President Higgins praises the work of missionaries

Misean Cara – mission support from Ireland – works to bring about transformation through supporting missionary organisations and their partners, who are involved in promoting poverty eradication, education, health care, social justice, peace, the integrity of creation, and inter-religious collaboration. On Wednesday, 27 May, President Michael D Higgins addressed the Misean Cara AGM, meeting in the Jesuit Conference Centre at Milltown, Dublin. The President expressed his confidence that “missionaries will continue to adapt to the need for new, integrated and culturally appropriate development“. 

The following is the complete text of the President who was warmly received by all and whose support for missionaries is greatly appreciated, especially during his visits overseas. His address clearly demonstrated his own deep commitment to the poor and his understanding of the complexities facing missionaries, and development workers, today.

“Distinguished guests, missionaries, ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to join you at the Misean Cara AGM.

I was delighted to accept the invitation to come here today, to pay tribute to the inspiring work that missionary members have long carried out – and, crucially, continue to carry out – in providing education and health services to those in greatest need, in promoting their human rights and 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.

In 2014 Misean Cara celebrated a decade as an organisation committed to transforming lives. But of course in the 90 member organisations there are those who have poured, and continue to pour, their lives into the poorest and often most isolated fellow citizens of our vulnerable planet.

2015 has, of course, been designated as the European Year of Development by the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union. It is a seminal year for the future of human development and one that will require brave and wise decisions from world leaders. It will also require vigilance and activism among Ireland’s NGO workers, parliamentarians, public intellectuals, academics, and beyond, to ensure that our policies are sourced in global welfare.

Ban Ki-Moon, in a key note address in Dublin this week, emphasised the complex and tight connection that exists between peace, development and human rights. He reminded us that we cannot find viable solutions to hunger and poverty if we do not come together to tackle and defeat their underlying causes, building our solutions on strong and sustainable bedrocks that recognises the role of all nations in eliminating policies that work against sustainable development.

This year – 2015 – is a year of decision making that will affect all our futures. Defining and building sustainable development goals will be the challenges facing governments as they meet in Addis Ababa in July, New York in September, then in Paris a new strategy for addressing climate change will be presented to world leaders in December. All nations have the opportunity to unite on agreed ambitions to eradicate poverty, shift the world toward a sustainable development pathway, agree the actions required to assure all people a sustainable global climate and agree the cooperation to achieve these vital outcomes.

Ireland was very honoured to have its Ambassador to the UN appointed, together with Kenya, as co-facilitator of the final negotiations on the post-2015 Development Agenda, and thus they are playing a critical role in bringing the inter-governmental negotiations to a successful outcome and to support the delivery of a transformative agenda that will shape a world where no one is left behind.

As a nation we have a strong record of commitment to the alleviation of poverty and are known for our humanitarian instinct. It is a reputation sourced in our experience of famine, also rooted, quite profoundly, in our long and proud history of missionary work. For many decades Irish missionaries were the faces of Ireland abroad, living and ministering amongst the poor and marginalised in developing countries. They built and enhanced Ireland’s reputation as they participated in the building of communities of those who, while their nations were free of the stranglehold of colonialism still had to struggle against hunger, malnutrition and exclusion.Today, it is widely acknowledged that Irish missionaries led the way for much of what the Irish Government, through Irish Aid, is now doing in the area of development assistance.

While their work was grounded in the Christian values of respect, dignity, compassion, integrity, and commitment to the poor and they fitted well into the mores and beliefs of their host communities with their ancient cultures. The legacy left by those Irish missionaries who brought their compassion, commitment and great spirit of humanity to the poor and vulnerable in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Missionary engagement has engendered a wider, abiding appreciation of Ireland that assists in the contemporary bilateral country-to-country relationships that is so crucial to the delivery of development assistance in our key partner countries and beyond.

Indeed, as President of Ireland I have been very proud to witness all that has been achieved across many decades by those Irish men and women who have dedicated themselves tirelessly to achieving better lives for the dispossessed and underprivileged, striving to enable them to realise their possibilities and play their own role in the creation of a fairer world.

In particular, in recent times during our official visits to countries where Irish missionaries and NGOs are working, Sabina and I have been greatly struck by the solidarity and sense of community developed by missionaries through their practical expression of dignity, of respect and of justice; a solidarity which I am confident will continue to provide us with a model of social engagement that will endure.

I have often been struck by how the location of their mission became home for so many of our missionaries. For so many it had become a place where they chose to remain and build on the friendships and deep bonds of community that became the foundations for enduring relationships between Ireland and many developing countries.  Their selfless, and often lifelong work, has been a powerful expression of the vision of the church of the poor, so faithfully represented in the documents of Medellin and Puebla and now made more central with the beatification of Oscar Romero.

