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Home Views Viewpoints President Higgins' Address to Misean Cara

President Higgins' Address to Misean Cara

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I was very delighted to accept the invitation to come here today and to pay tribute to the inspiring work that missionary members have long carried out – and continue to carry out – in providing education and health services to those in greatest need, in promoting their human rights, in working with them to boost their opportunities for better livelihoods;  and also to pay particular tribute to the work of Misean Cara in facilitating and supporting that work.
 
mdhmcMay I thank your chairperson Matt Moran for his kind references to our own family connections to this area, and indeed Sabina’s family is perhaps the most connected with the work that you have been speaking about.  My sister-in-law Margaret Coyne spent, I think, just about twenty-seven years in Tigre Province in Ethiopia and we are delighted to be able to hear that the work we visited, to hear that the work is continuing and my brother-in-law Fr. Paddy Coyne spent a great deal of time in the early days establishing schools in Kenya.
 
I just want to say something about the importance of your AGM.  I think this AGM of yours is now going to take place in maybe the most crucial year in relation to what has been called the developing world. I have just a few days ago met the Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon.  We had a very long discussion across most of the issues, but it is very clear that there are two great problems that affect our planet.  The first is climate change, the international response to which will be decided effectively in Paris at the end of the year, and in respect of which it is absolutely crucial that the text agreed represents real commitments.   In this process we must remember that, very often, those who are suffering the most from desertification, those who are suffering the most from the effects of climate change, are not the voices we hear.  I think the second big issue is, of course, the elimination of poverty.  I have very strong views about this. I think there are two meetings that are crucial in formulating the international response:  one that will take place in Addis Ababa in July that will decide on the funding of the new Sustainable Development Goals; and a second meeting at the United Nations in September in New York. 
 
I think these are crucial meetings.  It will be unacceptable if Heads of States opened their conversations with let us say a modest aim of eliminating extreme poverty.  It is possible to eliminate poverty, just that, and it is possible also to address the issues of mortality and morbidity particularly in children, to eliminate diseases, and so on.
 
 
Sabina and I had a great opportunity of actually seeing how all the small pieces are being put together by members of your organisations and to the different affiliates to your organisations.  They do so in the heat of the sun, day after day, but really, this year 2015, is a year in which those who have responsibilities as Heads of State, as Heads of Government and as Heads of Regions, must in fact take seriously the position in which we are now. 
 
How frustrating it must be for those people in the villages who are delivering energy efficient cookers, who are sinking wells, who are trying to lighten the burden of women who are spending so much of their life drawing water and looking for fuel.  Just how frustrating it must be when you hear rhetorical gestures on behalf of Heads of States.  When in fact the issues of ecology, issues of ethics, issues of culture, issues of economy are left unresolved.  These are not issues that we can ignore.  The communities that you work with want simply sufficiency, sufficiency to live in dignity.  My wish then, and I can say this after having met the Secretary General, is that these meetings, these three crucial meetings, in Addis Ababa in July, in September in New York and in Paris in late November and December – must have an ambitious agenda if they are to serve the people with whom you have been most in contact.


In 2014 Misean Cara celebrated a decade as an organisation committed to the task of transformation, and the task as well of emancipation.  We may well ask what does “being free” mean?  “Being free” has unfortunately often been degraded into being free to consume, rather than the broader sense of being free to live free from the fear of hunger, free to be able to use your mind and intellect to learn, free to move, free to be able to spend live in security, in good and safe shelter; that is the real meaning of freedom.
 
Of course, in your 90 member Organisation you know all of this so much better than I do because you have poured, and continue to pour, your lives into the poorest and often most isolated fellow citizens of what is without doubt our vulnerable planet.
 
In meeting these great challenges of climate change and development, what is required is a real change in consciousness, a global effort, if we are ever to move from a pact that is quite destructive in relation to the survival of the planet itself, but more importantly destructive in relation to the great rich capacity of humanity, living with other species, with responsibility, and  in a planet that is diverse.
 
2015 is designated as European Year of Development by the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union (EDFC).  It is important that through this year, and in those Conferences that I mentioned, the focus does not become restricted to just being a discussion on Aid.  That would be insufficient.  Rather the international community and its leaders must be able to look at the systemic problems that are there, the connections between development trade, and questions such as the regulation and control of international flows of capital and commodities.  
 
In South America, and to an even greater extent in the Continent of Africa, we have seen, for example, how the profits of extractive industries are often repatriated without a contribution to the countries from which they are being torn from the earth.  This is what I mean by the systemic issues.  The people of the beautiful continent of Africa are not there simply in a capacity to be used, rather theirs is a thousands of years old culture to be respected.
 
