the world's poorest country has come about as a
result of a combination of man-made and natural disasters. It has escaped few calamities 23 years of civil war, four years of
drought, recurrent earthquakes, the entire population of women
repressed and victimized, no proper functioning medical or educational
Afghanistan has also received much more media attention (post September 11)
than many of the emergencies that we have been involved in, where
hundreds of thousands of lives are lost or severely threatened. Be it
an earthquake in India, famine in South Sudan, the years of civil war
in Burundi, sadly, many of these emergencies do not get the attention
or resources that they equally deserve.