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Speech at Concern Worldwide’s 50th Anniversary Conference  - Resurgence of Humanity: Breaking the Cycle of Conflict, Hunger and Human Suffering 

Dublin Castle, Friday, 7th September, 2018 

Resurgence of Humanity: Breaking the Cycle of Conflict, Hunger and Human Suffering 


Deputy Secretary-General, 
Members of Concern Worldwide, 
Distinguished guests, 
Dear friends, 


I am deeply honoured to join you all here today to address such a distinguished group of humanitarians, policy-makers and activists, many of whom have dedicated their labours and their lives to the causes of peace, justice, and solidarity. May I thank Dominic MacSorley, the CEO of Concern Worldwide, for his most generous introduction and for his invitation to open this conference today. 

It is so characteristic of Concern that in this, the fiftieth year since your foundation, you are marking that anniversary not only by drawing inspiration from the past but by redoubling your efforts to confront existing and emerging humanitarian crises and to achieve the great task that the nations of the world set for themselves and their citizens through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which will conclude so appropriately with a visit to an exhibition by one of Ireland’s finest and most engaged artists, Brian Maguire, entitled ‘HUMANITY Site Unseen’. 

The three years since the agreement of the Sustainable Development Goals in New York have been a painful reminder that we live in a world that yields only slowly and painfully to change, one that is marked by the persistence of violence, injustice and inhumanity, by private avarice and public squalor, and one that is even now, in many parts of the world and in Europe, wracked by the return of hateful political ideologies we had long thought vanquished, or banished to the margins of political life. 

This conference demonstrates that a will, indeed an anxiety exists, that such violence, such injustice, such inhumanity, be met with an answerable determination not only seek to understand the sources of such conflicts but to take action and seek to  resolve conflicts, to promote sustainable development and the public realm, to confront the underlying causes of human suffering, and above all, to give credence to our oft-stated mission statement to stand in solidarity with some of the poorest people on our planet. A conference such as this can be a valuable examination of conscience as to the authenticity of commitment, a test as to whether our global institutions are not part of what has been termed a ‘culture of indifference’. 

A determination to be morally and practically engaged has been in evidence in Concern ever since its earliest days, when a group of committed and compassionate citizens met at the home of John and Kay O’Loughlin Kennedy to hear the testimony of John’s brother, Father Raymond Kennedy, who, as a Holy Ghost Father, had borne witness to suffering and starvation wrought by the blockade of Biafra. 

For many of us, the events of which he spoke ruptured some of the hopes that had been placed in independent Africa as the site of a new emancipatory form of politics, one freed from the depredations and assumptions of the old imperial powers, who had not only failed the world in the preceding century in reflecting an interest in any global balance of ecology, culture, sufficiency, welfare and fulfilment, had been insatiable in pressing for advantage in the most narrow sense. Indeed, can we in truth say that the needs of sufficiency are now being met, that a legacy of resource extraction is over? 

In Ireland, it awakened a spirit of generosity and compassion, a spirit displayed in the huge response to the appeal for funds launched in June 1968 by Concern and other groups. 

That revolutionary year of 1968 witnessed not only the emergence of a new humanitarian conscience in the Global North, in response to the television images of famine and suffering in Africa, through the formation of organisations such as Concern, but also a moment of emancipation and liberation across the world, all amidst the turmoil and tragedy of the Cold War. Movements of thought and action from Ireland to Egypt, from the United States to Czechoslovakia, sought freedom, self-determination and justice, not only for themselves or their own communities, but for other peoples throughout the world, evoking a global solidarity. 

The stakes were highest in the Global South, where many of the heroes of the struggle against colonialism had halted, and even reversed, the march towards a liberation that would be emancipatory. We need only think of the Student and Workers movement in Egypt, who resolutely demonstrated for days in February 1968, demanding the civil liberties and representative government so long promised but so long delayed by President Nassar, whose own dreams of a Pan African future were being thwarted by Governments guaranteeing the interests of multi-national extractive resources and energy industries. 