I have to say that, in my more pessimistic moments, it sometimes seems that we will not overcome this failure to be able to rise to the level of a systemic analysis of seeing the flaws and the heart of something, flaws that so regularly condemn the people to needless poverty, needless dependence. On the other hand, I am very encouraged by my meeting with the Secretary General, who I believe is asking us all to make an incredible effort this year to address these issues in their totality.
 
Experience has shown me that after the international meetings are over, I always correct my own thinking, by saying that you only have to look at the gap between the pledges by the international community and the actual delivery to know what faith is in relation to rhetoric and gestures. In the important work ahead, it will be very, very, important that all of the organisations and representatives of civil society will be there to make sure of the commitments will in fact be delivered.  We need wise decisions and we need ethical practice and delivery. 
 
When the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was speaking in Dublin this week, he emphasised the connection as well between peace, development and human rights – los derechos humanos - and of course I am met here today by a great Chief Executive that comes from a country that knows the importance of human rights, Guatemala.  The Secretary General reminded us that we cannot find viable solutions, find the solutions to hunger and poverty if we don’t come together to tackle and defeat their under-lying causes.  What is needed is to build our solutions as strong as sustainable bedrocks that are recognised among all nations in eliminating policies that work against sustainable development.
 
And really, what is important about it is, that is some macro-model of global development is simply imposed on continents, and if you don’t do the systemic work as I have described it, any benefits that accrue will go only to elites within these countries, rather than to the people.   In this context, often it is the solutions that have been offered that involve women that are of greatest importance, for example issues of security of land and forms of different titles which can in fact be used in facilitating collateral for private banks, but that simply leave the women working with hoes in the fields of West Africa suddenly with the land swept from under them.
 
Despite these great challenges, I think that we will must very optimistic.  I sense that the peoples of the planet are becoming more and more aware of the nature of the challenges of development and climate change, and we now have an opportunity through the communications systems that are available to everyone to be very, very well informed on these issues. 
 
It is possible to eliminate poverty, it is possible to eliminate most of the diseases, it is possible to move the total structure of development in a way that takes account of indigenous cultures, but also that addresses issues of sustainability.  It is possible as well as that to do all of this in a way that integrates the issues of ecology, economy and ethics.  


Ireland is very honoured of course we were very much involved in all these issues I have been speaking about because it was the Irish Ambassador to the United Nations and the Kenyan Ambassador to United Nations who are in charge of the negotiation process for the Sustainable Development Goals.  And of course, my former colleague, former President Mary Robinson is in fact seeking to ensure that there will be good text coming into the meeting in Paris.


I remember on my very first time I went to Africa first in the 1970s I met people who were international workers, and I talked to people in the villages who had an affection term for them, they used to refer to them as the ‘when we’s’ , it was like a new triumph because they were always talking “when we were in such and such a place we had soap”, and “when we were in such and such a place we had water” and “when we were in such and such a place we had.....” so the local people used to refer to them as the ‘when we’s’ because there was a great difference between those people from the international community who travelled around and those in fact who decided to put themselves side by side with the agony of the villages. I respect that.
 
I would just like to say that in asking Sabina and I to come here it is a very good opportunity for us to say again how much you have contributed to the reputation of Ireland.  When people speak of Ireland in the different parts of the world, they very much refer very often to the 64,000 troops who have served in the course of peace, and isn’t it very interesting when you talk to youngsters in Ireland they have learned a great deal about the Middle East and the conflict that is there from our soldiers who have gone there and come back.   But equally, even longer and cast wider across the planet, is the experience and influence of the missionaries.  Sabina and I were talking about this with some senior people who have spent their lives and abroad, and you would hear them say things like that they would want to go back again, and as one of them put it to Sabina that “I would like my bones to end up in Africa”.
 
This is a kind of commitment, that goes beyond any logic, that goes beyond any kind of rational categories, it is commitment and commitment of the highest kind, it is about putting one’s life, as you have it in the scriptural sense, side-by-side with the source of one’s belief system.  I think that the legacy you have left, we have seen it, we saw it in the villages in Malawi and more recently we saw it on the edge of Johannesburg.
 
Because I realise as well that the problems are not the same as when we all started.  Now there are new problems of organisation, the problems on the edges of the cities, the problems that even as you lift people from these grips of poverty, of the impatience, which is only natural, to move on faster which creates tensions.  But the one thing that I am certain of, is that if one is inclusive with a form of development that is based on dignity, the best prospects can happen.
 
I think as well in Ireland, you are correct to make reference to Ireland’s foreign policy and it’s the place of bilateral aid within it.  We sought to join the United Nations in 1946 and we joined in 1955, but when I look back at it in relation to the great role we had with the United Nations I think the two great shining developments of Ireland’s foreign policy in the modern period were the development of the human rights perspective was very important, but very, very, important was our commitment to overseas development aid. 
 
