Working with the world’s poorest to transform lives

Posted on: 9th May, 2016

Category: Features

Contributor: Mary O'Brien

Clonakilty native Nellie Kingston is rarely at home. For the two precious months out of 12 that Nellie gets to spend with her husband and two children in West Cork, every second counts. For the other 10 months, her time is just as important — as a Country Director on Concern’s Surge team, Nellie works with the world’s poorest people in the world’s poorest countries.

In 2015, Concern positively impacted the lives of 22.5 million people. Members of Concern’s Surge team are deployed to various Concern country programmes for varying time periods ranging from four weeks up to six months. On a rare trip home, Nellie Kingston talks to Mary O’Brien about her work with Concern.

Clonakilty native Nellie Kingston is rarely at home. For the two precious months out of 12 that Nellie gets to spend with her husband and two children in West Cork, every second counts. For the other 10 months, her time is just as important — as a Country Director on Concern’s Surge team, Nellie works with the world’s poorest people in the world’s poorest countries.

In 2015, Concern positively impacted the lives of 22.5 million people. Members of Concern’s Surge team are deployed to various Concern country programmes for varying time periods ranging from four weeks up to six months. On a rare trip home, Nellie Kingston talks to Mary O’Brien about her work with Concern.

Following a two-week spell at home in February, Nellie was deployed to Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one of the poorest countries in the world, where conflict and poverty are a part of everyday life. Concern’s focus in DRC is on providing humanitarian assistance, water and sanitation, and building livelihoods. “My role is to support Concern’s country programme plan in the DRC, which includes a range of development and emergency programmes,” says Nellie. “In 2012, I went there to help set up a water, sanitation and hygiene promotion programme designed to meet the needs of half a million people over five years. I went back last year to check that everything was on track with the programme. Cholera is endemic in Congo, so it’s important that there are proper hygiene behaviours that protect people from diseases.”

According to Nellie, the current levels of conflict and escalating humanitarian needs, combined with the rapid acceleration of climate change, mean that the challenges we face are enormous and truly global in their nature. “Global issues and events bring work closer to home every day, it affects all of us,” she says.

The EU deal with Turkey concerning Syrian migrants is controversial. “A political solution to the crisis is the only possible way to bring peace to Syria and reduce the flow of refugees into Europe during the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War,” says Nellie. “Avoiding responsibility to take in refugees is not acceptable. Most migrants just wish to go home to a peaceful Syria.”

In Nellie’s experience, another very topical issue that has severe implications on the world’s most vulnerable people is tax avoidance. “The Panama Papers leak has driven the issue of tax avoidance by many individuals, political and business leaders to the top of the global agenda also. A culture of tax avoidance that exists worldwide has severe implications on the poorest and most vulnerable and ultimately our ability to finance efforts at combating the greatest global challenges we now face.”

Nellie believes that the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May 2016 will be a moment for the global community and our leaders to agree that we must do better to end conflict, alleviate suffering, and reduce risk and vulnerability.

Before DRC, Nellie was part of Concern’s team in South Sudan, responding to the serious food crisis there caused by a combination of conflict and drought. Concern’s emergency programmes in South Sudan primarily focus on camp management, shelter provision, nutrition, clean water supply and sanitation.

Concern works with farmers in Katanga province to improve their agricultural production by using better farming techniques.  Pic: www.concern.net.

Concern works with farmers in Katanga province to improve their agricultural production by using better farming techniques. Pic: www.concern.net.

“My specific role was to look at the areas in which these communities live, natural resource management, simple energy saving technologies and so on as part of a programme designed to build resilience to climate extremes and disasters,” explains Nellie. “Ninety per cent of revenue in South Sudan comes from oil production and greenhouse gases have been one of the major contributors to climate change here.”

“Every day is different,” says Nellie, who works a lot with women and children facing economic and social hardships.

“The lack of equality for women in developing countries means that many don’t have a say in economic decisions, their own reproductive health, when they marry, at what age, or how many children they have. Due to the economic choices parents have to make, many girls are excluded from education completely or don’t have the same access to it as boys. There has been changes for the better, however any gains made have been overtaken by population growth. More recently, we’re finding that a lot of the gains are being swept away by the climate-change induced shocks that are hitting people — cyclones, tsunamis, droughts, floods, earthquakes.”

