GUEST COLUMNIST: Development workers remind us of what’s good about our nation

In a few weeks, Justin Kilcullen will retire after 20 years leading and 30 years working for Trócaire

AT THE United Nations in New York today, Trócaire director Justin Kilcullen will leave the international stage. In a few weeks he will retire after 20 years leading and 30 years working for Trócaire.

His mission today is to launch the findings of new research by Trócaire entitled My Rights Beyond 2015. It was conducted in communities in six developing countries and looks beyond the current millennium development goals after 2015, their due date.

Kilcullen’s last act is to ask, what next? Having equal rights, enjoying those rights regardless of gender, ethnicity or income and being able to hold governments to account, are Trócaire’s research findings on the significant concerns of people in developing countries. These are not issues addressed, however, in the current UN millennium development goals.

Goals of course are selective. Several of the vaunted millennium goals will not be delivered on target, or even soon. Reading the 2013 report of the UN, it is also fair to say that, in some respects, much has been done. About 700m fewer people lived in conditions of extreme poverty in 2010 than in 1990. Over the last 21 years, more than 2.1bn people gained access to improved drinking water sources. Remarkable gains have been made in the fight against malaria and tuberculosis. Between 2000 and 2010, an estimated 1.1m deaths from malaria were averted.

Regrettably the target of universal access to HIV anti-retroviral therapy for all who need it by 2010 was missed. It remains reachable by 2015 if current trends continue. If hope remains of providing HIV treatment for all who need it, the goal of providing a primary school education for every child is stalling badly. It is now certainly unattainable by 2015. So too are targets on improved sanitation. Many of these missed goals are being missed by the same communities in the same countries.

There has been a lot of talk here about our own broken institutions. The promised democratic revolution never happened. But everything is relative. If we have clearly not found a political means to fix our broken politics, we do not lack ways of articulating that. We enjoy a constitutional and legal framework that, warts and all consistently, vindicates many more of our people that it lets down. Gender equality remains to be fully substantiated in our society but, thanks to campaigning women and men, enormous progress has been made in a single generation.

Trócaire is at the UN today because that body is holding a ‘special event’ convened by Ireland and South Africa to discuss what should replace its anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals after 2015. Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and Development minister Joe Costello are scheduled to be there. It is an example of Ireland leading on an agenda where, if we have conspicuous unfulfilled financial promises, we have at least in part given consistent leadership for decades.

Last Saturday I attended the funeral in Co Meath of the mother, whom I had not met, of a friend and former colleague. That lady was clearly the much loved and deeply mourned mother and grandmother of an extended family. She had, with her husband who predeceased her, spent some years in Kenya decades ago. Her attitude of respect towards the native Kenyan community, we were told by the priest who knew her well, was not universal among white expatriates then. In troubled times, her respect was repaid by her Kenyan neighbours. Unlike others, her home was unharmed.

The slaughter in Nairobi on the day of her funeral and its bloody end brings her values of respect to mind. Something else from her funeral stayed in my mind too. The gospel was the account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus after the resurrection of Jesus. They walked and talked with Him about the terrible event of the crucifixion in Jerusalem “but they were kept from recognising him”. Destination reached, they invited the stranger who had walked on the road with them into the inn to share their meal. Only then in the breaking of the bread were “their eyes were opened and they recognised him”.

The true miracle of this story, the subject of great works of art, the priest told us is perhaps misunderstood. The miracle was not the recognition by the disciples of Him at the breaking of the bread, it was their invitation of a stranger to share their meal. It is in the stranger that you meet your maker and see the face of your God.

It is less emphasised now, less obvious perhaps, and in any event we are less comfortable with the fact, that much of our charitable infrastructure was motivated by religious principles and led mainly by religious institutions. Trócaire is a foundation of the Irish Catholic bishops. That church has, of course, been shown to have fallen catastrophically short of the principles it was founded on. Its ultimate crisis is not that it let us down; it is that it almost perfectly mirrored us.

Platooned by the daughters and sons not of Roman legions but of Irish farmers it took on the class prejudices of the status hungry, middling sort of people who populated it.

Their status anxiety and insecurity after a devastating famine and only recently acquired property, mired with morality in ways that were vicious towards the different. Wholesale incarceration of the indigent and the illegitimate perfectly served our societies insecurity.

BUT that is all out there now, or at least the all of it that doesn’t implicate us. And Trócaire is lovely. It is great to be helping those poor people — thankfully so far away. But the different are still with us and so are our prejudices. Ireland is now a multiracial society, full of people who are fully Irish but apparently different. Different in appearance, in skin colour and in ethnicity, they too often befall the fate of strangers and are scorned.

Last Sunday, the day of the All-Ireland final, a prominent and respected GAA player was abused on Twitter with the taunt “Back to Asia with you, you don’t belong here”. The cowardly author of that abuse then closed the account and electronically ran away. Social media is a great outpouring of ourselves; a sewage system for the unspeakable.

From the horrors these last days in Nairobi, to the world in congress at the United Nations today, there is a common theme of responsibility towards the stranger. There may be great issues at stake of race, religion, and poverty on Twitter, in Nairobi and in every Irish community, but ultimately there are countless actions of hospitality and of hate that make this either a more equal or a more appalling world.

By design or default we can all make a contribution for good or evil. To the legion of Ireland’s foreign aid workers and Justin Kilcullen is just one, I say thank you.


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