An interview with Tom Millane


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Christmas is a time for giving, or so the old corporation driven mantra would condition us to believe. The Irish people especially are a nation of ‘givers’, at least we felt we were until the recent controversy over the exorbitant salaries of the Central Remedial Clinic’s CEO, Paul Kiley. Fists have tightened in condemnation and direct debit accounts to the charity frozen in a punitive show of displeasure. The reaction is not surprising, people feel that their small act of philanthropy is being used to line the pockets of another middle-aged, suited man, an all too familiar sight to the Irish people. But it raises quite a few questions, namely can we trust where our contribution goes, or do we even care?

Domestic charity is one thing to keep track of, we can follow the money, or at least wait for some buffoon to surface driving a Rolls Royce made of ‘Trocaire’ boxes, but what about our overseas contribution? Do our donations fall down a rabbit hole of corrupt governments and corporate interests or does it reach those who really are in need? In order to understand this culture of ‘giving’ overseas I spoke with three different people involved in differing levels of overseas charity, in order to trace just where our contribution goes and where it should go.

Professional ‘Givers’ –

Tom Milan is a professional ‘giver’, an adviser to agricultural cooperatives across Africa and is currently working with the ‘Irish Foundation for Cooperative development’. He had first travelled to Kenya in 1984, armed with a degree in agriculture as an advisor working with the Eokot tribe, a nomadic collective of people in order to teach them the skills in irrigation and seed planting. Tom continues to work in Kenya now managing a large swath of cooperatives which specialize in ‘Value addition’, the most enabling form of aid there is he says. He spoke about the superficial forms of aid that the Irish people are sometimes lured into, “You see these ads saying raise money for a chicken, or a goat but a chicken or a goat costs the same in Kenya as it does here. The cost of living, while lower in Kenya are still far from cheap. A chicken might give a family a meal but it won’t send their children to school […] schools can cost around 300 dollars a term. Its education that they need.”

Tom’s experiences first hand with some of the world’s poorest make him an accurate gauge of tracking where our aid goes, and where It should go. “A lot of people say they will work with the poor, and many do but there’s a median we have to reach, value addition gives the poorest a far greater and far longer chance at sustainability”, citing ‘Meru’ as an example, a herb and Jam production cooperative which operates out of Nairobi and which buys from indigenous Kenyan women, giving them and their family a salary.

“Ireland is the biggest producer of baby food in the world, our agricultural skills and our industries are among some of the best around”. He continued saying it should be our skills that we export to these countries, not simply our pocket change.

He warns that even in what seem to be the most altruistic of endeavors we must be weary of the economic interests involved, “Many refugee camps in these regions, in areas like Darfur are a business in themselves. Large aid companies are licensed in to provide for the people, but they should be giving the people incentives to leave, to go back to their own homes. Less money goes into this part of the operation than should go in”.

Holy Faith and the Missions –

Eithne Regan, a Holy Faith nun has had similar experiences as Tom but operates differently, and in differing regions. She has spent much of her life traveling to and from Trinidad and Tobago as part of her missions with the order. Talking about our own attitudes to charity she says, “Irish aid is always a little suspicious of the religious orders […] but the religious community offer long term support to impoverished peoples. We, as religious orders employ high quality local staff, but sometimes the government funded projects that we come over to help with aren’t given the aid they need, so we need that small amount of Irish aid, not just to get us by but to give the children we work with some comforts, like shampoo or sweets”.

She, like Tom warned about the fetishisization of the poor, “There’s always a danger of trying to tick boxes when lobbying for aid, and there have been certain trends in development language which appear again and again HIV, Aids etc., all of which seem to make people more likely to give”. She described for me a case where a man who was hoping to donate privately said, “It looks far too clean, if it looked dirtier I might have donated”. It shows the catch 22 situation that aid organizations find themselves in, wanting to convince us to give but doing so without emotional manipulation, “when people want to give you money you have to be alert of the fact that they are placing a lot of trust in you, you have to maintain your own integrity”.

Eithne’s view of where aid should go doesn’t however differ that wildly from that of Tom’s, believing that a twined approach of both immediate and the long term forms of aid are what are needed to make real change. She spoke about projects such as ‘Grameen Banking’, a micro credit lending organisation which gives small start-up loans to women so that they can begin to generate a small sustainable income. The business is a Nobel peace prize laurite and encompasses all of the values that both Tom and Eithne have talked about.

Student Volunteers –

Student volunteers, which make up nearly 40 percent of all Irish volunteers overseas engage first hand with the Irish people in collecting money for projects such as ‘Wells for Zoe’.  Craig Hanan, a computer science student in DIT spoke to me about the collecting for a project to educate students and local peoples in ‘open source’ software. “There used to be an almost pornographic version of poverty in these countries, showing starving children and all that. I think people are more likely to give when you show you’re willing to work for the money. I raised almost 1600 euro running a marathon.” Craig was quick to note that his organisation had been quite established, saying “people trust projects that they are familiar with”.

It would seem that although the idea of giving to a trusted brand may open the door the sort of ‘business charity’ that most people are weary of, it displays the ability of the Irish people to differentiate between a frivolous gestures, making them exempt from guilt and genuine gift of aid to people in need, in a way that will help them the most. It would seem that although the Irish people have been lied to, and for too many years blindly cheated of their money, they are still willing to give to those who have less. Only now we listen, question and observe shepherding what we have given into the hands of those who need it.