More than anything, it is that deep and prolonged personal investment and the excellence of their contribution to the practical work of development that has left an abiding regard in our partner countries for Ireland and its people. It is in the small achievements repeated and sustained that the seed was sown for the micro credit systems, energy efficient ovens and the wells.

Your stated vision is to transform the lives of the marginalised and most vulnerable people in the developing world and you are assisted through the effective distribution of Irish Aid in support of missionary development in the global South.  May I take the opportunity meeting you presents to address just some of the main issues facing those working in the field of development at this time, a time of great challenges but also of exciting opportunities to reframe the work of development for the next century.

I was interested to learn that the majority of grants provided by you in 2014 were in the critical areas of education and health services.

Education is a fundamental determinant in a country’s economic development and plays a crucial role in poverty eradication, and it is through the achievement of universal primary education and literacy skills that we can best support the embedding of democracy.

However, our fellow global citizens in developing countries face specific challenges in accessing and benefitting from a formal education; challenges which include health issues, poor language skills, and of course gender discrimination.  It is easier to learn if one is not hungry or ill, or indeed vested with the obligations of being primary carer for the young, the elderly and the ill, as so many young girls are.

Gender equality is an issue to which I attach a deep importance and was honoured in February, after what was an inspiring meeting with the UN Women’s Lakshmi Puri to take on the role of one of the Champion World Leaders of the UN HeForShe campaign, a solidarity movement that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity, for the benefit of all.

The challenges of opening equal access to education for women and girls is not one of course that is confined to the developing world; here in Ireland too tradition and stereotyped educational and employment expectations presented, and for some still presents, a real barrier to full and equal participation in society.

However, we know that in the poorest countries, women are disadvantaged to a far greater extent across all key indicators and we also know that access to education is a principal avenue to equality. Giving food security, aids such as tools, training and expertise to women is essential.

It is critical that educational programmes in particular are developed and implemented with cultural sensitivity and informed by anthropological knowledge of host communities in a manner which allows all of the obstacles which stand between citizens and their right to a formal education to be overcome.

Over many decades, the contribution of Irish missionaries to the laying of that foundation stone of education for many citizens in developing countries has been an impressive and significant one. It is a contribution that has impacted on numerous lives across the decades and crucially it directly contributes to long-term self-sufficiency and civic enrichment of the host societies.

Today Irish missionary educators continue to provide access to that vital tool of empowerment, constantly adapting in an evolving world as they strive to remove one of the most profound barriers to the achievement of global equality and justice.

We know that access to quality health care services is a fundamental right for all people – rich and poor.  Rural poverty, nutrition and health are closely linked, and efforts to support health care services are vital if we are to achieve full human rights for those in the developing world.  Ireland is, of course, a significant contributor to the Health Millennium Development Goal Performance Fund and will continue to support the health sector with a particular focus on services for children and women, seeking to advance nutrition as a priority within the health sector.

During my visit to Africa last year I was reminded of how illnesses and diseases which are treatable and curable in the developed world, continue to impact so profoundly and tragically on citizens in the developing world.  I saw the vital work being done by Irish missionaries to improve access to quality health care including providing specialist services for vulnerable groups including women with disabilities, people living with HIV and AIDS and victims of gender based violence.
In this, as in so many areas, our missionaries continue to work at the frontline, standing in solidarity with those who are vulnerable, exploited and remain victims of some of the great global challenges of our age – hunger, poverty, conflict, the abuse of human rights, environmental degradation and climate change.

Irish missionaries continue to face new challenges in a rapidly changing world. Recent years have seen the food security and livelihoods of millions of men, women and children seriously undermined by unusually severe floods, droughts, and rises in sea levels. Indeed it is becoming increasingly obvious that changes in weather patterns threaten the effective enjoyment of a range of basic human rights, such as the right to safe water and food, and the right to health and adequate housing. Then too there is the effect of speculative movements in food futures, the obscenity of speculation in that which is needed for life itself.

I am confident your missionary endeavour will continue to adapt to the need for new, integrated and culturally appropriate development which will support and enable the imagining and crafting of individual development pathways, for different peoples in differing contexts while preserving its core values; values which are inclusive of all humanity.

May I conclude by commending the work of Misean Cara and its member organisations and thanking you for all you do to create a fairer and more equal world. I wish your re-organisation and new mission statements well and I am sure that with the guidance and leadership of your CEO, Heydi Foster, and her team, and the experience and dedication of your Board, I am confident that Misean Cara will continue its excellent work.

I would like to thank you once again for inviting me to address your meeting today and I wish you all a successful AGM.”