A new scheme which gives young people the chance to serve with the UN in developing countries will benefit Ireland’s expanding aid programme, Minster of State Conor Lenihan said today.
The pilot programme, which is funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Development Co-operation Ireland division, came out of discussions with UN secretary general Kofi Annan during a visit to Ireland.
In the New Year the first 11 interns – who will work with aid agencies under the existing UN Volunteers scheme – are heading to one-year postings in Africa, Asia, Kosovo and Guatemala.
Mr Lenihan said the programme grew out of the high regard Ireland had for the United Nations system.
“Given our commitment, we felt we should get more Irish people involved in development and this was a good way to immerse young people in the UN structure,” he said.
“Over the years, quite a lot of people who are quite senior in the UN or our own system started off their lives in development as UN volunteers.”
Mr Lenihan said the reaction to the internship had been extraordinary, with 300 people applying for a handful of places.
In response, the Government would shortly be announcing its own internships within the Irish aid system to give more people the chance to volunteer, he said.
The Overseas Aid Minister said he hoped the new opportunities would lead to more people coming through the aid agency system and would support the work of Irish charities such as Trocaire and Concern.
And with the Government’s commitment to contribute 0.7% GDP to overseas aid by 2012, Irish development projects are growing rapidly, Mr Lenihan said.
“It’s a huge expansion of the programme, so we have to plan for that expanded programme,” he said.
Joanna Rea, 25, from Co Wicklow, who is going to Lesotho to work with Unicef’s basic education programme, said the project showed the Government’s commitment to assisting the developing world.
Ms Rea completed a masters degree in international development before working for Irish education charity Suas, but said it was often hard to find jobs in development.
She will be liaising with the African state’s department of health, tackling gender discrimination and working to integrate HIV/Aids education into the curriculum.
“It’s going to be quite challenging and demanding, but it’s going to be an amazing experience.
“It’s a really great opportunity – you read about a lot of things in the press, or study them, but to have first-hand experience, talking to people on a personal level, makes everything a lot more real,” she said.
“I think what’s important is that young people need to get involved with these issues and engage with them.
“If you don’t have opportunities like this, you don’t have an upcoming generation who are interested in justice and a fairer world.
“Investing in young people is something all governments should be doing.
“I hope it will have a transformational effect, creating a cohort of people who go on to effect change and make a difference and get involved locally or globally.
“We’re spending so much money, and we’re committed to the 0.7% of GNP to go on overseas aid by 2012, we need to have people who have the expertise to spend it,” she said.
Development Co-operation Ireland already funds a number of two-year UN Volunteers projects.
If this year’s internships are a success, they will be established as an ongoing scheme, and Mr Lenihan said he would like to see the numbers on the programme expanded.