Junior minister's decision to halt aid will 'cost lives'

Conor Lenihan, minister of state at the Department of Foreign affairs, has been criticised for threatening to withhold funding from an agricultural charity active in Africa. The threat followed intervention by the Irish Farmers' Association. By Frank Connolly

The junior minister responsible for foreign aid, Conor Lenihan, has threatened to withdraw funding from one of Ireland's most effective relief agencies – following the intervention of senior Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) officials. Conor Lenihan said he had "serious concerns in relation to ongoing difficulties within the board of Self Help Development International". Self Help spends €6m annually on agricultural projects across several countries in East Africa.

"I am particularly concerned in view of the significant amounts of public money that Irish Aid [the government's assistance programme for developing countries] has allocated to Self Help programmes over the past number of years," Lenihan said. The department has provided over €10m in funding to Self Help since 2003 for projects in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Malawi and Kenya.

The minister's threat to withhold vital government funding from Self Help has met with an angry response from the directors of the charity. Last week they voted to disassociate the organisation from the IFA due to what they claim was unacceptable interference by the farm group's leadership.

"I cannot understand how anyone who has looked at this matter with an objective eye could possibly have made the sort of implicit threat which the minister has made. The threat to withhold funding is going to cost lives in sub-Saharan Africa," barrister David Burke, a director of Self Help, told Village.Conor Lenihan with Self Help personnel

The junior minister's comments followed a decision by the IFA president, Padraig Walshe, to recommend that the farmers' lobby group cease to recognise Self Help as its favoured development agency. The IFA has been associated with Self Help since its foundation in 1984 at the height of the famine in Ethiopia. IFA members have provided practical and financial support to projects in sub-Saharan Africa amounting to about eight per cent of the charity's annual spend.


Recent difficulties – which resulted in four members of the charity's board walking out, including two closely associated with the IFA – have led to the junior minister's threat to withhold funding of up to €15m over the next five years. The walk-out followed the defeat of a candidate for board membership nominated by the IFA-associated directors of Self Help. After they left the meeting the remaining board members decided to terminate the charity's links with the IFA.

"The decision to disassociate ourselves from the IFA came from a deep dissatisfaction with that organisation which was strangling the work of Self Help," director David Burke told Village.

Self Help has plans to spend €45m and assist 2.2 million people across east Africa over the next five years through direct support for sustainable agricultural projects, which is widely recognised as the most effective form of aid in the region.

At a meeting on 26 October with officials from Irish Aid, Self Help directors were told government funding was under review due to the fact the IFA was unhappy with how the organisation was run.

At the meeting, chairman of Self Help Liam Reynolds, chief executive Hilary McDonagh and board members David Burke, Michael Lambert and Jim Kinsella were told by senior Irish Aid officials that the IFA continued to have difficulties with the agency.

Contemporaneous minutes of the meeting seen by Village show that Irish Aid official Tony Cotter confirmed he had received a phone call from Bryan Barry, assistant sercretary general of the IFA, before the meeting convened. He indicated that the IFA were concerned about corporate governance in Self Help and certain issues relating to a former employee.

According to the minutes prepared by the Self Help directors, the Irish Aid officials said the decision not to include the agency in MAPS 11 (Multi Annual Programme Scheme) in 2007 was due to the outstanding concerns of the IFA as well as issues relating to corporate governance.

A spokesman for Conor Lenihan confirmed to Village on 20 November that the disagreements between Self Help and the IFA were a key factor in the threat to withhold funding from the charity.

"While the management of Self Help is of course a matter for its board, the less than amicable dissolution of the longstanding formal relationship between Self Help and the IFA clearly gives rise to further concerns. This will inevitably significantly impact on the support for Self Help, which is steeped in the rural community," the Irish Aid spokesman said.

He said a further meeting with Self Help will be arranged to "discuss how best we can work together taking into account the difficulties facing the organisation and the consistently high reputation which Self Help programmes in developing countries have enjoyed."

The current crisis in Self Help has prompted at least one benefactor to come forward and offer alternative funding to the charity. The Irish-born benefactor, who wishes to remain anonymous, has written to Conor Lenihan seeking to ensure funding for the charity's five-year plan is immediately confirmed. The benefactor, who has carried out a due diligence on the charity, told Village that Self Help applies the best model, and best value for money, in aid programmes to developing countries.

Root of the problem

According to senior Self Help officers, the roots of the current difficulties may lie in a dispute between Self Help and leading IFA officials during the fifth World Trade Organisation conference in Mexico three years ago.

Two leading Irish charities, Trócaire and Oxfam, were present at the conference. They took a position in support of farmers in the developing countries that conflicted with that of the IFA. During the conference the IFA's Bryan Barry called Hilary McDonagh in Self Help and asked that Self Help issue a statement in support of the IFA. When she refused, she claims she was verbally abused over the telephone by Bryan Barry. He told Village that he had no recollection of the conversation. However, a former IFA official confirmed he was contacted by an angry Hilary McDonagh immediately after her conversation with Bryan Barry.

Speaking to Village on 20 November, Barry said the IFA had not intervened to stop Irish Aid funding of Self Help.

"We have not sought and are not seeking to influence what decision the minister makes," Barry said.

According to IFA sources, those involved in raising funds for Self Help are concerned they are removed from the decision-making structures of the agency.

The IFA has also defended the role of a former Self Help employee in relation to an allegation that some of the organisation's private emails were improperly intercepted. A complaint was made by Self Help to the Garda following the incident.

At a heated meeting in September, IFA president Padraig Walshe demanded Self Help withdraw its complaint to the Garda concerning the interception of its private emails. In return for this and the adoption of two additional members to the board, as well as other concessons, it was agreed the farmers' lobby group would maintain Self Help as its nominated charity.

The IFA delegation, which also included Bryan Barry and general secretary Michael Berkery, said it would inform Irish Aid of the agreement reached and would issue a public statement on the resolution of their differences. According to Self Help, it made the concessions in order to release necessary funding from Irish Aid. However, it accused the IFA of failing to honour its side of the deal.

On 27 October Self Help chairman Liam Reynolds wrote a blunt letter to IFA president.

"In the past year, various parties associated with the IFA have expressed dissatisfaction with aspects of our organisation and sought to intermeddle in our affairs and distract us from our important work. This intermeddling has created an air of concern which has resulted in our lead funder, namely the Department of Foreign Affairs, taking a cautious approach to the release of funding to this organisation," Liam Reynolds wrote.

Earlier this year, members of the IFA and others convened an emergency general meeting at which an alternative Self Help board was elected, which included businessman Jarlath Sweeney as its new chairman. Sweeney is involved in the construction of a hotel in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, while his wife, Lorraine Sweeney, is a member of the board of Development Cooperation Ireland, which oversees Irish Aid. This attempt to take control of the charity proved unsuccessful.