Human Rights and Extreme Poverty: Discussion

Apologies have been received from Senators Ann Ormonde and Dominic Hannigan. I remind members and those in the Visitors' Gallery to ensure their mobile telephones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference with recording equipment in the committee rooms even in silent mode.

The first item on the agenda is the minutes of the previous meeting. The minutes have been circulated to the members. Are there are matters arising from those minutes? Are the minutes agreed? Agreed.

The purpose of this meeting is to meet Ms Magdalena Sepúlveda, the UN independent expert on human rights and extreme poverty, on her visit to Ireland. She had a very heavy schedule in recent days. It is ironic that she should be here on the first anniversary of the Haiti earthquake disaster. We welcome her and her team. She is accompanied by Mr. Allegra Franchetti and Ms Lidia Rabinovich from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

I also welcome Mr. Colm Rafter and Ms Iverna McGowan, from the human rights section of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The mandate of the independent expert is to evaluate the relationship between the promotion and protection of human rights and the elimination of extreme poverty in all countries of the world, regardless of their level of development. The purpose of her visit to Ireland this week was to study the Irish Government's approach to alleviating poverty, both domestically and internationally and she has had a heavy schedule. We will, therefore, try and get our proceedings under way as quickly as possible. Today's meeting provides an opportunity to focus in particular on Ireland's development programme and on its effectiveness in promoting human rights and alleviating extreme poverty. Human rights and development aid are seen as twin priorities for Ireland's foreign policy. It is significant that in the Irish Parliament the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs also has two sub-committees, one of which deals with human rights and this one which deals with overseas development. These issues are widely regarded as particular foreign policy priorities for us. This committee has held hearings and members have undertaken visits to a number of Ireland's programme countries to assess the effectiveness of our aid programme. It is a cross-party committee which has consistently and unanimously supported the protection of Ireland's aid budget and which also supports concentrating development activities through untied aid on the poorest development countries, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa. With the publication of the hunger task force report, Ireland has placed livelihoods and food security at the heart of the Irish Aid programme. We regard the right to adequate food as the most fundamental of human rights.

Again, I welcome Ms Magdalena Sepúlvedaand invite her to address the committee. Her contribution will be followed by those of members to which she may then respond. Before we commence, I must inform the committee on the issue of privilege. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice or rule of the Chair to the effect that Members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(i) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to effect that where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I understand Ms Sepúlveda is a little unwell this morning. I invite her to make her presentation and we will then take questions from members.

Ms Magdalena Sepúlveda

It is a pleasure and an honour for me to speak at this sub-committee in my capacity as the United Nations independent expert on human rights and extreme poverty. Perhaps I should explain this mandate. Mandate holders are part of one of the United Nations so-called special procedures whereby human rights monitoring bodies are assigned to individual experts called special rapporteurs, independent experts or special representatives. We are called to look at human rights issues, in my case issues regarding human rights and poverty, around the world and to report back on our work to the two major UN bodies, the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly. We are also called to undertake country visits and the reason I am here in Ireland is because I requested a country visit to Ireland.

As the Chairman mentioned, our mandate allows us look at issues in the developed as well as in the developing world. The concept of poverty in this regard is more related to social exclusion than income. In the resolution that established my mandate, I am also called to look at the responsibilities of states in regard to their share of responsibility to overcome poverty in the developing world. Therefore, I have come to Ireland to see the impact of the current crisis on the most vulnerable groups in Irish society and also to look at Irish commitments with regard to international assistance and co-operation.

Despite the current crisis, Ireland is a rich country. I was glad to note that despite all the complexities of the crisis and measures that have been taken, and despite the fact that ODA has been affected by the budget, as have many other items, ODA is still approximately 0.5% of GNP. I am also glad to know that despite postponement of the commitments to reach the 0.7% of GNP by 2012, the Government has expressed its intention to keep and honour the commitment of reaching the UN target of 0.7% of GNP by 2015. I call on this sub-committee to ensure that the Government and EU commitment is honoured in that time. I believe this sub-committee has an enormous role to play in supervising and contributing to this commitment and that despite the cuts in the ODA budget, the target of 0.7% of GNP will be reached and delivered in an efficient manner.