The war in Biafra was one of the most destructive manifestations of the thwarting of the potential and ideals of the anti-colonial struggle. It was also a demonstration of a deadly cynicism on the part of those described as the great powers – the relief airplanes which landed nightly at the airstrip in Uli, the parish in which Father Aengus Finucane was a priest, evaded not only British-made anti-aircraft weaponry but Soviet-made fighter jets, as Nigeria’s former coloniser and the USSR vied for influence over the Federal Government in Lagos. A reminder, if any were needed, that peace is made more difficult, even at times impossible, when powerful interlocuters arm and support warring parties. 

If the war in Biafra is an example of the delivery of a severe blow to the dream of a free and peaceful Africa, capable of overcoming all the problems that had bedevilled the European continent in the twentieth century, it also inaugurated a new period in the history of humanitarian action and disaster relief. These tasks were urgent and so the structural bases and their starting assumptions in scholarship and policy tended to be left aside, for another day, a matter which gives further importance to conferences such as this. 

Let us recall that, up to that point, it had been Europeans, living on a continent wracked by internecine war, who were the primary beneficiaries of humanitarian action. Let us recall Europe was sustained by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in the long and difficult years following the conclusion of the Second World War. The Administration was, of course, the predecessor of UNICEF, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the WHO and the UNHCR, reflecting the sheer scale of humanitarian effort that was required in post-war Europe. 

Humanitarian action has now come to encompass a vast field of action, irrespective of geography, from relief in wartime, the distribution of food and nutrition, and the eradication of preventable disease. Since its foundational moments, Concern has been at the very centre of the response to some of most difficult humanitarian emergencies of the past fifty years – Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Cambodia in the 1970s, Ethiopia and Sudan in the 1980s, Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda in the 1990s, and, in the present century, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Haiti and South Asia. 

Despite their disparate geographies, culture and politics, the humanitarian disasters in those countries were and are multi-causal and multi-dimensional in their origins.   

In so doing, Concern has developed a unique and profound insight borne of your experience working with people caught up in natural disasters and protected violent conflicts across the world. As President, I witnessed the work of Concern in Ethiopia, to which so many refugees from South Sudan have fled. 

Indeed, I can recall the emergence of the analytical term ‘complex emergencies’ in the early 1990s to capture the multi-casual and multi-dimension nature of many of humanitarian disasters then unfolding. I recall reading Professor Mark Duffield’s definition of the term: 

‘So-called complex emergencies are essentially political in nature: they are protracted political crises resulting from sectarian or predatory indigenous responses to socioeconomic stress and marginalisation.’ 


Concern and other organisations have been working in ‘complex emergencies’ for fifty years now, and perhaps knows better than many the diverse and manifold responses required to enable the needs of people to be adequately met. In providing medical assistance and training in response to the devastating Bhoka Cyclone of 1970, Concern staff and volunteers found themselves in the midst of the Bangladesh War of Independence, from which over 10 million people fled. 

It was Concern who first alerted the BBC to the effects of the terrible famine in Ethiopia in 1973 – a famine which itself caused a political crisis and led to the emergence of the Derg - and it was Concern who brought the return of famine in Ethiopia to the attention of the international media a decade later. 

When I visited famine-stricken Somalia, with Trócaire in 1991, at the camp at Dadaab on the border of Kenya to which Mary Robinson drew the world’s attention, I was humbled to also witness the work of Concern in extraordinarily difficult and distressing circumstances. In Baidoa, 130 people a day were being buried, all of this the consequence of a terrible civil war, and of a decade of wider armed conflict in the Horn of Africa. 

I witnessed too the consequences of the failure of diplomacy, for example, to recognise the role of the clan system in conflict prevention and resolution. 

