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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 5°C

Irish organisation's evolving approach to overseas aid

Aidlink was set up in 1982, and since the lat 1990s has undergone a number of major changes – including immersing students in Ghanian life.

AN IRISH AID organisation that has just celebrated its 30th anniversary takes a novel approach to showing Irish students the reality of life in Ghana.

Aidlink was set up in 1982, and in 1997 Anne Cleary became CEO. The small charity has two full time and two part time staff, and the changes it has undergone since Cleary took to the helm show how Irish aid organisations are focusing on strengthening their work overseas.


It operates under a partnership approach, working with local organisations in three priority countries: Kenya, Uganda and Ghana.

Anne Cleary with Martha, a trained traditional birth attendant, with her own daughter. Pic: Anne Cleary

Cleary explained to

From an Aidlink point of view, the model of working partnership means that we put a tremendous emphasis on what is happening on a grassroots level; what is happening in that country to people of that country.

In the three countries they work with local organisations in some of the poorest regions, responding to the most basic and challenging needs, from building water wells to ensuring girls have access to education.

Aidlink always believed in supporting local organisations in the work they were doing – certainly in early days first 10 – 15 years there was a very broad reach. When I joined in 1997 in previous years Aidlink had provided funding for over 50 different projects in 17 different countries.

Today, they work with six key partners in Kenya, Ghana and Uganda, with whom Cleary said they have “built up extraordinarily strong trusting relationships”.

They provide funding for basic needs and services – such as water, education, healthcare, food security – and side by side with that is support for the organisational development, including technical support and advice, assistance in strategic planning, and training for staff.

The change to focusing on a smaller amount of projects came after they reviewed their work. Cleary, who comes from a nursing background and had worked in East Africa, said they asked “where did we have the capacity to provide the greatest amount of support that would have the greatest impact”.

This decision was to focus on three African countries: “It is about building a relationship of trust, understanding and having shared vision and shared values.”

Immersion programme

Maria from Seamount College, Galway, during her Immersion experience in Notre Dame Girls School , Sunyani, Ghana. Pic: Anne Cleary

As part of their work, Aidlink runs an immersion programme involving Irish secondary schools. From its very beginning, Aidlink had an interest in development education and informing young people about the causes of poverty in the world, and it is a co-founder of

“Immersion is very important but it is only small part of what we do. It is one of the ways of connecting a group of people to the wider agenda,” said Cleary. Aidlink works with projects on issues such as female genital mutilation (FGM), education for girls and advancing their rights, water programmes, sanitation projects, and more. The immersion projects helps to connect students with these large and hugely important issues.

In 2004, Aidlink held their first immersion programme in Ghana. The Irish students were brought around different areas, including a secondary school, where they ended up staying for longer than expected.

“The energy that came out of that was really quite extraordinary,” remembered Cleary. It soon became clear that they should take this approach for future programmes, and have gone back every two years since. The participating Irish students attend secondary school for one full week with their peers.

It is an extraordinary thing to witness.

There are one or two Irish students per class, and they are taught by a Ghanian teacher. “One of the things students on both sides of the water [show] is schoolchildren know how to be schoolchildren,” she said. “It’s a very comfortable environment for many.”

The essence of the immersion programme is it is an education programme.
We have stepped out of the way to allow the Irish and Ghanian people to learn from each other.

The conversations between students can touch on everything from soccer teams to marriage, and can go on to provoke bigger questions. This can lead to an exploration of the differences between the cultures, such as parental control and expectations around education.

Cleary believes in the concept of ‘learning by doing’:

I think it’s about an investment in the future. I think it’s about providing safe opportunity and guided experience. We are trying to be as careful as we can that this is not about ‘going to look at poor people’.

Turkana women having fun outside  a mother and child health outreach centre in Turkana Northern Kenya last November. Pic: Anne Cleary

Cleary said she believes there is a lot of learning still to be done about immersion. “About how can people like me and organisations like Aidlink facilitate and support the interest, the engagement, the dialogue between countries … without it being all based on a charity model”.

She is not suggesting that immersion programmes are ‘the answer’,  but theirs has developed to become “a really positive experience for all of those who have been part of it, teachers and students”.

Aidlink receives 50 per cent of its funding from the government, and fundraises to raise other sources of funding. Details on how to donate can be found on its website.

“It is very challenging at the moment of course,” said Cleary. “It has been very hard to raise new money – but our supporters are very loyal and we are most grateful to them.”

Read: Ireland “must strengthen promise on aid commitments” – NGOs>

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