I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the motion before the House, which revisits the issue of Ireland's overseas development programme and, in particular, our plan to reach the UN target of 0.7% of GNP by 2007. The Committee on Foreign Affairs, of which I am a member, recently deplored the fact that there has been some backsliding in the Government's commitment to reaching that target by 2007. As the former Minister of State who was responsible for securing Cabinet approval for reaching the 0.7% target, I feel a particular responsibility to continue to advocate that that Cabinet decision should be honoured. I attended the United Nations in New York with the Taoiseach when he made that public commitment to the international community on the occasion of the millennium summit. The commitment was made following a full Cabinet process, involving all the usual consultation and departmental analysis. I chaired a high-level review of the Ireland Aid programme at the time, to which contributions were made by representatives of the OECD, the Irish business community and the heads of NGOs and aid agencies. We went through all the issues, examining the problems and challenges of expanding the overseas development aid programme so quickly in the coming years. We put in place a clearly defined plan that was a framework for expanding the programme. We also engaged in a major public consultation to discuss the planned increase in aid programmes in our priority countries. In addition, we discussed these matters with all the stakeholders, including NGOs, churches, missionary orders and the general public.
The decision, which was widely acclaimed both at home and abroad, secured our membership of the Security Council. Our Ministers went around the world talking to international leaders, seeking their support for Ireland's place on the Security Council. We returned home when Ireland had secured that place. The Africa vote was very significant in that victory.
Quite apart from the politics however, it is important to say why we took the decision to expand our overseas aid programme. We did so because it was the right thing to do. We made a commitment that Ireland would maintain its solidarity, in a significant manner, with the world's poorest countries because for the first time in our history we were in a financial position to do so. We did so in full knowledge of the facts and following widespread consultation, although some people may have thought we were expanding the aid programme too quickly. Those arguments were listened to and we debated them. Since the review process, which I chaired, examined all those issues and took more than a year to complete, I do not see the need for a White Paper.
I want to highlight what we decided at that time, following the review committee's analysis of the aid programme's expansion. The key recommendations were: a new fund and action plan to combat the HIV-AIDS pandemic; a new policy focus on governance, democracy and human rights in the developing world; support for the private sector in developing countries; a new strategic and financial relationship with NGOs; a new budget and support framework for Irish missionaries; clear criteria for bilateral aid; and a wider geographical spread of the programme.
We looked at whether we would stay with Africa and we decided that we would do so. We decided to make a small expansion into South East Asia, to support Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, which we have done. Primarily, however, we decided we were going to stay with Africa because that is the area of greatest poverty and need in the world. We have had the greatest relationships and long-standing partnerships with six African countries. We made plans with those countries to expand our aid programmes to them. We discussed the expansion and there is no problem of capacity. Issues have been raised as to whether or not, with all this expansion of the programme, there would be capacity on behalf of the stakeholders, our priority country partners, the NGOs and all the other people engaged in this aid endeavour. There is no problem about it. All the NGOs and representatives of the missionaries in Africa recently informed the Committee on Foreign Affairs that the target countries are anxious for more money. This endeavour is about saving lives, which is why it is so important. It is far more important than many other issues we discuss in this House because it represents a challenge that Ireland is geared up to meet. Our engagement with the poorest countries is the one foreign affairs issue for which Ireland is renowned all over the world. This is because we were so recently poor ourselves, have a memory of famine, were colonised and remained under developed for so many years, and we know the value of education.
Of all the facts surrounding our aid programmes in Africa, the one I am most proud of is that we are educating young Africans. Our missionaries have been doing that for years. The template of the aid programme began with the missionaries. Our programme is only 30 years old but in that time we have made a huge impact in Africa. I wish the wider public was aware just how important is the work done in Africa in Ireland's name. I am concentrating my remarks on Africa because it is where we are most deeply embedded. We are engaged there in long-term, sustainable development in six countries. I hope that as we expand the aid programme, every Member of the House will support it.
We have much to be proud of, given the extent to which the programme has expanded. In 1992, the programme amounted to only £40 million, while next year it will reach €530 million. That is a considerable amount of money that must, and will be, well spent. I urge every Member of the House to take the opportunity at some point over the next two years, before the next general election, of visiting our projects in Africa. It is extremely important for all Members to see at first hand the fantastic, life-saving and life-altering work that is being done in our name in Africa.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs is travelling to Africa at the moment to see the projects for himself. I think he will be a changed man when he returns. One must see the chronic poverty and need, as well as the hope that aid engenders. It is not all misery in Africa. It would be shameful to portray the continent as a place of unrelenting misery. It is a continent comprising people of great hope and resources. They may have very little but when they receive help in the form of education, clean water and solidarity, one can see their lives changing immeasurably.
I travelled with the President to Kenya and Uganda to see the work of Irish missionaries there. Over the years, thousands of Irish missionaries have worked to change the lives of local people in Africa. They are still working there and are grateful for every cent that allows them to continue that work. I am glad there is now a new fund to help those missionaries to draw down funding that is available to assist their endeavours.
As the UN Secretary General, Mr. Kofi Annan, said recently when he addressed us in Dublin Castle, we do this not out of charity but out of enlightened self interest. Given the preoccupation with the war on terror and the need for a secure world, it is constantly overlooked that if the world was a fairer place and millions were not living in despair, the world would be a safer place. Security issues alone will not win the war against terrorism. There is a huge challenge to create a fairer world trading order, to engage in debt relief and build the capacity of developing countries to govern themselves.
So many conflicts in Africa have displaced populations, thus creating huge refugees flows. All these developments have downstream repercussions for rich countries. There are plenty of economic reasons it is a good idea for the developed world to support the Third World.
In Ireland, however, we have always seen it as a moral imperative. It is a test of our civilised values that we should want to help these people. We do not sleep easily in our beds when we think of the millions suffering with HIV-AIDS and the millions of abandoned orphans. The coping mechanisms that have traditionally safeguarded the welfare of orphans in developing countries have broken down because so many adults have died. I am glad we are maintaining our focus on HIV-AIDS.
In regard to expanding the budget for overseas aid, I welcome that a multi-annual programme is back in place. The absence of such an approach has been the problem for the last two years. There was no guaranteed funding, which resulted in slippage and stalling in the budget. During my tenure as Minister of State, a three-year multi-annual programme was agreed, which guaranteed the upward trajectory of funding for this area. We must liberate the overseas aid budget from the annual Estimates wrangle.
Unfortunately, however, the three-year budget that has been approved, incorporating an increase of €190 million in funding over the next three years, will not bring us to the target of 0.7%. We must continue to advocate at budget time for the next three years to ensure those minimum thresholds are exactly that. The agreed multi-annual funding must be only a baseline and Members must continue to advocate in support of this endeavour. There is cross-party support for the expansion of the overseas aid budget.
Fine Gael has put forward a proposition that we should legislate to reach the UN target. Such action may well be necessary and would achieve broad support in the House. Over the years, as the budget has expanded, there has perhaps been insufficient debate in the House. Likewise, there has been insufficient public awareness of the great work that is purchased by taxpayers' money. Irish people are generous by nature and are among the most generous contributors in the world by way of voluntary contributions to charities. This should be reflected in the Government's programme.
Many members of the public think of overseas aid in terms of the work done by the NGOs including Trócaire, Goal and Concern. Those agencies do fantastic work, funded by the Government and the people. However, the public is not fully aware of the depth, strength and scope of the official programme, which is run by our own people in six priority countries in Africa. It is a diverse programme which is based on partnership. I stress again the need for all Deputies to take ownership of the program and to transmit that to their constituents. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me the opportunity to contribute to this debate.