O'Shea and Goal saved thousands of lives – but now the charity needs to regain trust
The US investigation has cast a shadow over the agency's work
Published 15/10/2016 | 02:30
At a south Dublin dinner party a few years ago, plummy voices rose as they speculated on the salary of GOAL founder and, at the time, chief executive, John O'Shea. Amid the din as remarks criss-crossed the table, a defender posed one question to the assembled guests: "Which of you has ever saved anybody's life?"
Because there is one indisputable fact about GOAL and its founder: irascible as he remains, they did save lives - hundreds, maybe even thousands.
When John O'Shea, a freebooting sports reporter, turned up in Ethiopia following a BBC documentary on the 1983 famine, he was like a character from Evelyn Waugh's novel 'Scoop' - almost totally alone, setting up feeding stations for the starving with money he seemed to have collected in a whiparound from friends in journalism and sport.
GOAL was a small charity run on a part-time basis to help the starving of Calcutta, propelled by the Messianic motivation and stubborn determination of O'Shea. Competitive and cajoling, he was always controversial, whether discussing international aid, rugby - which he played with Blackrock - tennis or golf, sports he continues to play today. Over the years, he recruited sporting icons like John McEnroe, Pat Cash and Gordon D'Arcy to the cause.
Outsiders might regard him as a parody of himself but the one thing nobody can ever take from him is that he made a difference - and in no small way either..
O'Shea himself was reluctantly banished from the organisation he founded after various boardroom battles. In a way, the charity had outgrown its founder and the professionalism that is required to run a multi-million-euro international organisation could no longer be subservient to his mercurial talents and dictatorial style.
"Helping the downtrodden, the deprived and the destitute was an honour and a privilege" he said as he departed; and he meant it.
Today, the GOAL he founded in the chaos of the newsroom of the 'Irish Press' in 1977 is an international aid agency, whose accounts show 'total funds' of €57m, according to accounts filed for 2014. Donors include the governments of Ireland, the United Kingdom, the United States the EU, charitable foundations and the public.
But GOAL's growing pains did not end with the departure of the founder. International aid is big business requiring modern management concepts like 'corporate governance' and 'general oversight.'
When O'Shea was striding through Ethiopia like Boot of The Beast, trying to wake up the West to the unfolding tragedy in this forgotten corner of Africa, such terms didn't matter a damn.
The aim was to help the starving and disease-stricken and the cash that saved so many lives probably came directly from his back pocket to those who needed it most.
How utterly changed it has become. Now, O'Shea's successor, after what the chairperson of GOAL Anne O'Leary described this week as "a turbulent period," the former Fianna Fáil junior minister and scion of political aristocracy, Barry Andrews, announced his surprise resignation as chief executive after just four years.
"I do not for one moment resent the robust oversight of our donor partners and if we are serious about retaining public trust and managing large sums of taxpayers' money, then this type of oversight is not only to be expected but welcomed" said Andrews, adding: "It has become clear to me that GOAL requires a fresh start in terms of leadership."
Like other areas of the charity sector, GOAL has become embroiled in controversy for the wrong reasons. It is one of 14 international aid organisations which had funding suspended by the US Agency for International Development, with millions of euro in aid for Syria frozen as an investigation continues.
"The investigation to date has identified a network of commercial vendors, non-governmental organisation (NGO) employees and others who have colluded to engage in bid-rigging and multiple bribery and kickback schemes related to contracts to deliver humanitarian aid in Syria" said a spokesman for the US agency.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Mr Charlie Flanagan, who oversees €651m in foreign aid from the Irish taxpayer, said yesterday that he is still "seriously concerned" about the US investigation.
"My department has been in regular contact with the US authorities and with GOAL. "I outlined the Government's concerns in a meeting with the chair and members of the board of GOAL last month" added the minister.
Of course, it is one thing to sit, as many of us do, in comfortable offices in Dublin or Washington and have every cent accounted for, but quite another to be hanging around some dusty outpost on the edge of a war-torn region, trying to get aid to the injured and the hungry. Bribery and corruption are a way of life on the margins of such events - but we live in a world where every euro must be accounted for.
There were also concerns expressed by the US authorities about a limited company set up in 2013 by three people connected to GOAL, including its chief operations officer, Jonathan Edgar, to provide support services to the NGO sector.
The UK-registered firm, Noble House Business Plc, has since changed its name and none of its directors or former directors are now connected to GOAL. Jonathan Edgar recently stepped down from his role with the organisation.
GOAL said it became aware of a possible conflict of interest in 2013 and staff were told that involvement with potential service providers to the aid industry was not acceptable. There was no suggestion that the company was involved in anything improper but after a 12-month cooling-off period "it was agreed that any potential engagement would be on an arm's-length basis as with any other third-party provider" said GOAL.
GOAL is now about to appoint a new chief executive, one who will have to oversee a massive overseas aid budget, but, more importantly, will have to restore public confidence in the way it distributes aid to the people who need it most.
One former aid worker who went to Ethiopia for GOAL back in the 1980s summed up the experience: "We were playing God because we had to choose who was going to live and who was going to die." That's a tall order for anybody, but as we see in Syria today, those decisions still need to be made and that's no easy burden for anyone to carry.