In responding to disasters for 50 years, Concern has also witnessed a profound change, one Alex de Waal has pointed to in the preface of his recent book, ‘Mass Starvation:  The History and Future of Famine’. The book begins with the passage: 

‘Something remarkable has happened over the past thirty years.  The risk of dying of famine has become much, much smaller than at any time in history.  Calamitous famines – episodes of mass starvation that kill a million people or more – have vanished.  Great famines that kill 100,000 people still occur, but they are rarer and less lethal’. 

This is testament to the success of United Nations agencies such as the World Food Programme and UNICEF, now under severe threat through underfunding, working in partnership with humanitarian organisations such as Concern. 

The incorporation too of the work of scholars such as Amartya Sen has been vital to a wider understanding of food security, so that famine now is not understood as a shortage of food, but also a matter of uneven access to food. 

The Food and Agriculture Organisation recognises four dimensions of food security: food availability, access of food, food utilisation and stability over time. These ideas have formed the basis for the development of set of interventions in crisis situations, for the improved early warning systems for impending crisis and an increased capacity at national level. 

Today, as Alex de Waal has written, the primary cause of famine is neither an insufficiency of food nor a misallocation of resources, but too often is a consequence the destruction of the capacity to cultivate the soil and to import food and medicine. Some of the oldest methods of warfare history – the blockade, the siege, the scouring of the soil – remain in use today and they remain methods that are as indiscriminate in their effect as they are terrible in their consequences. When, in February 2017, the United Nations Secretary-General issued an urgent call to action to prevent famine and the risk of famine in four countries all four – South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen – were nations suffering armed conflict. 

If such conflicts, such ‘complex emergencies’, are political in nature, they ultimately require political solutions – solutions that can provide the space in which all the social, cultural and economic needs of a given society can be addressed and met, in what can be early forms of deliberative democracy. 

In this the role of women is crucial. Eighteen years ago, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 on ‘Women, Peace and Security’. Since that time subsequent resolutions have expanded upon 1325, recognising the central role played by women in conflict resolution and peace-building. The Peace Process on our own island could not have been achieved without the steady and courageous activism of women campaigning for a more just and peaceful society. 

The Peace Process on our own island demonstrates that a diplomacy cognisant and respectful of divergent and shared aspirations and interests can succeed, if underpinned by a shared committed commitment to peace and reconciliation. 

Many of the conditions identified as essential for peacebuilding by the Secretary-General of the United Nations in his report on Sustaining Peace earlier this year were also present: direct engagement by the two governments involved in the negotiations and sustained financing for peacebuilding activities, particularly from the European Union. Above all, one of the most vital conditions was the remarkable international solidarity demonstrated by many members of the United Nations, most particularly the United States. 

The Good Friday Agreement, now in its twentieth year, was never intended to provide a definitive and decisive resolution to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. Instead, it has created the possibility for a shared space capable of accommodating the legitimate and differing national aspirations of the people of Northern Ireland – a space in which it is possible to imagine a shared future filled with hope and opportunity. 

Creating such a space is fraught with difficulty, particularly when the members of the international community are not committed to a peaceful resolution. This was the case in Biafra, and it is the case with some of the worst conflicts in the world today. In 2016, 2.23% of global Gross Domestic Product was devoted to military expenditure, the lowest since 2000, and far below the heights of the Cold War. 

Yet, that has begun to rise as some of the Permanent Members of the Security Council embark on a new arms race, and the arms industry now exports weapons of death and destruction for use in Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Yemen. 

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the five Permanent Members of the Security Council, entrusted with the maintenance of international peace and security, today account for three-quarters of the worlds arms exports. The self-defeating rhetoric of the arms race, and the immorality of the arms trade, only serve to fuel current and future wars. 

That is most evident today in Yemen. The Secretary-General of the United Nations has warned the world that 22 million Yemenis are now in desperate need of humanitarian aid and protection. Yet even as the United Nations seeks a peaceful political solution, the conflict in Yemen is actively sustained by the sale of arms and by the support of some members of the Security Council. It is a stark example of the triumph of the diplomacy of transaction, and of narrow national interest, over the diplomacy of the common good embodied by the Charter of the United Nations. The United Nations needs global support. Imperfect as all institutions may be, it is our best space for alternatives to war and ecological destruction. 

