The life of an NGO

In conversation with Tom O’ Connor, Senior Programme Officer with Aidlink, Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell discusses the trials and triumphs of a small NGO in Dublin.

From a small premises in Harold’s Cross, richly decorated with African sculptures and paintings, the operations of the charity Aidlink are managed. Founded in Dublin in 1982, Aidlink “exists to improve the lives of those living in poverty in Africa”. Currently working with partnerships in Kenya, Uganda and Ghana, Aidlink aims to improve the lives of some of the world’s poorest communities.

As an NGO (a non-governmental organization), Aidlink focuses on improving educational environments, community health, agriculture and WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene). According to their 2017 annual report, Aidlink succeed in bringing cleaner, safer water to 15,000 people, providing “child-friendly” primary education to 8,500 children and training 677 farming families on how to protect their households’ food security. Due to the drought in Kenya, many children suffer from malnutrition and Aidlink was involved in bringing emergency food supplies to over 5000 children. Their ultimate goal is to help people, especially women and girls, to “achieve healthy and fulfilling lives.”

Winner of the Carmichael Centre Good Governance Award and the small/medium not-for-profit category in the Chartered Accountants Ireland Published Accounts Awards for the last two consecutive years, Aidlink is certainly “small but mighty”. I met with Tom O’ Connor to chat about his work with Aidlink and what led him to becoming Senior Programme Officer in a small Dublin based NGO.

What inspired you to become involved in charity work?

I suppose I’m someone who has always been interested. I come from a family that’s very committed to trying to make a better world; that cliché. For me it’s about justice, human rights and equality and really about trying to make sure everyone has the same opportunities in life, the same chance. I studied languages; French and Italian, so I was international in my outlook I guess, though I don’t actually use either language in day-to-day work, and after working in Paris for a couple of years I came to Ireland and did a Masters in Trinity in Peace Studies. From there I interned with Aidlink to try and get some experience while I was studying. Somebody left and the same time my internship was finishing and five, nearly six years later here I am.

What is your role as Senior Programme Officer for Aidlink?

We’re a very small team, only three of us. I’m basically in charge of the overseas programme and the day-to-day management. With only three of us, I’m not directly involved; I’m not drilling wells, I’m not teaching kids things, I’m not leading training. It’s more of a project management or coordination role. I work closely with our partner organisations in Kenya and Uganda. I check-in on trainings and how things are going, try to analyse the results; what’s the impact of our work, what things have worked well, what hasn’t worked, where can we make improvements. A big part of my job would be monitoring and evaluation, going out to visit communities where we work, asking questions and trying to ascertain what change has happened as a result of our work. The other part [of my job] is fundraising. Part of my role is to try and get funding from trusts and foundations; to write proposals to foundations asking can you support Aidlink, can you support our work, can you support our partners?

What is happening right now in your office?

The big thing we’re doing at the minute, our main programme of work, is trying to get girls in nomadic pastoralist communities in Kenya into school. Our efforts are focused on public primary schools. It’s about increasing enrolment, it’s about improving performance, retention and then supporting their transition to secondary school. The communities where we work, the nomadic pastoralist communities in Northern Kenya in Turkana and in Kijabe with the Maasai, are communities that are marginalised and left behind. The literacy rate in Turkana is about 25%- 30%, whereas in the rest of Kenya it’s about 70%. It shows the disparity. It’s also a patriarchal society so women don’t have any of the same opportunities. Even though education is low, for girls it is almost non-existent. Our main objective is to ensure all children have the opportunity to go to school, particularly girls. Through that we’re aiming to tackle things like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and early marriage. The evidence is that when girls stay in school they have greater opportunities in life and they are more likely to ensure that their own children go to school, or that their children aren’t cut for example. It’s a long-term objective; in the short-term every child goes to school and then in the long-term we can tackle some of those bigger issues in society.

In Aidlink we see ourselves as having a dual role, that would be the main programme; targeting communities, but as such a small organisation, and one that works with partners, we are not doing it ourselves. Our other real aim is to build local capacity, either supporting local partners, local NGOs, like the Girl Child Network in Kenya or Caritas MADDO in Uganda for example, supporting them to be really strong, effective organisations that can have a real positive impact, or supporting communities themselves so that they have got the skills and knowledge to make change because I can’t really make an impact in those communities – it has to come from within. That’s the real focus of our work; to build local capacity, to reduce dependence on us in the long-term. We have been very successful in that. Over the fifteen years we’ve worked with the Girl Child Network, they’ve grown from a really small organisation to a national network for over 300 members, helping the Kenyan government to draft legislation policy, to go out and lobby for sanitary towels to be provided in every school in Kenya. We can take some responsibility for supporting them too, to reach that standard.

Comparatively, what is happening right now in Kenya?

Kenya in particular at the moment is booming. It really is a rapidly developing country. You can go to Nairobi and walk around the streets and it’s just like being in Dublin. There are trendy coffee shops everywhere, everyone is really cool and has an iPhone glued to their ear. In many ways it is similar to the rest of the world, but it is probably more pronounced in Kenya. Places like Turkana have really been left behind from that development. Inequality has grown massively. I mean the Oxfam report just out tells us that the world’s 26 richest people own as much of the world’s wealth as the poorest 50%! You can really see that somewhere like Turkana, which is basically a desert where no-one can read or write and 90% of the population live on less than $1.75 a day. When you compare the really cool bits of Nairobi to the people in Turkana walking ten, fifteen kilometres every day to get water you can see that inequality in action. The other thing you can really see in a place like Turkana is climate change brought to life. There was a significant drought in 2017 and January 2018 was the first time it rained in three years; they’ve less than a minute’s rain in the whole county in three years. There were half a million people in need of food, rations, it wasn’t quite a famine but malnutrition rates were up to 40% in children under five. For me, that’s where you can really see inequality.

