I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House on Ireland's first ever White Paper on overseas aid policy. The White Paper was launched by the Taoiseach on 18 September. It has been widely welcomed by the Irish development community and our partners in the developing world. In recent weeks, it has been discussed in the Seanad and at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. Therefore, it is timely that we have the chance to debate it in the Dáil today, although it is unfortunate that the debate will not be as long as I would have liked.
The White Paper on Irish Aid is a document of which I am most proud. It comes at an important time for my Department and the Government. On one level, the White Paper sets down a clear blueprint that will guide how Irish aid will expand as we reach the UN aid spending target of 0.7% of our GNP by 2012. However, it is about much more than good development practice and where best to expend the rapidly growing aid budget.
As the Taoiseach stated at the launch: "The White Paper is a practical expression of the values that help define what it means to be Irish at the beginning of this century." It represents our sense of a broader global concern and our obligation to those with whom we share this planet and our humanity. It represents our shared belief in democracy, solidarity and fairness. Above all, it demonstrates a clear awareness that with prosperity comes a responsibility to assist those who are most marginalised and vulnerable.
At the launch of the White Paper, I drew attention to the fact that in July 1985, when Ireland had one of the highest per capita debts in the world, ordinary Irish people gave more per head to Live Aid for Ethiopia than any other nation on earth. This White Paper builds on the service and generosity of Irish people towards the developing world over many decades. It embraces the work of missionaries and non-governmental organisations and seeks to consolidate and expand the work of the official aid programme, Irish Aid, since its foundation more than 30 years ago.
This White Paper is about putting development at the heart of our foreign policy. It is about embracing an enhanced role for Ireland in the struggle against global poverty, both at the operational level of our aid programme and at the international level where the voices of the poor and marginalised need much greater resonance.
Ireland is very well placed to adopt a leadership position in the fight against global poverty in all its manifestations. We have a legacy of service in the developing world. We have our own history of poverty and conflict. We have a proud record of engagement with the UN at every level. We have no hidden agendas in our development assistance. Our commitment to reaching 0.7% of GNP on overseas development assistance by 2012 will provide the resources and the authority through which we can deliver the leadership espoused by the White Paper.
The sums we will expend on development assistance over the coming years are enormous. I expect the aid programme will reach €1.5 billion per annum in today's terms by 2012. As recently as 1996, our total aid programme amounted to approximately €142 million. By any standards, this represents an enormous commitment by the Irish people. It trebled since the Government came into office in 1997 and it will double between now and 2012.
The challenge is to make a real difference in the lives of more than one billion people who live on one dollar a day. One dollar a day is defined as extreme poverty. However, 3 billion people live on two dollars a day or less. We must and will grasp the opportunity to make the difference, which means ensuring our aid programme is of the highest standard, delivering aid that is effective, accountable and making a measurable change in the lives of the poor. The difference also means doing everything in our power to enhance the operation of global partnerships to fight poverty.
No individual country or regional organisation can, no matter how wealthy, effectively address the complex nature of global poverty on its own. This is why the set of development targets, called the millennium development goals, agreed by the international community at the UN in 2000, represent an unprecedented opportunity for collaboration and co-ordination in fighting poverty. These eight goals clearly outline a set of measurable targets to be attained by 2015, if we are to halve global poverty by that year. These targets are attainable if the necessary resources, human and financial, are dedicated to the goals by the wealthy nations of the world.
The millennium development goals are at the heart of the White Paper on Irish aid. These goals represent the best road map to what the development economist and indefatigable advocate on behalf of the poor, Jeffrey Sachs, has called The End of Poverty.
Much of the White Paper firmly validates the changes which have happened in the aid programme over the past ten years. We are not starting with a blank slate. Irish Aid has been in existence since 1974. Building on Irish people's traditional solidarity with the marginalised and dispossessed, for 32 years it has been to the forefront of international development. Over that time, the way we work has changed significantly, moving away from individual projects towards programmes based on partnership, where developing countries themselves lead the development process. These changes are reflected in the guiding principles outlined at the beginning of the White Paper.
Our aid will remain untied. We will retain a clear focus on the poorest countries, particularly in Africa, and partnership will be central to all that we do. Our change of approach has been widely praised. A recent ActionAID report, for example, put Ireland at the top of the world league of donors whose aid is real and makes a real difference on the ground to the poorest of people. We work through our partner countries to build better governments and better functioning societies. I will give some examples.
In Lesotho in 1999, enrolment in primary schools was at 57%. With Ireland's support, by 2003 this figure had increased to 82%. In Ethiopia, through our safety nets programme which I saw in action when I visited there in July, Irish Aid keeps hunger at bay for more than 6 million Ethiopians every year. Another example is that with Ireland's support, immunisation rates against childhood diseases in Uganda are now at 84% for the entire country. That represents a dramatic rise in recent years.
