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Towards Ireland’s new approach to development - address by Minister to Cannon to IIEA

Towards Ireland’s new approach to development - address by Minister to Cannon to IIEA

Minister Ciaran Cannon at the Institute of International and European Affairs, November 2018

Minister of State for the Diaspora and International Development, Mr Ciaran Cannon, T.D

Towards Ireland’s new approach to development

Speech for the Institute of International and European Affairs

Wednesday 21st November, 2018


I am delighted to be here today to contribute to this lecture series.

This Development Matters collaboration between the Development Cooperation and Africa Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with the Institute of International and European Affairs is one which I value.  It is important to have a forum such as this where debate and discussion on critical international development challenges takes place, a space for new ideas and for exploration of roles for Ireland.  

The Development Matters series does not represent a single perspective on the development questions of our age.  Rather it is plural and challenging, bringing a range of expertise and engagement both Irish and international, which informs discussion not just in my Department but much more broadly on issues which demand an international response. 

I, with my team in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, have been working over the past year or so to develop a new policy on international development.  A new White Paper is nearing completion.  As we have been thinking through this new policy, the questions debated here in North Great Georges Street have taken on a particular resonance and your discussions have enriched our thinking.

Today I will introduce the principal elements that are emerging at the centre of this new policy, focussing on how Ireland is positioning itself internationally through its development cooperation and humanitarian assistance in response to global challenges.

A key question on which we have been reflecting is the trajectory for the world to 2030, the target date for achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

A key to unlocking our approach to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals is Global Ireland, the Government's strategy for doubling the scope and impact of Ireland’s global footprint and influence by 2025.  In that strategy, the Government committed to achieving the UN target for ODA spend of 0.7% of GNI by 2030. 

More important than money, though, is quality – Ireland has a hard-earned reputation for quality development work.  ODI (Overseas Development Institute), a respected development research body, found earlier this year that Ireland was the most effective donor at reaching those in extreme poverty.  The Brookings Institution said a number of years ago that Irish Aid was ‘the outstanding aid donor’, measured against 31 of our peers.  As we grow, we need to maintain and improve that reputation.  Also, recognising the scale of global poverty, Ireland will be most effective when we influence others to join with us.

Our key objective will be to work to address the needs of those furthest behind. 

If we are to make a difference, Ireland’s approach to development cooperation must use all of the tools in our national toolbox – maximising our domestic policy resource and ensuring it is more coherent with our foreign policy influence; enhancing the potential of our EU membership; building upon our multilateral and bilateral relationships; deepening our partnerships in areas of key concerns; and ensuring that we get the most out of our investments. 

Let me dwell a moment on getting the most out of our investments.  This of course means continuing to manage Irish Aid funds prudentially, particularly from a public financial management perspective.  However, it also means that we will need to be cold-eyed in our selection of partners – their capacity to deliver upon our objectives must be clear.  It could mean a reduced number of partners, accompanied by a deepening of our relationships so that we maximise impact.  A key issue will be how we amplify our voice, through using our partnerships as effectively as possible.  We are giving very careful thought as to how we might use research most effectively to reinforce our impact.  In addition, as we grow, our capacity to manage and deliver will need to grow and we are thinking this through also.

Underpinning our work must be public support.  The longstanding generosity of the Irish people should not be taken for granted.  That is why we have been thinking carefully about how our international development programme will resonate with our people over the decade ahead.  We want to build on our development education programme, engaging with students and schools around the country.   

We want Irish development assistance to be authentic to our experiences at home – recognising that within living memory there has been a massive change in Ireland: we have gone from effectively subsistence farming and emigration to a modern vibrant economy which welcomes people born elsewhere. 

Along our journey there have been waystations, such as the introduction of free secondary education or the transformation of Irish agriculture, which could also help mark the journey forward for our development programme.  Our peace process too can be a beacon.  These changes at home also echo the contribution of so many Irish people abroad who have worked so hard to make other places better – as educators, as health workers, as farmers, as peacemakers.  These stopping points also inform our own values, who we are as a people, and the new policy will make the expression of these values a core principle.

The departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union is a significant moment for Ireland, including for our development policy. 

Ireland’s place in Europe, and our influence and partnerships at the European table, must be seen as an integral part of our national efforts.  We are Europe.