The failure of those who profess to defend a ‘rules-based international order’ to ignore those rules when it becomes inconvenient only serves to undermine international peace and security, and to threaten the lives of vulnerable people in conflicts around the world. 

Through fifty years of action and advocacy, Concern has stood for a different vision of the world, one in which power yields to justice, one which recognises that we are all part of a common humanity, owing to ourselves and to others not only of compassion, but of solidarity. 

The labours of Concern and other humanitarian groups have secured a remarkable expansion to the corpus of international humanitarian law: the 1977 Protocols to the Geneva Convention, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Ottawa Convention prohibiting landmines, the International Criminal Court, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and most recently, the Arms Trade Treaty. These legal instruments do matter – they represent vital moral achievements for humanity and have tempered the acts of those who would do harm more than we know. 

In May this year, the Security Council adopted a resolution condemning not only the starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, but also the unlawful denial of humanitarian access to civilian populations at risk.

In doing so, the Security Council recognised that armed conflict is now one of the primary, if not the primary, cause of food insecurity and famine. That the Security Council took this decision, even amidst the current turmoil in international affairs, is a testament to the campaigning work of both concerned nations and organisations such as Concern. 

This April, I had the opportunity of addressing the United Nations General Assembly as part of the High-Level Meeting on Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace. The meeting reflected the intention of the United Nations, expressed in 2016 through resolutions of the General Assembly and the Security Council, to address the root causes of conflict by promoting sustainable development, gender equality, food security, tackling climate change and by meeting the needs of all people. As those assembled here know so well, this can only be accomplished if Member States demonstrate the necessary political will. 

This is not only a matter of ensuring that sufficient financial resources are available to humanitarian agencies – although this will be critical. It will require a renewed dedication, on the part of all nations, to the principles upon which the United Nations was founded, a reaffirmation of our collective faith in fundamental human rights and in the dignity and worth of all people, and commitment to the peaceful deliberation as the means to resolve conflict. 

Those principles have been given a most practical expression in the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Accord – in this century it is by our fidelity to the objectives that we gave ourselves in these agreements that our success or failure shall be judged as authentic or merely rhetorical. 

In speaking of the Goals, may I take this moment to express my gratitude, on behalf of the Irish people, to Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed for the vital role she played in bringing the 2030 Agenda to fruition, and for the leadership that she is providing to the United Nations in the present moment. 

As all of us here now, the second Sustainable Development Goal is nothing less than to end hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. 

Over its 50 years, Concern has been a leader not just in responding to emergencies but also in tackling hunger and improving nutrition.  In 2007, the UN adopted a new approach to tackling severe acute malnutrition, called Community Management of Acute Malnutrition. This approach had been pioneered and tested on the ground by Concern, working collaboratively with Dr Steve Collins of Valid International, and financed by Irish Aid. 

The approach of providing nutrition support mainly through the local community was shown to reduce mortality in food crises as well as increasing the coverage of those affected by acute malnutrition.  Community Management of Acute Malnutrition is now integrated into the health services of some 75 countries as their central strategy to deal with acute malnutrition. 

Chronic malnutrition is, of course, the much larger problem in terms of numbers and accounts for over 90 per cent of those who go to bed hungry every night. 

In its most recent report on the state of nutrition in the world, the FAO estimated that the number of chronically undernourished people in the world has increased from 815 million in 2015 to 900 million in 2016.  Two key factors underpin this increase: a rise in the number of armed conflicts and the increasing impact of climate change.   

We have seen progress in tackling chronic malnutrition:  the number of children classified as stunted has been falling but, at 155 million, is still far too high.  The Scaling Up Nutrition Movement, in which both the Irish Government and Concern have played a leading role, is at the heart of the efforts to make more progress in reducing chronic malnutrition and stunting. 

