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Development NGOs are setting standards for the whole charity sector - Minister

Aid agency logos. Minister for Trade and Development, Joe Costello, TD, said 'Ireland’s overseas aid programme has been recognised time after time, by independent international observers, as one of the most effective and focussed in the world.'.Minister for Trade and Development, Joe Costello, TD, today commended Non-Governmental Organisations involved in overseas development for their commitment to delivering effective programmes to assist communities in the developing world.

Minister Costello was speaking at the Dóchas Annual Conference in Dublin which focused on the importance of charity regulation, transparency, and accountability for NGOs engaged in international development.

Minister Costello said:

“Ireland’s overseas aid programme has been recognised time after time, by independent international observers, as one of the most effective and focussed in the world. The development NGO sector has a key role to play in this.

“The recent controversies regarding use of charitable funds in Ireland have eroded public trust in the charity sector. NGOs and all publically-funded organisations are now under increased scrutiny and must demonstrate more than ever that they are effective, accountable and achieving value for money.

“I am confident that the challenge in terms of greater accountability is one for which Irish Aid’s NGO partners are well prepared. Working in partnership with Irish Aid, considerable effort has already been undertaken by development NGOs in recent years to ensure full accountability for the use of public funds.

Minister Costello indicated that Irish Development NGOs had taken the lead in setting standards that may be adopted by the new charity regulator:

“As the new charity regulator works to set standards for the sector overall, I urge Irish development NGOs to continue to lead by example in this regard.”

'Now people will be more careful when they are brutalizing our girls and our women'

 Niamh Griffin.It’s early on Saturday in Freetown, Sierra Leone but the courthouse is slowly waking up.

A truck rattles through the large gates, carrying prisoners linked to sexual assault cases. Here ‘Saturday Courts’ hear rape and assault cases in a programme partially funded by Ireland through the UN.

Almost 2,000 cases were recorded in the country’s three rape crisis centres during 2012 alone, so the courts serve a vital function in reassuring girls and women that justice can be done.

UN legal officer Rakel Larsen takes me through the quiet corridors. Funding covers weekend salaries but doesn’t stretch to electricity for the silent fans or even lights.

She says the courts, which were set up in 2011, are slowly changing attitudes:

‘It can be a challenge. The Saturday Courts provides a protective, victim-friendly environment, but it can be busy with family members. I think people didn’t come forward before. Now the women’s groups make a lot of noise. And there is a lot of funding, a lot of support.”

She adds: “We don’t have specific case-processing time statistics but we are working on data. You hear of cases waiting seven years to be heard, but gender-based-violence cases don’t wait. Rapes are also heard during the week”.

Oil effects: Sierra Leone's once-pristine landscape is being replaced by palm trees

Joseph Rahall, Executive Director eco-NGO 'Green Scenery', at the offices in Freetown, Sierra Leone.When Joseph Rahall speaks about oil plantations, you can hear the emotion in his voice and sense the fear he has for Sierra Leone.

He says of a once-pristine landscape: “You stand there, and all you can see is palm-trees for miles.”

In a country desperate for investment and jobs, the lure of the palm-oil money from large multi-nationals can be hard to resist. But Rahall fears the price to be paid is sovereignty.

Founder of Green Scenery (in 1989), an NGO partially funded by Irish Aid, he is driven by a desire to see fair treatment for landowners by the multinational palm oil companies. The group’s aim is to help local people look after their own interests, with minimal interference – they offer training and advice only.

He visited Dublin last year through the Sierra Leone Ireland Partnership and spoke of plantation-leases already occupying one-fifth of Sierra Leone’s land-mass – this in a coastal country smaller than Ireland.

And Rahall says there is an urgent need to question this, with many more companies eyeing up the lush greenlands of Sierra Leone. Its people endured a brutal civil war which raged for a decade until a peace accord in January 2002. Since then peace has brought rewards and but also financial challenges.

He says: “My fear is about the country’s security. Some of this land is being concentrated in the hands of few companies. Imagine if up to half to the country is gone in 50 to 100 years. As a government, what can you do then?

Sierra Leone a good fit for Ireland

 Niamh Griffin.Sierra Leone is now one of Ireland’s partner countries under the Irish Aid development programme, a match less surprising than you might think as the two small coastal nations have much in common.

The West African country was riven by a decade of civil war funded by the sale of so-called ‘blood diamonds’. But almost 12 years on from that conflict, an air of optimism is tangible in Freetown’s muddy streets.

In the beachside capital, the Irish flag flies over a walled compound, down an earth-covered road. It’s dwarfed by the nearby British embassy but work done here is injecting a steady drip of progress behind the scenes in the areas of justice and food-security.

Dubliner Sinead Walsh supervises various programmes - mainly on nutrition  and gender issues - from the Irish Aid office, which was upgraded to Embassy status in January.

Ms Walsh works with the Sierra Leone government and in partnership with other NGOs.

She said: ‘The country after the war was destroyed. I was here in 2005 before I moved here in 2011, it’s remarkable the changes even since then.

‘Most of our programmes are about women, and rights. It’s an area that was neglected for a long time, even in Ireland. About 50% of girls by 18 here have either given birth or are pregnant, it’s a huge problem and something the government here is taking on.’