The European Union – its institutions and its Member States - is the world’s most important actor on the development cooperation stage, collectively accounting for over half of global ODA. The EU is the critical actor in the delivery of international policy frameworks for peace and security, humanitarian assistance, development, trade and investment.

European companies are massive investors in the developing world, creating jobs and paying taxes, helping underpin the futures of their countries of operation. The collective contribution to development by the European Union is an important driver of positive change.

If our new policy for international development is to be meaningful, we must strategically position Ireland’s international development policy to reinforce our place, and build upon our influence, as a strong, committed, Member State.

This in part should reflect growing Irish allocations to the EU’s development cooperation instruments.  However, it is also because as the remaining English-speaking country within the EU, countries which previously looked to London to express their interests may increasingly look to Dublin.  This is already the case as preparations begin for negotiating the post-Cotonou framework. 

Furthermore, under the Global Ireland strategy, we want to also engage more beyond the Anglosphere – that desire informed our joining the Francophonie as an observer, and our ambition over the period ahead to deepen our footprint in French-speaking Africa.  We will build on our solidarity with Least Developed Countries and deepen our engagement with Small Island Developing States.

An expanding and deepening network of relationships, supported by our new international development policy, should contribute to deeper Irish engagements with, and utilisation of, the multilateral system.  Ireland benefits from an effective rules-based international system. The same rules-based system facilitates international development, with the United Nations at its heart.

The agreement of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 was the best of the United Nations.  Ireland was proud to lead the achievement of that global agenda for change and improvement, working with Kenya, as the nations of world agreed 17 goals that apply universally.  The SDGs call on all countries to mobilise efforts to reduce poverty, to fight inequalities, and to tackle climate change.  The watch cry is to ensure that no one is left behind, with an emphasis on reaching the furthest behind first.  In our new policy, our aim will be to extend our hand to those furthest behind.

The SDGs open the way for new forms of collaboration and innovation, together with a series of aligned international policy frameworks, including:

  • The Paris Climate Agreement: the first international treaty to deal with climate change.
  • The Addis Ababa Agenda for Action on Finance for Development
  • The New Deal for Fragile States
  • The ‘Grand Bargain’ of the World Humanitarian Summit
  • The forthcoming global compacts on refugees and migrants

A united, transformative, integrated approach is urgently required to follow through and deliver on this ambitious global agenda.

However, notwithstanding the optimism which surrounded the agreement of the SDGs and the agenda which I have just outlined, there is arguably a more fragmented view internationally on how to respond to development challenges.

There are competing narratives, and in some cases a more selfish expression of interests.  Reinforcing the multilateral system will help address these issues, though we must be realistic.  It will require time before a consensus on development such as that achieved in Paris and Accra can be rebuilt.  Ireland’s new approach must reflect current realities as we prepare for the future, with our response to a complicated international scene defined by our values.

As we finalise our thinking, it is clear that our policy will be built on the foundation of the SDGs, which provide an interconnected international policy framework for action.  This framework also allows us the space to specialise, to sharpen our focus, in a context where to try to respond to every call for action would be to dilute our efforts.


Minister Ciaran Cannon at the Institute of International and European Affairs, November 2018. 

As I have said, our primary focus will be on the furthest behind first.  We will have a central focus on addressing extreme poverty, vulnerability and marginalised groups. We will build on our track record in reaching the poorest and most vulnerable. We recognise that there is much to do, and reaching those who to date have been left out of progress will be difficult.

We have identified a number of key areas which we are working to flesh out.  These include reducing humanitarian need, promoting gender equality, strengthening our work to address climate change, and to strengthen governance.  We want to work in a structured and strategic way across these key strategies, such that each reinforces the other.   A culture of respect for human rights will underpin our work.  We will use our leadership and influence in multilateral forums to build collective support for targeted actions in support of interventions in these areas.

Conflict prevention and protection will be a key focus, building on our own experience here at home and responding also to the call of the UN Secretary General on the need to focus on prevention.  We will seek to reinforce the intersections between Ireland’s peacekeeping and conflict resolution work, political engagement, development cooperation and humanitarian action.

Over the past few years, the amount of funding required to meet humanitarian needs has increased substantially, generally due to conflict.  We have a moral duty to prevent conflict and human suffering.  To do so also has an important practical effect, in that it will enable us to invest our development funding in delivering the SDGs rather than simply ameliorating the terrible effects of war.