During my visit I have met numerous civil society activists, in particular a rich network of Irish civil society organisations that undertake development assistance work in developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. It was very encouraging for me to hear time and again from all of these organisations and individuals that Irish society is committed to and subscribes to the values behind international assistance and co-operation despite the crisis. Knowing that I was coming before this committee, some of the organisations I met yesterday, Irish development organisations and NGOs working in sub-Saharan Africa, asked me to transmit this message. They said they appreciate the oversight role Parliament has taken with regard to ODA moneys and that now in this time of crisis, they would like their representative to take a greater role in order to ensure that ODA moneys are invested in accordance with a human rights based approach. They feel that political representatives of Parliament are in a better position to ensure that in times of scarce resources the use of funds will be efficient and funds will be well spent.

ODA is an area in which Ireland has played a crucial role internationally. Irish Aid has a very good reputation internationally and I am sure that despite the domestic crisis, Ireland will continue to play its important role.

I thank Ms Sepúlveda. A number of speakers wish to make a contribution and I will begin by calling Deputy Ardagh.

I thank Ms Sepúlveda for her contribution. It is always helpful to have oversight. The civic society bodies which look after overseas interests in Ireland have asked her to question the committee to ensure oversight continues at parliamentary level. Of course, it must also continue at international level and Ms Sepúlveda's work at the United Nations is very helpful around the world, particularly in countries such as Ireland. I notice that she is making a number of visits to places in my constituency, including, for example, Fatima Mansions and Dolphin's Barn, great communities which are fully engaged in the process of development. Thankfully, in the past few years the sense of social exclusion which provides the context for her visit has diminished dramatically as a result of the work of the various non-governmental organisations and, in particular, people on the ground.

Ms Sepúlveda suggests contributions to overseas development aid should be invested using a human rights based approach, but she did not set out other options. I would very much appreciate it if she developed this point.

Will Ms Sepúlveda answer that question now?

Ms Magdalena Sepúlveda

Yes. I was very impressed by the community leaders in Fatima Mansions. It was a very good example of participation and I wish to transfer the experience to other areas.

I thank Deputy Ardagh for his question on adopting the human rights based approach to overseas development aid. There are several projects and I have included in my remit the issue of international assistance and co-operation. Human rights should be in the mainstream of international assistance and co-operation and this is achieved by compliance with several key principles, for example, participation in the recipient country. One of the principles should be that projects are not imposed in keeping with the political commitment of the international agencies initiating them but built on participation in the recipient society.

Another important issue is transparency and access to information. Again, this applies to both sides. In the case of Ireland, we heard expressions of concern from development organisations that, in spite of the significant information available in the annual report of Irish Aid, for example, there were difficulties in accessing certain data that the organisations would like to receive on a more frequent basis. Let me give examples. There is, first, the evaluation of programmes Irish Aid is implementing and, second, policy development that Irish Aid is undertaking internally such as on the gender approach.

Concern was expressed also that although Irish Aid provided several opportunities to engage in consultation on the work it was doing, there were major issues about participation at a practical level. Irish Aid is based in Limerick, but people find it difficult to interact with officials in the way they would like. Several times when consultations were carried out, they felt that although the official had met and listened to them, very often their views were not taken on board, which is disconcerting. The taxpayer funds Irish Aid and it is important views are taken on board.

The final issue is accountability, and for the donor agency also. We have the Paris Principles on effective aid, one of the core values of which concerns the predictability of aid. There have been several studies of the predictability of moneys from Irish Aid to developing countries and I am glad to report that the studies state the level of predictability is very good and that it is expected, even in time of crisis, to continue to be good.

Some reports refer to the harmonisation of the policies of Irish Aid with those of other donor agencies in recipient countries. In this field Irish Aid scores very highly, which is, of course, very important. As I mentioned, transparency, participation, access to information and accountability should be at the core of the way in which official development assistance programmes are designed, implemented and evaluated. That is what I mean when I refer to the adoption of a human rights based approach.

We have three members who wish to contribute. I call first Deputy O'Hanlon.

I welcome Ms Sepúlveda's contribution and remarks on the Irish Aid programme that in spite of the crisis we are experiencing, this is still one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

In regard to the target of reaching an overseas aid figure of 0.7% of GNP, has the United Nations considered including voluntary contributions, given that our population responds very generously to emergencies and provides ongoing support for particular projects, particularly in the developing world in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa. I wonder if the United Nations has ever considered including such contributions in reaching the target figure which I understand must be reached through contributions from the taxpayer.

A second issue concerns the use of the word "poverty". There is the figure that 25% of the population in Ireland are living in relative poverty, but that deflects from the very serious problems in the developing world where the level of poverty is such that we all have an obligation to address it. However, as politicians, we have an obligation to look after vulnerable groups in our own country to try to improve the position for them. Ms Sepúlveda has probably received the figures from the Central Statistics Office, but there has been a substantial improvement in the past six to seven years.

