The Fight Against Hunger: The History and Future of the Irish Role in Humanitarian Assistance

UCD Clinton Institute in association with the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs at Fordham University

Leading practitioners and scholars gathered in New York on 14th May to discuss the ‘The Fight Against Hunger: The History and Future of the Irish role in Humanitarian Assistance’, a conference organized by the UCD Clinton Institute for American Studies and the Institute of Humanitarian Affairs at Fordham University.

The scale and impact of the Irish contribution to humanitarian action is remarkable for a small nation. It has often been spoken about, but rarely examined closely. This conference provided an opportunity to discuss the history of this role and consider its present and future challenges and opportunities.

Brendan Rogers, Director General of Irish Aid, gave a keynote address in which he reflected on ‘the past, present and promise’ of Ireland’s role in humanitarian assistance. In particular, he underlined the commitment of the Irish government to three policy areas: linking relief, rehabilitation and development work; strengthening international partnerships; and supporting local communities to manage crises. In conclusion, he was optimistic: “If we work together on these three fronts I firmly believe that within a generation we can eradicate acute malnutrition and we can seriously reduce the extent and impact of man-made disasters.’ This was a significant statement of the government’s strategic vision in the field and it established a number of key talking points for the conference.

There followed three panels. The first considered the degree to which Ireland’s present role in humanitarian assistance is due to our exceptional history as a small nation dealing with the impact and legacies of famine. There were divergent perspectives on this. Cormac O’Grada of UCD warned that the term famine is too casually used to describe disasters involving hunger and too commonly exaggerated by NGOs and others with investments in the field of humanitarian assistance. The writer David Rieff concurred, noting that famine should not be conflated with chronic malnutrition and remarked that is ‘not a model but a cul de sac for reducing hunger’. However, Tom Arnold, CEO of Concern, argued that famine is not so readily used and misrepresented in the work of NGOS and went on to commend a number of ways in which Irish and US governments were working to advance food security and devise innovative programmes to treat acute malnutrition. In conclusion, he emphacised the important challenge of translating principles into actions. Niall O’Dowd, editor of the Irish Voice, was more fulsomely optimistic, arguing that Ireland’s role and record in humanitarian assistance is a story that needs telling in our age of austerity.

The second panel discussed the roles of government, NGOs and private funders, and how these interact. Kevin Cahill, MD,Fordham University, pointed out that UN bodies were been tasked with doing ‘more with less’ and this was creating new demands on development work. Greg Gottleib, of USAID set out the evolving commitments of the US government in the development field, particularly in relation to food security. He underscored the need to join humanitarian work to development work, to foster private-public partnerships and for NGOs to act as advocates. Amitabh Desai of the Clinton Foundation outlined the work of the Foundation in providing philanthropic capital to meet development needs in areas where governments were unable or unwilling to take a lead. The panel discussed the complex relations between relief and development and the challenge to scale up programmes.

The final session focused on education, culture and philanthropy. Pat Gibbons of UCD noted that humanitarian action is poorly served by traditional educational disciplines and argued the need to create and deliver interdisciplinary programmes of learning and training. John Harrington, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Fordham University, spoke of what we may learn about humanitarianism from Irish literary and cultural representations, an area that has not received detailed scholarly attention. Loretta Brennan Glucksman, Chairman of the American Ireland Fund, noted the differences between philanthropy and charity, but also reflected on the commonalities of philanthropy and humanitarianism and asked that more attention be given to the ways in which philanthropy could play an important role in development. In doing so, she commended the partnership work of Concern and the Gates Foundation. An extended discussion with the audience brought to the fore the need to learn more about the interactions of economics and culture in the fields of philanthropy and humanitarianism.

The conference provided the opportunity for scholars and practitioners to discuss the lessons to be learned about Ireland’s role in humanitarian assistance. The multidisciplinary scope and interaction of the presentations facilitated a holistic perspective that is commensurate to this evolving field of policy and action.

This event represented the first in a series being co-organised by UCD Clinton Institute for American Studies and Fordham’s Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs. These events, as well as teaching and research initiatives, will provide a focus for ongoing collaboration between UCD and Fordham University in the field of Irish and US affairs.

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