Last week, I found myself again on TV debating the issue of overseas aid, and the fact that bankrupt Ireland is still sending €700m abroad in development assistance -- far too much money for a small country which is broke. Eighty per cent of the aid goes to Africa. The commitment, made at the height of the Celtic Tiger, made us the sixth largest donor in the world, per capita -- an amazing statistic.
However, the continuing amazement of the media at this fact is not one shared by the political culture, which has been totally unwilling to enter into a debate about it. Think about it: €700m is almost the same amount of money as the much-trumpeted cut that we got from Brussels last week. And the money is not going on emergency aid such as the present crisis in Somalia, where it is really needed, but on long term 'development' assistance to countries like Malawi -- where last week there was rioting because of the government's ongoing suppression of the opposition.
Indeed, the perceived lack of an energetic response from Western countries to the current famine in Somalia is said to be precisely because they suffer from donor fatigue -- having given so much money already in ongoing development aid to the region. Such as us, giving €700m.
Also, it is worth asking: where is the response from the often wealthy Arab countries and Gulf States for a fellow Muslim country?
It was the same with the floods in Pakistan last year. Why must it always be small countries like Ireland? And why should the aid go to countries like Mozambique or Malawi, the latest recipient of Ireland's direct aid programme, instead of the present crisis in the Horn of Africa?
Irish Aid, run by the Department of Foreign Affairs, operates intensive programmes in six African countries: Lesotho, Mozambique, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Zambia and Uganda. And more recently, Malawi -- even though the UK, for example, has cut its aid programme to the region because of the corruption and dictatorial practices of the ruling regime. But no such reservations for generous Ireland, it seems.
Uganda, too, suffers from corruption and graft.
Added to our annual spending, we have the cost of having opened fully staffed embassies in places where we are spending this aid, such as Mozambique, Palestine and East Timor.
This situation begs some larger philosophical questions about the justification and effect of all this aid to far off places that many of us know little about.
For example, look at the rapid and reckless increases in population. Can we be surprised, for example, that Ethiopia, a major destination for Irish aid, suffers from continuous famine when its population is increasing by millions every year? Ethiopia's population is now expected to go from its present 78 million to an incredible 170 million by 2050, or sooner.
The Congo is undergoing a similar massive increase.
But there is an unwillingness by the aid industry to address this issue.
Whenever it is raised, there is an attempt to shut down the debate, and to say that we have no right to question others people's practices, or their tendency to major population increases.
But surely we do have a right when we are paying for so much of it, and possibly fuelling it -- just as we have a right to know that our money is not being stolen at the other end.
But then perhaps to address these issues would be to question the whole methodology of these programmes, and their underlying philosophy.
Look at Malawi, the source of Ireland's latest extensive aid programme, where in 2008 President Mutharika, a close friend of Robert Mugabe, spent €12m on a new govern
ment jet and €3m on his wedding to the former tourism minister -- one of the most lavish state celebrations seen in Africa.
Critics claim that startling levels of corruption have been made possible precisely because of British, Irish and EU support. Much of the money is given in the form of direct budget support for the government, which decides how to spend it.
The UK is now demanding 'rigorous accounting' and 'robust evidence' to show that the money is not being wasted or stolen. We should be doing the same. But we should also be cutting back generally on this huge spend. We simply can't afford it at the moment, not when we are closing schools and hospitals.
We remain among the 10 largest donors in the world in per capita terms, and it seems that we lost the run of ourselves a bit with our generosity during the boom, building on our reputation for helping the world's poor.
But many now question the whole methodology of this continuous giving of aid, and feel that it is often making the situation worse in many places, and causing unreliable African governments not to feed their populations but to use the money for guns and corruption.
It is time to get real about where our money is going.