Africa is changing - and we need a smarter overseas aid strategy
When it comes to Ireland's foreign policy, our focus on overseas development is one of the key elements that sets us apart on the global stage. In per capita terms, Ireland is one of the world's most generous donors. Last year an Ipsos/MRBI poll found that 75pc of Irish people believe that even during an economic downturn, Ireland has an obligation to invest in overseas aid. Another interesting finding showed that on average people hugely overestimate the amount the Government allocates to overseas aid. Survey respondents believed it amounted to 9pc of national income, when the actual figure is below 0.4pc
According to this week's Budget, the Government will spend an extra €40m on overseas aid next year, bringing the total allocation for development assistance in 2016 to €640m, or 0.36pc of national income.
This reverses a trend over the past seven years which saw the overseas aid budget fall by 30pc after reaching a high of €920m, or 0.59pc of national income, in 2008.
Of the extra funding, €10m will go to Irish Aid, the overseas development division of the Department of Foreign Affairs, while the remaining €30m will be spread across other departments working with various international agencies. Particular attention will be paid to those tackling the humanitarian crisis arising from conflicts across the Middle East and Africa, which has resulted in the biggest displacement of people since World War II.
Despite the increase in funding this year, Ireland remains far from its stated target, one designed by the UN almost two decades ago, of allocating 0.7pc of national income to development assistance. Speaking at UN headquarters in New York recently, Taoiseach Enda Kenny reiterated Ireland's pledge to reach that goal but did not give any time frame.
"On our small Atlantic island the Irish people carry the generational memory of occupation, of hunger, of conflict and of mass emigration," he told delegates at a summit to agree an ambitious new global 15-year plan to eradicate extreme poverty, tackle climate change and a host of other development challenges. "As a result of our history, we have a deep commitment to addressing suffering and hardship wherever they are found."
While Ireland's overseas aid programme still retains a strong focus on assistance for emergencies arising from conflict, natural disasters and famine, the majority of resources are allocated to long-term development in a small number of partner countries.
Irish Aid has nine partner countries, eight of which are in sub-Saharan Africa: Ethiopia, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Sierra Leone. The ninth is Vietnam.
Africa is changing rapidly and Ireland's overseas development strategy has had to change along with that.
According to the IMF, Africa will experience the fastest-growing economy of any continent for the remainder of this decade.
Rising economic growth rates, fuelled in part by large-scale investment from the likes of China, India and Brazil, are creating a new middle class across Africa with more disposable income.
Reflecting these dynamics, Irish officials have sought to frame Ireland's overseas aid budget in terms of how it could "open doors" to future trade and investment in Africa's growing economies. They often argue that the programme remains important "not only because it is the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do."
Moving away from a donor-recipient relationship with Africa towards one of partnership and collaboration requires taking a leap of imagination that moves beyond stereotypes of a continent and its people.
More than two-thirds of Africa's population is below the age of 25, a new generation that is increasingly better educated and more empowered due to technology.
The mobile phone, in particular, has revolutionised Africa, connecting its people like never before. China, in particular, has been quick to look at this changing Africa through the lens of opportunity, not challenge. Beijing's growing engagement with the continent has caused some concern that European influence there is waning.
But trade between Ireland and Africa is on the up. According to the Irish Exporters' Association (IEA), exports of Irish goods and services to Africa has reached almost 3 billion - an increase of 200pc since 2009. The IEA expects Irish exports to Africa to rise to €24bn by 2020.
While such relations grow and help build opportunities for the future, there is constant rethinking on how to make overseas aid work better.
A new research team at Trinity College Dublin will investigate just that, working with aid agencies, policymakers and governments to establish what really makes a difference on the ground. The team has already begun examining projects, including an Irish Aid-funded initiative in Uganda which explores the connection between nutrition and the treatment of HIV. A smarter overseas aid strategy will help Ireland better navigate a changing Africa.