In Chad, Nellie was involved in the emergency provision of temporary shelters and hygiene kits to people displaced by conflict from neighbouring country Sudan.

In 2013, she was on the Ethiopian border when all the refugees started moving from South Sudan into Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda following the outbreak of violence and ensuing civil war there.

She was also in Haiti in 2013. “Concern is still rebuilding there after the earthquake.” In 2010, an earthquake killed over 300,000 people in Haiti. One and a half million were left homeless and 8,655 people died from a cholera outbreak, which began at the end of 2010. In 2012, Haiti was hit by another disaster, Hurricane Sandy.

Nellie has heard gunshots going off in South Sudan, seen mortars light up the sky in Afghanistan, driven through countless armed checkpoints and experienced quite a few earthquakes in between. Yet she is not afraid. “We’re well-trained to deal with all kinds of situations. What happens in the deepest darkest corners of the world will affect us all, whether we’re there or not, we’re all part of the same humanity,” she says gravely.

“The hardest part of my job is being away from my family. We Skype every day but miss each other a lot. The kids understand my work though. Their attitude is ‘well you always did this mom’. The only difference was, when we travelled together as a family, when I went into the field they were back at base. They’re used to it now and in good hands while I’m away.”

Nellie met her husband Eric Dineen when they were both working as volunteers in Zimbabwe. After finishing her training as an agricultural, science and math secondary school teacher and teaching for a period in Clonakilty, Nellie decided her path lay in humanitarian aid work. She joined an Irish volunteer programme and went to teach in Zimbabwe for three years. “While there, I decided I’d enjoy a career in development work, so came back to Ireland in 1994 to do my Masters degree in Rural Development at UCC.” Nellie returned to Zimbabwe, where Eric was still teaching, and the couple married in 1997. Their two children, Aisling and Conor were born as they travelled around the globe. Nellie worked on development and humanitarian programmes for a number of aid agencies in a huge range of countries, including Trocaire and the Irish Red Cross, before joining Concern.

In 2009, the family decided it was time for Aisling, age 10 at the time, and Conor, 7, to continue their education in Ireland. “Travelling from place to place was exciting and the kids definitely have a greater awareness of global issues but we felt they needed more stability. They love living in Ireland now,” says Nellie.

Eric works part-time so that he can look after the daily needs of their children while Nellie continues in her development work with Concern Worldwide. Aisling is now 17 and Conor is 13. “I didn’t see myself spending so much time away from my family, which is the situation at the moment, but we get by. We’re one of many different family models out there today.

“The work is very challenging but very rewarding as well,” says Nellie. “Working at the frontline, I get to see change happening and to feel really engaged. The UN published its Sustainable Development Goals last year and the elimination of poverty remains a global priority, which is positive.

“I saw a child once, just two-years-old, and she weighed less than the birth weight of my daughter. It’s just heartbreaking because behind that child is a family who have not been able to feed themselves. It’s dreadful to think in a world of plenty that this situation continues to occur,” says Nellie passionately.

“There’s a John Cleese line that I think sums up my work. ‘It’s not the despair that kills you, it’s the hope.’”

“You care about everybody but you don’t get personally involved. There are a lot of people who I think about…I wonder how they’re getting on and I’m hopeful that we have helped them.

“I meet some of the most extremely poor and marginalised people who really do need support. But I also meet some of the happiest and most fulfilled people. When we came back to Ireland, our children were so happy with so very little.”

Nellie grew up in a family of eight children in Inchydoney. “We had the best playground in the world,” she recalls nostalgically. Her parents, Denis and Eileen Kingston, have always been very involved in their local community and encouraged their children to contribute to society. “They’re both amazing people,” says Nellie, “and lead such active lives. Dad, 80, wakes up every day, looks out the window and says, ‘It’s another beautiful day in Inchydoney’.

“My parents are an inspiration and I suppose I just took their encouragement one step further,” says Nellie of her humanitarian work.

Almost 25 years working in the field, Nellie feels privileged to do what she does.

“It’s my life now,” she says simply.

Nellie will be home in July. “My baby brother is getting married, so I can’t miss that,” she says smiling.

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