Liz O’Donnell: Our generosity to the less fortunate marks us out on the global stage
GIVEN the state of the nation, it's not surprising that politics and observing it is a toxic business. Anger has become a constant theme in print and broadcast media. From early morning we are fed a diet of grievance on the airwaves. Small wonder so many people are switching to the relative happy valley of Lyric FM.
But Christmas is the one time when there is a break from this daily grind. For a change, there is an opportunity for reflection to replace argument and criticism. Too much negativity is bad for the national psyche and at this time of goodwill we are entitled to reflect on what is good and noble about Irish people.
This occurred to me when I watched loving Irish families welcoming 60 orphans and poor children from Belarus for a two-week holiday. But there are so many thousands of volunteers like them working with the homeless, the elderly and the vulnerable this Christmas and right through the year. This Irish humanitarian instinct to help others shows no sign of waning in difficult times.
Few areas of public policy attract broad cross-party support. One of them is Ireland's solidarity with the poorest people of the world through our overseas aid programme funded by our taxes. It was uplifting to note that even in the run up to the doom-laden Budget this year, the opposition parties did not advocate a raid on the ODA budget.
From very modest beginnings in the 1970s, the Government aid programme has grown to reach a very respectable 0.52pc of our GNP this year.
This is well on the way to the target set for developed countries for aid of 0.7pc of GNP by the United Nations. Only a handful of countries have actually reached or exceeded that target.
This year the Budget was €639m; 2013 will see a modest cut to €623m. But there had been a cut of 30pc since 2008 reflecting the recession and the fall in our GNP.
A unique aspect of Irish aid is the partnership model: the poor country is in the driving seat of its own development. Our aid is focused on basic needs.
Immunisation programmes, primary school education and infant and maternal health programmes are a priority and we concentrate on the very poorest countries.
Given that 3.5 billion children still die each year from hunger, there has been a recent policy shift to allocate 20pc of the entire Irish aid budget on food security and hunger. This, of course, fits well with our own race memory of famine and starvation.
Recognising the need for accountability for taxpayers' money, Irish aid also goes towards helping to build up human rights, and for judicial and administrative systems to tackle corruption and improve the capacity of these new governments to run their own affairs.
People ask: does aid work? This writer is an aid optimist and there is plenty of evidence to show it does.
Millions have been lifted out of poverty; less people are dying due to improved life-expectancy; and there have been advances in maternal health and education.
Sub-Saharan Africa is now the fastest growing region in the world after Asia. There is an increasingly educated workforce and a growing middle class. Aid is incorporating trade and economic links. Some African countries have growth levels of 5pc and now depend on outside aid for only 10pc of their resources, as compared 50pc in the 1990s.
They are now accessing international finance, raising revenues from taxes and maximising natural resources. Also, there is now massive investment by the BRIC countries. So aid these days is only one instrument in the economic and social development of poor countries
A recent review of the white paper on aid revealed the changing context for international development. Global poverty is reducing and the world is on target to halve poverty by 2015.
Sub-Saharan Africa continues to bear the greatest poverty burden but there are real gains. Forty million more children are going to school today than in 2000.
Health programmes and vaccinations mean 12,000 fewer children are dying every day. Since 1990, 1.6 billion have gained access to clean drinking water. Malaria cases are down by over 50pc in 11 African countries.
We should be proud of these advances. As a country we are world leaders in the battle against global poverty. Even in our personal donations to charities we are notoriously generous.
Our peacekeepers are highly regarded the world over for their competence and compassion in conflict zones. We don't do wars. We do aid and peacekeeping. This is our main foreign affair. That we continue to do it in good times and bad is testament to our civilised values.