Irish ODWS

So just who are the development workers and how did they originate? Simon Jones, himself a former overseas development worker (ODW), gives us a thumbnail sketch of the people ex-President Mary Robinson (now United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights) honours with a candle in the window of her official residence, Áras an Uachtarain, every Christmas.

Irish people can be found working in just about every country in the world, from Alaska to Argentina. Some have become rich and famous, others have failed in the attempt. Only a few have actually turned their back on the possibility of making money in their new home, preferring to work for justice with the poor. But the Irish overseas development worker has a much higher profile than numbers alone can explain.

It is generally agreed that the first ODWs were by and large
missionaries, sent out to spread the word on behalf of the Christian churches in far away countries. Once there, many found themselves getting involved in projects to improve standards of education, health and income. As they recognised the importance of looking after the material, as well as the spiritual, welfare of the people, the churches also began to see the need to put money into development projects.

Lay organisations were also starting up in response to famines around the world, and the Irish public - perhaps remembering the one million who died in the Irish famine in the 19th century - gave generously. It was only logical that young Irish people with useful skills would take the next step and go to the "Third World" to work as nurses, doctors, teachers and engineers. With few jobs at home, volunteering to work with the poor in Africa or Asia was more attractive to some than joining the tens of thousands of Irish
emigrating every year.

Initially, most people were sent to "emergencies". The popular image of Western development workers saving starving and hopeless people in areas affected by war and natural disaster still survives today. And many Irish people remember collecting money for Biafra [the eastern region of Nigeria which tried to form a separate state, where many people starved as a result of the civil war in the late 1960s], Cambodia, Ethiopia and other "disasters", as they were called. But volunteers on the ground in famine situations were finding out that things were not all that simple. And the sending agencies were gradually coming round to the idea that the disasters were only the tip of the iceberg, and not just the result of bad weather conditions. What was needed, they realised, was not Band Aid* - emergency relief aid - but long-term development.


As a result, projects designed to improve communities' potential for
sustainable economic and social development are now the main focus of organisations such as APSO (the Irish government's Agency for Personnel Serving Overseas), Trócaire, Concern and Oxfam. Nowadays volunteers, and money, tend to be put into projects like improving healthcare, water supplies, education (particularly technical education), agriculture, industry and small businesses. The special needs of women, normally the most disadvantaged people in developing countries, are also taken into consideration.

Some ex-volunteers, particularly those active in Comhlámh, the Association of Returned Development Workers, felt that another dimension was needed. It was necessary to apply political pressure to change the global economic structures which, they argued, were keeping the poor countries of the South poor to the advantage of the rich, industrialised nations of the North.

Added to this was the experience of religious and lay people in Latin America, where liberation theology was changing the way many Catholics thought about politics.

Back home, solidarity groups were set up to support struggles such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and oppose repressive regimes in countries like Chile and Guatemala. At the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s, many people went to Nicaragua and Guatemala on short work brigades both to help with coffee harvests and to witness the effects of the civil wars on the people. Many people later became involved in development organisations and other NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) in Ireland.

As we turn the corner into the next century, most development agencies are also involved in lobbying the Irish government and international bodies like the UN and the World Bank on issues such as foreign debt, trade and the environment. Some, like AfrI (Action from Ireland) have stopped sending aid altogether and concentrate on campaigning and education work in Ireland.

The type of people volunteering for development work overseas has changed, too. Agencies are now usually looking for people with professional experience, and often want experts, rather than recent graduates, to train local people instead of doing the job for them. The old proverb: "If you give someone a fish, you feed them for a day; teach them to fish and you feed them for life", is now the guiding principle of development work. Many organisations also recruit local staff to run their projects rather than sending out Irish people. But there are still hundreds, if not thousands, of Irish people working on development projects throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America.

by Simon Jones

The author is a member of staff of International Study Centre, Dublin, and part-time volunteer with LASC, the Latin American Solidarity Committee.

* Band Aid was an amalgam of pop and rock bands and stars put together by Irish punk singer Bob Geldof to raise money for famine victims. It was a wordplay on a well-known brand of sticking plaster, Bandaid.