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Ministerial Own Goal

Conor Lenihan found himself at the centre of another embarrassing incident yesterday. He was to appear on TV3's Ireland AM to debate the Government's decision to donate €1m for relief in Louisiana … Goal's John O'Shea appeared on the programme to criticise the decision. Mr Lenihan was due to take a call at 7am in his bedroom at the hotel … Having established contact with Mr Lenihan, the presenters turned to Mr O'Shea to air his views. But when they checked if Mr Lenihan was still on his line, there was silence … Questioned by journalists later yesterday, a clearly embarrassed Mr Lenihan admitted he had been up late the night before and had slept through the interview - Irish Examiner, September 2005


Anthony McIntyre • 26 November 2006

Not for the first time in his parliamentary career has Conor Lenihan, Minister of State for Aid at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin, kicked the ball into his own net. In trying to defend his decision to continue using as distributing centres for aid some of the most corrupt regimes in Africa, he has provoked a sustained and compelling critique from the chief executive of Goal, John O'Shea. Lenihan and O'Shea have been at loggerheads before over the same issue. The country or corrupt regime may change from time to time but not the nature of the argument between the two men. Last December saw O'Shea tear into Lenihan over the minister's inadequate response to major human rights abuses in Uganda and Ethiopia. He complained that despite Lenihan's assertion that proper mechanisms were in place to account for any aid sent to these countries:

Quite who takes account of how that money is spent by some of the most corrupt and dangerous politicians in the world today was never satisfactorily explained … What level of crimes against humanity do the governments of Uganda and Ethiopia need to perpetrate, before the Government decides to cut off financial aid to these repressive regimes?

At the heart of the current controversy is O'Shea's criticism of the Irish government for continuing to channel Irish aid money to Ethiopia through the structures of the Meles Zenawi government when the money is not reaching those whose predicament it is intended to alleviate. The Goal boss has pointed to the appalling human rights regime presided over by Meles Zenawi.

One of Ethiopia's senior judges who headed an inquiry into post election violence by government forces found that a massacre had taken place. He has since had to flee the country having received death threats. Murder and torture abound. Much of the country's political opposition was taken into custody for protesting against the election outcome. Amnesty International described the detained politicians as prisoners of conscience.

When other major sources of aid such as the World Bank and the European Union withheld aid in response to regime repression the Irish government continued to have its tax payers fleeced by the Ethiopian oligarchy. In 2006, €40 million was ploughed into the pockets of sector ministries and officials of local government who are suspected of redirecting much of it to their foreign bank accounts.

Lenihan's response to O'Shea's withering critique has been limp to say the least. 'I, as Minister responsible for Irish Aid, strongly condemned the violence that followed the elections in Ethiopia.' Big deal. The tyrants will hardly quake in their boots at that. By refusing to withdraw aid Lenihan claims that he is ensuring that millions of ordinary Ethiopians do not doubly suffer as a result of their government. 'We cannot and will not abandon those in most need.' While he has asserted that 'the public does not expect the Government to fund autocrats, dictators or those who abuse human rights,' the Irish electorate has a right to know if under his ministry anybody other than such miscreants is funded out of the Irish public purse.

Although O'Shea has seriously questioned the wisdom of government-to-government aid, pointing out that the role of NGOs in the aid sphere cannot be overstated, he has studiously avoided arguing for a NGO monopoly on aid distribution. This has been reinforced in his comments that NGOs such as Goal lack the administrative wherewithal to manage the type of budget required for large scale aid management. In fact O'Shea has come in for much criticism for downplaying the role of aid agencies in situations like that of Dafur where people were being murdered and gang raped.

We need to dump the meaningless platitudes and soundbites on Darfur. Stop talking about debt relief. Stop talking about trade. Stop talking about doubling aid. These are all the easy options - shameful in the context of inaction in Darfur.

The Irish Times columnist David Adams is familiar with John O'Shea and the work he has been doing. On two occasions Adams spent time in Niger working on behalf of Goal.

Where corruption is endemic and aid must pass through countless layers of officialdom, it is certain that a substantial amount will not reach those for whom it is intended. Moreover, if governments continue receiving assistance regardless of brutal or dishonest practices, they have no reason to change and the extra capital serves to strengthen their grip on power.

Lenihan frequently snipes at Goal by asking if John O'Shea advocates 'stopping building schools and hospitals and punishing really poor people because their governments are misbehaving?'

The answer is simple. No he does not. Nor does he call people seeking better living and working conditions Kebabs because they are of Turkish origin. What Goal seeks to do is ensure that means are found to ensure that the aid gets to those who both need it and will actually receive it. As David Adams suggests, with Africa annually losing $148 billion to corruption, which equates approximately to 25% of its GDP, Goal's objective is to replace the "present scattergun approach to aid distribution" by "Government 'adoption' of one or two developing countries where aid can be concentrated and its use strictly monitored by Government-appointed project managers."

Delivering product rather than merely despatching it guides Goal. For John O'Shea, who for three decades has worked in this particular cauldron of deprivation, interest in helping those in dire need has not come courtesy of a ministerial career to be switched for some other interest as soon as it is time for the cabinet reshuffle.

By continuing to snap at the heels of Conor Lenihan, O'Shea is not only highlighting the appalling situation of Africans under the rule of despots. He is also shining light on mechanisms of government as they function in the Republic, strengthening processes of ministerial accountability and public scrutiny. In this case the real public servant is to be found not in but outside the corridors of governmental power.












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