We are making headway. I hope that will continue despite the financial difficulties.

My final question is whether there is anything else we can do to ensure that Irish Aid does not support corrupt regimes or corrupt practices in any way. The committee regularly invites ambassadors and others from various target countries, in particular those in sub-Saharan Africa, and questions them on how aid from Ireland is used. The unanimous view of the committee is that Irish aid is delivered in a transparent way and that we are getting a good return for money, in particular since we changed the method of aid delivery some years ago. Do the witnesses think there is anything else we should do?

I shall call on Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan. We will try to spare Ms Sepúlveda's voice and ensure there is no repetition.

It must be difficult for Ms Sepúlveda to attend a meeting such as this one when she is not feeling well. I will be brief. Part of the constituency I represent was traditionally an area of high deprivation, high unemployment rates and poor participation rates at third level. I do not know if Ms Sepúlveda visited the north inner city as well as the south inner city. They both have great communities. In all my years of involvement in the voluntary sector, community empowerment has remained the main issue. Change cannot be imposed on a community from above. The members of the community must be involved in meaningful consultation and decision making. That is true across the board, not just in Ireland but in the others countries where the witnesses work.

I am interested that one of the focal points is people with disabilities. No matter how difficult it is for people in this country, it must be an absolute nightmare for people in Third World countries who have disabilities. Is there light at the end of the tunnel or is progress being made in that regard?

This country did not respond to a questionnaire from the OHCHR. Have we done so since? The report to be made to the Government, whoever that is, by the end of the year should be interesting.

I am interested that the OHCHR has come to this country to evaluate us. It is important to see how we are doing. We always think we are doing well in this country in terms of human rights and poverty. My colleague, Deputy O'Hanlon, pointed out that we benchmark ourselves in terms of poverty according to the relative income in the country. From what the officials of the OHCHR have seen to date - I accept they have more to see - how do we relate to countries in the same income bracket in terms of relative poverty and access to services?

Our overseas development programme is very much targeted. The Swiss used to have 49 or 50 countries to which they donated money. They started rowing back from that on the basis that such a shotgun approach was not very effective. They were giving a bit to everyone but not being very effective in any one place. They began to adopt the Irish model of taking nine or ten countries and targeting specific areas such as education or health. One cannot tackle agriculture, industry and everything else at the same time. Is that what other countries should do in terms of tackling poverty? Should they all become an expert in one particular field and then target aid towards certain countries? The countries we target are in the bottom 20 countries in terms of the UN index on poverty and deprivation. Is that the OHCHR's sense of how countries should proceed?

I invite Ms Sepúlveda to try to answer those questions. She can do a final round-up then.

Ms Magdalena Sepúlveda

I thank members for their questions. On how the voluntary contributions count, it is true that this country has a particular characteristic that is very important. Only 40% of the money that development NGOs get in order to do their work in developing countries comes from taxpayers through Irish Aid and 60% comes from the public. That shows the solidarity of Irish people. It is a very good indicator that even in a time of crisis, helping people in deprived areas of the world is part of the Irish value system. That is reflected by the high contribution rate. That does not count. However, on the other hand when countries count official development assistance they often include the payment of western consultants in the recipient country. That is money that will be out of the recipient country anyway. It is true that money that is given as part of charitable donations by Irish society is not included because it is not official development assistance but for all countries we still count several other things as part of ODA that could be excluded, which compensates in some way.

It is true that there have been improvements in poverty levels in Ireland. That is why I requested that we visit this country as an interesting case. Let us look at the statistics in 2008 compared with 2000, and the impact of domestic social protection welfare measures. Without that social protection one now has a rate of approximately 13% of people at risk of poverty according to the EUROSTAT figures for people who are under 60% of median income. All the studies show that if we do not count social protection, the rate of people at risk of poverty would have been approximately 44%. In the case of older people, if we do not count social welfare pensions, the percentage of people at risk of poverty would be approximately 88%. Social protection in this country has been very important and has played a significant role in keeping people out of relative poverty, which is the concept to which we refer in Europe in general.

We have seen that there will be major cuts in social protection. According to the latest indicators of poverty based on the figures from December - what is known in Ireland as consistent poverty - that includes where certain deprivation levels have increased, but we do not have the overall figures and we do not know what will be the impact of the cuts in social protection. That is why it is very interesting to monitor what is going to happen if social protection has played a very important role and then it is cut significantly because of the crisis, and how those people are going to be protected from poverty.

