Ireland’s largest aid agency, Concern Worldwide reached a record number of people across its development and humanitarian response programmes last year, a reflection of the growing level of global humanitarian need and the organisation’s increasing focus on supporting people living in extreme poverty.
Concern’s latest annual report reveals that the organisation helped 22 million people in 27 of the world’s poorest countries and responded to 45 global emergencies in 25 countries, helping over 4.6 million people.
Major emergencies included South Sudan and the Syrian crisis – where Concern supported over 1,100,000 people across Turkey, Lebanon and within Syria, Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, where it supported 10,000 people with essential household and hygiene items and widespread drought in Ethiopia, where it treated 200,000 children and adults for malnutrition.
Bandon native and nurse Anne O’Mahony is International Programmes Director for Concern Worldwide. Anne tells Mary O’Brien how she went overseas with Concern in 1982 with the intention of doing humanitarian work for a few years. “And here I am 35 years later,” she laughs.
To mark International Nurses Day in May, Anne returned to the Bon Secours Hospital in Cork city, where she trained, to share some of her experiences as a nurse and aid worker in the field.
Anne’s role as International Programmes Director involves managing the programmes in the 27 countries where Concern Worldwide works. “We have a lot of people on the ground, over 3000 staff, and we work in some of the most complex and dangerous areas in the world, but also these are areas with the highest humanitarian need,” explains Anne. “Our programmes are in places like Somalia, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Niger and Chad, Sierra Leone, right across that whole sector.
“We’re facing a huge challenge right now. For the first time in six years famine was declared at the end of last February in South Sudan and there has been a pretty poor global response to it,” says Anne.
“Quite apart from the terrible situation in Syria, with famine declared in South Sudan and the risk of famine across Yemen, Somalia and Northern Nigeria, this is an exceptionally difficult time.
“In this day and age in this world, when we’re so connected in so many ways, to see the poverty and inhumanity that people are forced to live in, for me this is the greatest challenge.”
Anne’s first posting in 1982 was to Thailand to work with Cambodian refugees on the Thai Cambodia border after the fall of the Pol Pot regime. Millions of Cambodians accustomed to city life were now forced into slave labor in Pol Pot’s ‘killing fields’ where they soon began dying from overwork, malnutrition and disease. “That was a life changing event for me,” says Anne “as was being transferred across to Ethiopia in 1983, a year before famine was declared.” In Ethiopia, where she worked through the famine up to 1986, Anne witnessed how hard people fought for survival and learned about Concern’s role in enabling them to survive. “I had a similar experience in Somalia in 1992-93, where we had conflict and gunmen running the show after the collapse of government. In spite of all of this we were able to assist hundreds of thousands of people who otherwise might not have survived. You get such a sense of personal achievement when you see people who would have otherwise died, survive and walk away.”
One of Anne’s most uplifting memories is from Ethiopia, where she was in charge of a famine relief camp. “It was a huge camp. Once someone had recovered, we discharged them and they returned on a weekly basis to collect dry food rations. A couple of years later we had an outbreak of Meningitis in that area and we undertook a big vaccination campaign. People were making a 10-hour journey out of the mountain. We weren’t able to travel to them while maintaining the cold conditions required for the vaccinations so we hired a helicopter and went in, landing on a ledge on the mountainside.”
Anne recalls seeing a large stream of people coming over the mountain to meet them. “We could see people coming towards us on all sides of the mountain from miles away. Many of them remembered their time in the camp and it was a very enriching experience to see them back in their homes looking healthy and happy despite the difficulties that meningitis had brought them.”
In 2001 Concern Worldwide pioneered research on the treatment of severe and moderate acute malnutrition in very poor communities and countries. As a result of this research, the World Health Organisation changed its protocols on the treatment of malnutrition. “It’s one of the most valuable things we’ve ever done,” says Anne.
“Concern has very high standards. We’re good at what we do. We’re very good at alleviating suffering, at helping people on the road to development, finding the poorest people and putting systems in place to help them get out of that poverty trap they’re in.
“We live in a world where children are starving and there is so much suffering and we need your help.”
Members of the public can donate on the website www.concern.net or by calling 1850 211 844.