I think that whenever we make official visits to countries it is always a pleasure to meet the missionaries and we appreciate the long distances that some of them have made to actually meet up with us at the different receptions that we have had.  I think that it is very important too and was recently demonstrated by the recent Beatification of Oscar Romero and we must have a clap for the Blessed Oscar Romero (Spanish phrase here – audience applause).  This shows us as well we should never be depressed by the size of the challenges that face us.  And when I visit El Salvador to see exercises that have been made in relation to ‘Memory’ and moving past conflict, that are great examples of what is possible.  
 
That is why, I think it is very important that those of us in Europe and elsewhere realise we go to all of these places to be renewed.  This is the big difference between the imperialisms of the past and the missionary and development work of the present.  It is from what is possible to do that you know about from all parts of the world that offer such prospects that we renew ourselves and I think that should give great courage.  
 
I think that there are questions, there are practical things that you will discuss at your meeting.  For example, in my former career when I was on a parliamentary committee, we used to discuss the business of our missionary people returning who faced this incredible obstacle of habitual residence.   We also discussed issues relating to social welfare.  These are things we all must be clear on. 


I think as well, in our work we must be cognisant of the gender issue.  I am very happy that Irish development work is stressing the elimination of gender violence, that it is stressing gender equality and that is incredibly important in relation to the orphans that are there as a result of HIV/AIDS.  In much of the developing world, the burden is carried very often by women, even in the refugee camps that I visit there are young women living where it is not safe to collect firewood.  These are realities, so therefore I think what we must do in relation to Irish Foreign Policy is locate it as a beacon within the European policy, which is somewhat inconsistent at the present time. In February, I had a meeting with UN Special Representative Lakshmi Puri and it was there she asked me to take on the role of being one of the world leaders in the United Nations HeforShe Campaign.  I was very glad to do that and very particularly so as to put through the issues of gender and the role of women in particular continents that you know so well.  That is just so important. 
 
I think that it is important too, for us all to realise that the countries that we visit, they know that we are not coming to for tactical reason, and for us to remember that we are coming to countries which very often, as I have said, have millennia of culture and experience to offer.   I think that today’s educators, your missionary educators, your predecessors, lay the foundation stone have made so many citizens and so many of the leaders of the different continents trace their education and empowerment back to the education provided to them by Irish missionaries.
 
Today the organisations and the affiliates that you have at the present time will have an opportunity of getting us to a new place at global level and we have the discourse that is taking place in the significant year of 2015.   Ireland is already a contributor to the Health Millennium Development Goal Performance Fund which mentions there in black and white the elimination of mortality and infant mortality.  There is a very helpful evolution in the Irish policy that has gone on from just simply keeping children alive to adequate nutrition, these are the debates which we now have.  But I have to say sometimes I found it very hard to be in places where I know that if different policies had been adopted they would not been producing the tragic circumstances that I saw.  You deal with that challenge and that is not easy.  I wish you all of the strength of mind and heart to be able to continue your great work. Particularly too, where for example, we deal with issues of disabilities.   When you look at disability issues in continents like Africa, we are also dealing with something that is very important, something that is very close to what you knowbetter than me, I say with humility, the emancipatory problems of Medellin and Puebla,  these great documents which are now honoured in the Beatification of Oscar Romero, you don’t need to hear it. 
 
At the same time, we see also the abuse of sacred text being used to destroy and to wound life, and in particular young female lives in countries like Africa.  Yes you are facing new challenges in a rapidly changing world, but you have achieved so much and you can be a leaven in this discourse that is necessary to abide if we are to have food security, if we are to have safety, if we want women and children treated with dignity.  If we have the capacity ourselves in better-off parts of the world to be able to respond ever faster, and realistically, to threats of the humanitarian kind.
 
 
I am confident that your great legacy will continue. I wish you well. Agus guím gach rath agus beannacht ar Misean Cara agus ach go háraithe orthu son atá ag obair thar lear as ucht an méid a dhéanann sibh chun domhain níos cóire agus níos cothroma chruthú. [And I wish Misean Cara well, particularly those who are working abroad to create a fairer and more equal world.] 
I so want to thank you for all that you do, I want to wish you well and finally may I say I have read your annual report and know what you are planning and I wish your re-organisation and your new mission statement well and I am certain that with the guidance and leadership of your CEO Heydi Foster and the team of women a chabhraíonn leí [who assist her], and the team you support Andrew Port and all the members that your excellent work will continue for the benefit of all humanity.
 
Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

Milltown Institute, Dublin, 27th May 2015 

 
 
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