An area where we will do more on will be to mitigate the impact of climate change in the developing world.  Already we see that the changing climate is having disproportionate effects on the most vulnerable.  A challenge which we must address will be to build climate responsiveness across our programme, and build greater coherence between our domestic and foreign policy in this space.  The vulnerability of many Small Island Developing States is particularly acute, and as a small island state ourselves this is something to which we should respond.  It cannot be that we let a UN member state simply disappear under water, with all the attendant human misery: yet if we continue on current trends this could well be the case. I am conscious also that the gender impact of climate change is acute and we need to keep this to the fore as we think through our next steps.

A hallmark of Ireland’s development story has been the building of effective, accountable and inclusive institutions.  While there is always room for improvement, Irish institutional effectiveness has been one of the elements which has seen us become one of the oldest unbroken democracies in Europe. 

I believe that if we are to encourage sustainable development, a key component will be to reinforce the effectiveness, accountability and inclusivity of institutions in our partner countries.  We will need to focus in particular on maintaining and expanding civil society space.  Civil society has always been at the core of our development policy – currently the proportion of our development assistance channelled through civil society is nearly double the OECD average.  In the context of an expanding budget, there will clearly be year on year dynamics and some rebalancing: however, civil society will remain at the heart of our work, as it has been over the nearly fifty years of Ireland’s official development cooperation programme.

We will build on our experience as a nation, and as a donor, in developing food and agriculture systems.  Memories of our famine have informed our traditional focus on combatting hunger.  There is of course much more we can draw upon from that folk memory.  In particular, our experience in transforming Irish agriculture in recent decades and building of a world class food industry is one which captures peoples imagination elsewhere. We are reflecting on how we can bring the best of our transformation to a food island to others.  This is of course not just a story of food, but of life in the countryside, industrialisation, connection and education.

Binding it all together are people. 

The SDGs are a manifesto for youth, asking us to make their future more sustainable.  Our new policy must meet their needs, at home through development education and abroad, through delivering on the promises in our new policy. Our work in health and education, our focus on gender, on sustainable livelihoods, will deliver a dividend on each of a person’s first 10,000 days. 

There are the bridges we build with youth through our fellowship programme, which sees scholars come to Ireland each year for post-graduate study, bridges that we want to reinforce and strengthen.  We want to actively explore other connections, actively linking Irish people through dynamic interactions in true partnership with others – that sense of holistic exchange that is the spirit of the SDGs.

People are what we are about: tangible connections in faraway places, linked by bonds of experience, friendship and solidarity.

People have been at the heart of the partnerships involved in delivering Irish development cooperation over almost half a century.  They – we – are part of the unique character of what we do.  We are a team in green, whether in politics, in the Department, in an Irish NGO, or working with Ireland in Europe.  We are our partnerships, whether with multilateral organisations including the United Nations agencies, international humanitarian organisations, or international financial institutions. 

We are our bilateral relations.  The quality of our friendships, whether in our European neighbourhood, in Africa, in Latin America, Asia or with a small island state, define us.  Those friendships are simply our global influence.  If we are to respond to global challenges, we do it on the basis of our friendships.  Our new development policy is an investment in those friendships, in global public goods, in good neighbourliness.   

However, good friendship means speaking the truth.

Good friendship is steadfast but not foolish.

Good friendship is rooted in trust, which must be reciprocal.

Good friendship is based on understanding.  We must invest in our understanding if our development policies are to be successful.  We need to be flexible and innovative where required, always with an eye for the desired results.  Results which should be agreed in a real spirit of partnership.  We will be open to new approaches, including private sector participation in development interventions and fostering technological innovation for development.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Before taking up this current position, I had limited personal exposure to the work of Irish Aid.  I have since travelled, most recently to Vietnam, and borne witness to the excellent work that is done in our name.  We are making a difference to the lives of millions, in over 130 countries last year.  We must continue to make that difference.

The drafting of the new policy on international development is now well in hand, informed in large part by the fantastic response to our public consultation and also the engagement of so many Irish NGOs and others.  I have given a flavour of the direction of travel. 

As we work over the coming weeks to finalise the policy these ideas will be further fleshed out.  It is important that we get this policy right.  Important for those whom we want to help but also important for Ireland.  Good development, well delivered in accordance with our values helps shape and protect our home, our safety and our prosperity – simply put, it is in our selfish, strategic interest.   

Thank you


Minister Ciaran Cannon at the Institute of International and European Affairs, November 2018.