What is the most difficult issue you face as a small NGO in Dublin?

It’s always got to be fundraising. We need money to do our work, we need money to support our partners, we need money to do programmes that we know work; we have evidence that it has a really positive impact on the lives of people we aim to work with. I suppose when you’re as small as Aidlink and writing a proposal you’re going up against Concern and Trocaire, or in the UK, Save the Children and Oxfam. What we have seen in the last five, six years is that donors like Irish Aid or the government and the big foundations like Bill and Melinda Gates, more and more of their funding is going to the biggest organisations because they have the capacity to almost be service providers. When you’re small like Aidlink, and when you’re working with partners, we want to be supporting what our partners know work, what communities know work and what we know works.

In terms of the general public, one of the issues is branding. We’re not as big as Concern or Trocaire. We’re never going to have that name recognition. One way we try to counter that is by linking communities here in Ireland to communities in Africa. That is what “Aidlink for Turkana” was about; a charity concert we held in the National Concert Hall in December. It said here are people in Ireland that have an interest, or people in choirs that have an interest in performing and can we link you with our work overseas and really create that direct connection. It’s also what our secondary school immersion programme is about as well, giving students the chance to spend two weeks in our partner schools and communities in Africa.

There is also a domestic charity agenda. Clearly the homelessness crisis is a massive problem in Ireland and we’re kind of competing with that narrative as well for the public’s attention. I think what you’ll probably find is that anyone who works for an international organisation is also concerned about issues in Ireland. We just don’t necessarily see those challenges around social issues as having borders. Of course we are concerned about the homelessness crisis here in Ireland but we are also concerned about what is happening overseas. We are part of the same fight, if you will, to resolve both.

What constitutes a good day’s work for you? Do you ever truly switch off?

I think it is important to rest. I will go home and watch Netflix or I play rugby, but you’re always kind of switched on in terms of watching the news and keeping focused. Like the terrorist attack in Kenya last week, our immediate thoughts turned to our partners. Really they are more than partners, they’re friends. You can be out with your friends and the conversation maybe turns to politics, you put forward your view point. I’m also doing the Connemara marathon, so I’m trying to fundraise for that. I think what we have here at Aidlink is quite special. It’s my first job in a charity, but I have had other jobs before, and we really are kind of a tight family. When you’re so small you have to support one another in your job. You pitch in and help, you’re never side-lined off. It’s a great place to work, I really enjoy it.

Individual stories stick with you. I always talk about a woman I met in Uganda called Rosemary, the first time I went overseas. She grew up in one of the communities where we were doing a programme. The programme focused on constructing and drilling a well, so that the community would have access to clean water. We worked in the schools, we built a latrine block, we trained people to look after the water and sanitation. She was one of the community members trained and I remember sitting in her home. She was so proud of her house, comparing it to what it was before. She had constructed a latrine, she had a dish rack. She built a little out-building, a shelter for shade, from where she was a community health worker. People would come to her and she would treat them with very basic remedies, essentially paracetamol, or recognising something more she could send them on to the health officials. I was sitting in her out-house listening to her and the impact the work had on her and her life. I thought ‘wow, in doing this we really have helped this women as an individual and on her family as well.’ Her children were going to complete school and one wanted to be a nurse, one a doctor and one a teacher. It’s when you hear those individual stories of change you feel it was all worth it, all those days of writing proposals; which can be really boring at times, but you are making a positive impact on people’s lives.

A hostage situation in Nairobi, Kenya recently made international headlines. Aidlink declared all their partners to be safe on Facebook. Having worked in countries with turbulent political situations, has Aidlink ever been caught up in terrorist or threatening situations?

We are sheltered from it in some ways. We are based in Dublin for 90% of the year. For our partners who are on the ground, implanting the programmes on the front line we do take health and safety very seriously. In Turkana, in particular, all the neighbours fight with one another. It all surrounds cattle rustling; the more cattle you have the wealthier you are. It’s like that in Turkana, but also the rest of Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and South Sudan as well. The Pokot, a Kenyan tribe in the South of Turkana, are always fighting. There are periods of relative peace but then someone will attack and steal all the cows and women and it is insecure again. In that circumstance our partners will withdraw from the area or they certainly will suspend programmes until they consider it is safe again.

If UCD students want to get involved, how can they best do this?

Women on Wednesdays takes place in Whelan’s and is a fantastic idea. It is a platform for female musicians and artists and poets to perform. We realised that there was no real platform for female artists in Ireland and this is a night for artists, poets and musicians to play. We thought it was a great way to link women and girls overseas with the growing feminist movement here in Ireland. It has been running for about a year and we would love to start it up again. It is currently on-hold for the moment as we try to organise acts so if any student wanted to get involved they can feel free to contact us.

Walk for Water is a second way students can get involved. A lot of secondary schools, maybe twenty around Ireland, are involved. Some of the girls in communities where we work are walking ten, fifteen kilometres to collect water each day and we look at how that affects their daily lives and access to education. World Water Month takes place around March. Rather than a fundraising event, it is a walk of solidarity.

You can follow Aidlink on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter and see the work they do.