Looking to the future, the UN estimates that our planet will be home to 8.6 billion people in 2030, and to 9.8 billion people in 2050. This is a reflection of rising life expectancy in many countries around the world, but it also presents the global food system with an extraordinary challenge, if we are to achieve the goals to which we are committed. A growing and increasingly urbanised population will require a greater quantity of food. We will also require a different mix of food as populations experience the nutrition transition, reducing consumption of tubers and roots, and increasing consumption of meat, dairy and eggs. 

There is a growing awareness that the challenges of producing sufficient food for the growing population while meeting the commitments in the Paris Climate Agreement will require a radically different approach in our overall food systems.  There is also compelling evidence that food systems are at the nexus that links food security, nutrition and human health, the viability of ecosystems, climate change and social justice. 

Scholars such as Noel Russell of the University of Manchester have suggested that increased food production for our growing world population will require sustainable, productive increases in food production, even as some land is lost to environmental degradation and climate change, which will crucially depend upon advances in science and technology, and the widespread availability of the fruits of new research. 

A recent report by a group of international experts proposes that agriculture and food systems should be aligned to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. They recognise that this will require a comprehensive transformation of our current global food system.  They suggest that this transformation will require four changes:  first, food systems should enable all people to benefit from nutritious and healthy food.  Second, they should reflect sustainable agriculture and food value chains.  Third, they should mitigate climate change and build resilience.  Fourth, they should encourage a renaissance of rural territories. 

Can this be achieved with the present distribution of wealth, income and opportunity, both within and between countries? Can it be accomplished within the confines of the current model of the global food system, in which prices are often determined, and food distributed, through international financial markets? Are our policies towards global trade in food products sufficient to meet the demands of the future? Will research and development be publicly funded and made available to farmers in the Global South, or will it be increasingly privatised and controlled by multinational corporations? 

The Sustainable Development Goals, and the World Humanitarian Summit, repeated pleas from the Secretary-General of the United Nations, have asked for, as he put it, a ‘surge in diplomacy’ to bring all of what has been agreed into the realm of practice. Is there evidence of such a ‘surge of diplomacy’? How long have we waited? What must we do? 

The manner in which we answer these questions will determine the fate of the people throughout the world. If we fail to ensure nutritious and affordable food for all, competition for resources such as water and fertile land may drive new conflicts in areas of the world most vulnerable to environmental degradation. 

To do so, I believe that the globalisation of trade and finance, the very processes that gave rise to the global food system we have today, must yield to a globalisation of peoples, one capable of giving rise to a new civilisation of sufficiency. Such a moment was attempted before, in April 1974, when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration for the Establishment of a New International Economic Order. It was ambitious, and demanded, inter alia, the right of developing countries to regulate and control the activities of multinational corporations within their territory; the freedom to nationalise foreign property; freedom to establish associations of primary commodity producers; the provision of economic and technical assistance; and the transfer of technology. 

This, to our contemporary ears, no doubt sounds utopian, such has been the foreclosing of possibilities over the past forty years. Yet, far from being merely a road not taken, may I suggest that it can provide a basis to inspire possible alternatives today. 


Dear friends, 

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of inviting many of the staff and volunteers involved with Concern to Áras an Uachtaráin to mark their contribution to Concern through the years to celebrate the 50th anniversary. It was an opportunity to thank all the staff and volunteers of Concern for the courage, the compassion and the bravery they have demonstrated while showing solidarity with some of the poorest people on our planet. 

Though Concern has adjusted and grown over the past five decades to take account of a changing world, in terms of new political circumstances and working methods, you have also remained true to the values of your founders – to confront extreme poverty and serve the poorest of the poor. 

As President of Ireland, on behalf of the Irish people, may I once again say thank you to Concern, to its staff and supporters, for all you have contributed.