The White Paper reinforces our long-standing commitment to the key areas of education and health. We know from our development experience that the realisation of human potential in every area, most particularly the economic, will only occur when people have good health and are both literate and numerate. A focus on education and health will remain at the very core of the Irish Aid programme, which invests in people and systems that can deliver sustainable services to enable and empower people to take control of their own lives.
As the programme grows financially, we will both deepen and broaden our engagements. We will increase the number of key partner countries in which we work. In the medium term, we will increase the number of partner countries from eight to ten. Malawi will be the first country so designated.
We will deepen our focus on working in fragile states and build on our existing activities, including our role in UN peacekeeping operations. We will focus our efforts on Sierra Leone and Liberia, two countries with hugely challenging operating environments. While Africa remains our main focus, we will respond to need in other parts of the world. To this end, we will build a regional programme in south-east Asia, working from our most recently designated key partner country, Vietnam. We will also increase our responses to humanitarian emergencies, wherever they occur.
The White Paper also launches a number of new initiatives of which we are extremely proud. We will establish a rapid response initiative to enable Ireland to respond more effectively to sudden-onset emergencies. My experience during my visit to the worst affected regions in the aftermath of the tsunami convinced me of the need to ensure an effective operational response by Ireland and the European Union to emergencies and disasters. I am delighted to tell the House that preparations for this initiative are well advanced.
My colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Conor Lenihan, recently signed an agreement with the World Food Programme for the pre-positioning and transportation of humanitarian supplies to disaster areas. We will also put in place a roster of skilled and experienced individuals from the public and private sectors, including from the Defence Forces, for deployment at short notice to emergency situations.
Ireland will seek to forge a distinctive role in the areas of conflict prevention and resolution and peace building, drawing on our experience and knowledge of conflict resolution and peace building. To this end, a dedicated unit for conflict analysis and resolution will be established in the Department of Foreign Affairs. We will establish a hunger task force to examine the particular contribution Ireland can make to address the root causes of food insecurity, particularly in Africa. Again, we will build on our experiences and knowledge in the area of food production.
Development co-operation is a contract between donor and recipient, and both sides have obligations. Both sides must, in good faith, honour this contract. Recipient countries must ensure our aid provided from taxpayers' money gets to where it is most needed and that no moneys are diverted from this cause. They must use resources for the public good and work to combat corruption across all areas of society. We must insist on a steadfast adherence to democratic principles and human rights. To this end, we will establish a new governance unit within Irish Aid which will be a focal point for all our activities in this area.
Ireland will continue to take a lead in the fight against the scourge of HIV-AIDS. Our spending on this and other diseases exceeds €100 million a year — more than 10% of the total Irish Aid budget.
Finally, I wish to say a little about the challenge for Irish Aid at home. With the blueprint in hand, a major challenge for us now is to further involve the public in the work that Irish Aid does on our behalf. Broad public understanding of and support for the aid programme is crucial as we expand it.
The public has a clear appetite for information on development issues. Since the launch of the White Paper in September, more than 4,000 copies of the document have been distributed and more than 31,000 people in Ireland and across the world have downloaded the document from the Irish Aid website.
At international level, both the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, and I distributed copies of the White Paper to our ministerial colleagues at EU level. At the United Nations I presented a copy to the UN Secretary General and the President of the General Assembly. All our embassies around the world have been forwarded copies for distribution.
In the new year we will launch a national information campaign based on the White Paper to raise awareness here in Ireland of the work of Irish Aid. As part of this, we will be distributing a summary version of the White Paper to every household in the country. Planning is under way for the opening in 2007 of an Irish Aid information and volunteering centre which will make more and better information available to the public about volunteering opportunities for individuals, institutions and communities. For the first time Irish Aid will have an accessible shop-front presence in central Dublin providing comprehensive information on all aspects of development and volunteering. As well as providing information to the public, the centre will be a valuable tool for our development education programme.
The Oireachtas has a critical role to play in raising awareness of development issues and Ireland's response. At my instigation and that of the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, the White Paper commits Irish Aid to growing this relationship and ensuring that Members of the Oireachtas are informed of and engaged with the work of the programme. My Department values the broad cross-party support which development co-operation enjoys, given that it is the House which votes the considerable moneys that are available for the Irish aid programme. A number of Deputies have travelled to see for themselves the work Irish Aid is doing in developing countries. These visits forge important ties and help to strengthen the parliamentary systems in our partner countries by demonstrating the key role that our Parliament plays in our democratic system.
This White Paper is the outcome of dialogue with the developing world, our multinational partners and NGOs. It has been shaped by extensive consultation with the public. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, for travelling throughout the country and listening to the open fora which fed into the deliberations on the White Paper, which was agreed across all Departments. The White Paper details the Government's response to the clear wish of the Irish people that we be true leaders in international development. It also recognises that public awareness and support are critical to the success of the Irish Aid programme. While communicating the challenges the developing world faces, we must also present the success of our projects and remind constituents and taxpayers that every day, through the work of Irish Aid, they are making a real and significant difference to some of the world's poorest people.