I have been in two minds about responding to last Thursday's piece by Kevin Myers ('Africa is giving nothing to anyone -- apart from AIDS'). However, given how my friends and colleagues have reacted to the article, I feel it necessary to respond. The following words have been used: cynical; selfish; misguided; inhumane; loathsome; myopic; disrespectful; racist.
The offensive reference to "almost an entire continent of sexually hyperactive indigents", the assertion that Africa contributes nothing except AIDS, and the suggestion that millions should be allowed to die of preventable disease stray well beyond journalistic fair comment.
It will be interesting if the Press Ombudsman and national anti-racism groups consider them to be acceptable.
The opinion piece also suggests that Africa is beyond help and that aid should be discontinued, when this is neither the case nor morally defensible.
In the first place, aid does work. Thanks to aid there is reduced child mortality. The number of children under five years old who die each year is declining. In 1960, 20.5 million children died around the world. Today that number is halved to 10.5 million.
In Africa, a continent that was once dependent on foreign aid, there are now 16 countries that have achieved annual growth rates in excess of 4.5pc for more than a decade.
Enrolment in primary schools increased across the continent from 72pc in 1990 to 93pc in 2004, and literacy rates have risen from 50pc in 1997 to 65pc in 2002.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, half of the population now has access to clean water. Through medical aid, various diseases including smallpox and polio have been drastically reduced and some others eradicated.
Uganda, highly dependent on aid and still wracked by violent conflict, has nonetheless become a world leader in successfully tackling HIV and AIDS, having reduced the prevalence of HIV from 20pc in 1991 to around 6.5pc in 2001.
Mr Myers refers to the "wide-eyed boy-child we saved, 20 years or so ago" who "is now a priapic, Kalashnikov-bearing hearty, siring children whenever the whim takes him".
But if you were to come to visit programmes supported by Irish aid agencies, you would see a different Africa to the one he portrays. You would see children seizing the opportunity for education and any improvement to their lives.
You would see women who have set up small businesses, farmers diversifying their crops to better survive in harsh environments with little rainfall and parents funding and building classrooms so that their children can be educated.
You would see community volunteers give their time and energy to provide basic health services in remote areas, educate children in places where there are no schools, and provide health care and support to people living with HIV or dying from AIDS.
Amid the wild assertions, untruths and half-truths, Mr Myers raises valid questions about sex education and disease prevention in Africa. Certainly the population growth on the continent is a concern. But rather than "washing our hands" of the issue, should we not support educational programmes that empower people to plan their families effectively?
In fact, what we need is more and better aid, reform of the world's trade, commodities and financial systems -- oh, and a properly functioning UN Security Council -- to allow Africa to deliver on its potential. That's the way we'll have a real shot at eradicating poverty, ending social breakdown and getting past the conflict that drives Mr Myers to despair. But there are no easy answers. I would welcome a debate about the challenges facing the many countries on the African continent, and would invite those who face the challenges to inform us so that we can help in the most constructive way possible.
The challenge for us is to ensure we are not the new colonialists, thinking ours is the only way. We, in turn, can learn so much of what is in danger of being lost in Ireland -- specifically in the power of communities to stand for the common good.
Helen Keogh is chief executive of World Vision Ireland and chairwoman of Dochas, the association of Irish NGOs involved in relief and development work overseas