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'Irish people are very generous, partly because of the effect the Famine had on us'

Éamonn Meehan, Trócaire’s Executive Director, on why thinking globally is more important than ever in 2018.

_7120697 Éamonn Meehan receives a plaque from members of the Ixil community in Guatemala in recognition of the support received from Trócaire over four decades. Source: John McColgan

IRISH PEOPLE HAVE a reputation for being very generous when it comes to supporting charities.

This is something that Éamonn Meehan has seen first hand during his 27 years working with Trócaire. Meehan, who has served as the charity’s Executive Director since 2013, announced last month that he plans to retire in October.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Meehan said he felt the time was right for him to move on, saying “regular change in leadership” in an organisation is “good for motivation and good for renewal”.

Meehan said one of the most common questions he’s asked is about so-called donor fatigue. He said Irish people are “hugely generous” and “keep going back to the well again and again when we’re asked”.

“People ask me about donor fatigue or if people are tired of hearing about Syria, Yemen or South Sudan.

“I haven’t experienced any donor fatigue. I don’t think people deliberately shut themselves off from helping other people, even if they are far away.”

Meehan said Irish people generally have a “very globalised” view and are “open to the outside world”. He believes this attitude, and our generosity, is partially down to the Great Famine of the 1840s and ’50s.

Some people might make too much of fact we had an appalling famine 160 years ago and that so many people have left Ireland, emigrated, but that has had an impact on us.

Noting how a number of controversies in recent years have impacted the trust people have in charities, Meehan said people can and should research organisations before they support them.

He said the Charities Regulator will, over time, “help to ensure that people can trust that charities are regulated”.

“I always say to people, go on the website of the charity and look for audited financial accounts, that’s a good starting point. Go on the Charities Regulator website and see what it says there.

“As the CEO of Trócaire, I can say that our reputation is the single most important thing we have. You can actually, literally in the space of days, destroy what has been built up over the last 45 years,” Meehan noted.

Much has changed in the nearly three decades Meehan has worked at Trócaire, which has grown from a staff about 40 people in the early 1990s to 450 today.

Meehan said the world “was a much simpler place” in many ways in the ’90s and has become “much more complicated” in recent years. As a result of this, he said charities “need to be agile” and change with the times.

‘We live in a dangerous time’

One of Meehan’s main concerns about modern life is the resurgence in populism and extreme nationalism in some countries, as well as negative attitudes towards migrants and “the presidency of Donald Trump and everything that comes with that”.

Meehan said the US pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Agreement on climate change highlight that “we’re living in quite a dangerous time”.

“The US, for the last 40 or 50 years was kind of the bulwark of the multilateral system, but now with Trump pulling out of the Iran deal and the Paris Agreement … Hopefully good sense and diplomacy will ensure that this doesn’t get worse.”

18209142_1514924165186377_435160431091604944_o Awardees at last year's Global Citizen Awards. Source: Jorge Ruiz Villasante

Meehan said a global outlook is more important than ever, noting: “There’s a high level of political awareness among Irish people, which is great to see.”

Aside from making financial contributions to help those in need, he said many people engage by writing to politicians, signing petitions or volunteering.

“It’s more important now than ever that people have the capacity to understand and investigate,” Meehan said, adding that people should research what’s going on in the world “rather than just accepting everything we’re told at face value”.

Global Citizen Awards

Meehan is set to deliver the keynote speech at the Global Citizen Award (GCA) ceremony in Dublin today, where people who have volunteered abroad with a number of different organisations will receive awards for their efforts in raising awareness about issues such as poverty, gender inequality and sustainability.

Meehan said the awards are an important initiative as they encourage people to develop a greater understanding of global issues.

He said it’s important that volunteering is done in a sustainable way and in conjunction with local organisations and people who are working on the ground.

It’s very important that people engage with and visit countries around the world, especially countries where many people live in poverty and face injustice on a daily basis.

“If you travel on your own, without the opportunity to interact with local people and organisations who are working on issues such as poverty and human rights, it’s very easy to just see poverty and to be horrified by it but fail to go deeper and get an understanding of the underlying causes, and what might be some of the solutions and how we can support responses to those situations.”

Meehan compared volunteering to the tip of an iceberg, saying it’s “very much the starting point” of a lifelong journey of becoming more informed individuals.

Trócaire doesn’t send volunteers abroad but several other Irish organisations who do – such as EIL Ireland, Serve, Suas and Development Perspectives – will be represented at the ceremony today.

People receiving the Gold award have volunteered for a minimum of 40 hours with a charity in Ireland, as well as volunteering abroad and carrying out action projects to raise awareness about issues such as the Sustainable Development Goals.

Meehan said volunteering at home is something many people can do to improve their local community and society in general. “If you can do it 5,000 miles away, you can do it at home,” he said.

The GCA was developed by EIL Ireland, a charity based in Cork. Speaking about today’s event, CEO Kevin Hickey said: “Here in Ireland and right across the world volunteers make up a powerful force working towards fairer and better societies and communities.

The Global Citizen Award is designed to celebrate international volunteering, especially volunteering in the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Hickey said EIL’s mission is to “inspire global citizenship and promote personal development”, adding that the organisation is committed to ensuring that people who give their time to volunteer in Ireland or abroad are “thanked and acknowledged for the work they do”.

More information about the Global Citizen Award can be read here.

Note: Órla Ryan is a volunteer with EIL Ireland

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Órla Ryan

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