Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Charity Begins at Home!

The Irish Government may not have anticipated the grave extent of the exchequer deficit at the end of February, but this deficit, the enormous increase in unemployment and the threatened reductions in welfare in the forthcoming budget are all indicators that must surely alert the Government to rising levels of destitution, neediness, distress and desperation in this country. Ireland will no longer be a rich nation and the national economic wellspring is severely weakened.

The Survey on Income and Living Conditions (SILC) 2007 published by the Central Statistics Office indicated that the risk of poverty in Ireland at that time was 16.5% and that 5.1% of the Irish population endured consistent poverty. There is now a compelling need for urgent new thinking, fresh priorities and new practical initiatives, beginning with a separate approach to aid and welfare by the Government.

The Irish Government, through Irish Aid, has spent more than €5.3 billion on overseas development assistance making the nation one of the most generous donor countries in the world. Ireland committed to spend 0.7% of GDP on official overseas development assistance by 2012 at the UN Millennium Summit in 2000. That ambition is laudable and realistic when the resources to achieve it are ample but this is not the case in the foreseeable future and the Government needs to pardon itself from fully meeting this objective within that timescale. Charity begins at home and a portion of these resources are now badly needed to provide aid at home.

This arises in the context of the number unemployed in Ireland escalating from 165,000 to 365,000 requiring a further €200 million in welfare support and with singificant further increases anticipated. There has been a 19% drop in tax revenues in January and a 20% drop in retail sales in 2008.

A significant amount of FÁS resources are distributed to community related initiatives at least some of which, like meals-on-wheels in provincial areas, have essentially a charitable purpose and need to be realigned and accounted for as such.

The Government could begin by diverting at least €100 million to augment the diminishing resources of credible long-established voluntary charities, such as The Society of St Vincent de Paul, The Simon Community and others that directly alleviate dire need and galvanise their voluntary efforts. Their reputation is impeccable and their integrity above challenge. Their overheads are modest. Their modus operandi is focused, practical, widely understood and readily acclaimed. Their reach is extensive and their impact is mighty.

The Department of Community Rural & Gaelteacht Affairs could be augmented to act as overseer of such an initiative and create inspired guidelines and policies. The distributions of funds to the charities could be controlled by an independent commissioner operating to specific guidelines and accountable to the Public Accounts Committee.

There is a well developed and experienced set of voluntary agencies in this country that operate overseas and which demonstrate great flair in fund raising and promoting their work. The Irish people are deeply compassionate and demonstrate enormous generosity in their support of these, particularly at Christmas, Lent and in response to catastrophes’, strife and famine. There is no reason to believe that this spirit will abate and Ireland should continue to be a prominent donor to the relief of distress throughout the world while the Government is not ignoring the consequences of imminent poverty at home.

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