The Government is taking several measures in the budget and the annual recovery plan in which although there are extensive cuts to social expenditure there is also reform in the public service and the delivery of public services in which the argument is that it is going to be more efficient. Those are the things I came to observe domestically. The concept of poverty in the developed countries is completely different from the concept of poverty we use in developing countries. There are 1.4 million people living in the world with less than $1.25 per day purchasing power, the great majority of whom are in developing countries. However, there has been increase in poverty in middle income countries.

In regard to the policies of Irish Aid, community empowerment is crucial and that is what ODA should promote as well. It was interesting that members raised the issue of persons with disabilities. I have visited several of the countries marked as programme countries for Irish Aid. Bangladesh is one of the programme countries assisted by Irish Aid where impressive measures have been taken to improve the condition of people with disabilities. It has a programme that enables persons with disabilities to access latrines. This is important due to the lack of sanitation. It is easier for girls to go to school than those with a disability in some of the poorest slums. For example, a big NGO has developed latrines for persons with a physical disability. Unfortunately, most of the work done in developing countries for persons with disabilities is done by NGOs but in several cases those NGOs are supported by international development moneys, so it is crucial.

In several national development agencies, for example, the United Kingdom's Department for International Development, DFID,a person with disabilities is one of the core group they would like to tackle. There is still some time to submit questions. In a practical way they are submitted to us but through the Irish mission in Geneva. For the time being we do not know whether they will submit the questionaire.

In regard to the countries, Irish Aid has the right approach, which is the one that several development agencies should have, just to choose some specific countries and focus on them in order to concentrate the aid. It makes sense that most of the countries targeted by Irish Aid are sub-Saharan African countries but there are two Asian countries, Bangladesh and Vietnam. Some other countries, such as South Africa are included in between. East Timor is also included. While the approach is good I am concerned that the cut in funding to Irish Aid is affecting most of the multilateral aid and they have kept the focus on those countries but there is very little money for discretionary purposes. Most of the moneys are in the bilateral area. This is a little tricky because if any humanitarian crisis occurs there will be no money to deal with it. That is the only negative side of this very specific approach. It means no money is available for the earthquake in Haiti, for example. The money is not available to react to a humanitarian crisis.

It is agreed by most experts that the development agencies should try not to abandon or neglect some other areas. For example, in the past Irish Aid used to work with central American countries but not anymore because of this programme. It is interesting that at least there is some oversight and the money can come from the embassies rather than ODA, according to where Ireland has an embassy, and some additional oversight in respect of the conditions of the countries or regions not included in the programme countries that Irish Aid is following. It is important to specify the areas of work to which they will dedicate the money because that allows the agency to develop some expertise.

I have been calling on countries to provide more support to social protection in general as part of their development assistance money. This is in line with the G20 summit. In September 2010, the G20 summit recognised that one of the ways to comply with several of the MDGsis through social protection. It would allow now only compliance with MDG 1, that is the elimination of extreme poverty and hunger, but many others of the list of MDGs. This is also in line with several commitments made by countries in the G8 and in the G20 where they have agreed to give more money to social protection. DFID has taken this approach. It has a very strong social protection unit. Irish Aid also has a social protection unit. From my experience of the work I have been doing I personally will ask the development agencies to consider assisting countries to develop their own social protection systems. Of course, one has to be very respectful not to create the capacities in the local countries not to come with the money and with it pay for social protection but rather to enable the ministers of social development, the minister of labour, to implement, for example, non-contributory pensions for all their people. That has been done in several countries that are also the focus of Irish Aid, such as Zambia.

Irish Aid itself has put a lot of money into Ethiopia for the creation of a social protection mechanism. Given that Ethiopia suffered from so many food crises, most of the aid was only trying to solve the specific food crisis. The programme of social development, which is the most important, is work for money programmes. There are certain days where one is insured to have work. That is a major programme which is being sustained by Irish Aid and other donors. All aspects of this particular programme are very good.

I thank Ms Sepúlveda for her contribution. She met a number of NGOs during the week, which I am sure briefed her on their work. She and her team will travel to the mid-west this evening or tomorrow to meet Irish Aid before travelling on to Galway. That is near my part of the woods and I wish Ms Sepúlveda and her group well on their visit. They will see that Ireland has a long and proud tradition of international solidarity. Our aid programme is an important part of that tradition and sets us apart from other countries on the global stage. We have recently targeted hunger, on which a task force reported.

I thank Ms Sepúlveda for her valuable contribution. I wish her well in the remainder of her journey and hope she gets better. Like other members, I look forward to reading her report, which I am sure will be favourable.