Global NGO feels downturn’s pain

    Siobhan Walsh, executive director of Concern Worldwide U.S., visits Darfur in 2004. The organization currently works with 175,000 internally displaced people in western Sudan. Photo by: Concern Worldwide

    Concern Worldwide has been in the business of helping the world’s poorest for more than 40 years now. It operates in 28 countries, where it provides emergency assistance and carries out long-term programs focusing on areas such as education, HIV/AIDS, health and microfinance.

    Similar to other relief groups, Concern Worldwide is feeling the pain of the downturn. It is facing cutbacks on its operations with reduced funding from donors.

    Siobhan Walsh, executive director of Concern Worldwide U.S., spoke to Devex about the current reality for the organization and how it is addressing this. She also shared her opinion on improving food security and reforming U.S. foreign aid.

    In a second part of the interview, Walsh discussed how the relief organization uses partnerships to implement programs and help it weather the global recession.

    Walsh started her career with Concern Worldwide’s international headquarters in Dublin, Ireland, then moved to New York City to set up Concern Worldwide U.S.

    Concern Worldwide uses long-term development work and emergency assistance to help eliminate extreme poverty in some of the world’s poorest nations. How has its approach to development changed over time?

    I think back to the days when Concern, in the 1970s, started small innovations. We started a calendar-making group [the Heart Handicraft Women’s Project in Bangladesh]. The idea was to get women who never had the chance to go to school-who were mothers-to earn an income by learning how to make these hand-embroidered calendars. It was a very small-scale innovation, but it actually transformed those women’s lives because they were never going to have a chance to go to school. When you asked them what they wanted the money for, they wanted the money so that they could buy rickshaws for their husbands to send them out to work, and they also wanted money to send their children to school.

    One of the early founders of the organization who was chief executive for many years, Aengus Finucane, made me promise that I would never let these small initiatives disappear in the organization as it got bigger, because of the extraordinary impact they have on people’s lives. Today, the things we’re doing range from things we’re doing like that [the calendars] to a program we’re doing in Kenya in response to the food crisis there.

    In a November 2008 letter published in The Wall Street Journal, you mentioned that the resolution of conflict often leads to a decline in public and donor interest. Have you seen this occur recently, and if so, where?

    I think the media are critical to keeping a spotlight on international humanitarian crises. It’s often the case that when media keep that spotlight on, the public care, the public are interested, and also you have the donors that are able to give you the immediate money.

    But it’s often in countries like, for example, the Congo, when people are returning to their homes after years of conflict, donors and public interest moves on. Then you’re left with a situation where what do you do? … That’s when families are at their most vulnerable. They’re going home to nothing, and they have to start over.

    We’d like to see … more funding for what we call … disaster risk reduction. Too often we’re given money when the disaster happens. It’s not so easy to convince donors sometimes to give money to help plan for and avert a disaster.

    But we’ve got to spend more time training communities in places like Haiti and Bangladesh, where you know there are going to be cyclones, you know there are going to be flood, hurricanes, to help them to mitigate the effect it has. They’re knocked down, they get up again, and they’re knocked down again. We have to help these communities to plan better for those disasters and build them into the programs, because there’s just a certainty that they’re going to happen.

    We just sent one of our colleagues to Pakistan because there are 2.5 million people displaced. The situation is appalling. There are women that are sleeping on the ground in winterized tents. We’re running out of money to distribute mosquito nets and blankets and plastic sheeting.

    There’s no money left. And the world is focused on Michael Jackson. Have you seen one piece on the world news about Nairobi or Pakistan even before [the death of] Michael Jackson?

    Food security and rising energy prices remain a problem in developing nations. What more can companies, nonprofits and government do about food aid?

    More funding has to be made available to invest in agriculture in Africa. It’s as simple and complicated as that. Until we do that, not much is going to change. We have to invest in agricultural methods-it’s the only way to tackle the food security problem in the longer term.

    Foundations and corporations are willing to travel to these countries and to sit and listen to communities. Certainly, we see that as part of our role-to develop better conversations with the corporate sector. Because when they actually see what you’re trying to do, they do actually engage.

    In Liberia, we started what we call farmer resource centers. We recognized that working with farmers in the different villages one-on-one was never going to reach anything of any scale. These farmer resource centers were all about bringing different farmers together. Some of them walked for two to three days to come to just one resource center. It wasn’t just about talking about better farming methods, it was about showing them.

    So we had these fields of rice. We had these fields of pineapple. We had these fish ponds. We had these farms. … The point was to say, “This is what happens when you sow different types of rice seedlings. This is how you take care of crops.”

    We educated over 5,000 farmers, and they went back to their communities and started farm schools. … Those farm schools educated the women in the communities about the same methods they had learned.

    The president of Liberia came to visit farmer resource centers and actually gave Concern the best international NGO of the year award in Liberia in 2007 and 2008, saying, “This is the way we have to go.”

    What are your top suggestions for President Barack Obama as he revamps U.S. assistance?

    To be fair to him, he is being quite forward and bold in his request to Congress in terms of the increases he’s looking for in terms of foreign assistance. What I mean by that is he is looking for increases in international foreign assistance. He’s looking for increases in the child survival budget, and they are two key areas for us. I think he’s looking for a 30 percent increase overall from the last administration budget. Now, whether he is going to get that or not is another question.

    We have a program [the Municipal Health Partnership Program, which started in Bangladesh] where USAID was our partner for the last 10 years. The idea was that if we’re ever going to scale up and stop the needless deaths of children – over 9 million children die every year from preventable diseases – we have to invest in other ways to deliver services to the poor.

    This was a program that moved away from direct service delivery to getting communities, getting governments, getting imams, getting volunteers all to focus around one goal and objective. What we did was facilitated them to set up a program that worked for them and a system that worked for them. Now this is a program that two independent evaluators have said is the best program they’ve seen in 25 years, and the U.S. government has encouraged us to share the learning from this project with other NGOs so that others will learn and not reinvent the wheel.

    How is the global economic crisis affecting funding for Concern’s work? How is the organization adjusting its programs in light of the economic downturn?

    All you have to do is go to any of the field programs, and [program officers] will tell you about some of the very hard choices they’ve had to make.

    When we talk about cutting back budgets, putting it in perspective, you’re talking about not being able to rehabilitate schools that were knocked down by the hurricanes. It’s really, really basic. It’s not like you’re cutting out a budget item like a marketing budget or something. You’re cutting back on programs that are trying to target the poor. They’re very, very difficult choices and very emotional choices for our program staff to have to make, and I’m not sure we’re going to see any change in that in the next 12 months. So as we head into a new budget year again, each of the country directors are asking, they’re very hungry and very anxious for money.

    In terms of asking us how much are we going to be able to come up with, how many programs are we going to be able to fund, we’re not in a position to answer those questions. To be honest with you, we’re still trying to get through this year and making sure we honor all the commitments we took on for this year.

    About the author

    • Ingrid Ahlgren

      Ingrid is a Devex correspondent based in New York City. She worked as a staff writer for from 2007 to 2009, helping to write guidebooks, including the "Vault Guide to the Top Government and Nonprofit Employers." Before moving to New York, she was a researcher for National Geographic Traveler magazine in Washington, D.C. Ingrid holds a master's in journalism from the University of Missouri. As the daughter of a U.S. diplomat, she grew up all over the world.