This October, WHES had the honor and opportunity to interview Dominic MacSorley, CEO of Concern Worldwide since 2013. Dominic, who is retiring as CEO at the end of 2022, has spent 40 years with Concern, starting his work as a volunteer on the Thai-Cambodia border, a place where two WHES Board members first met him. He has worked in over 20 countries, leading Concern’s emergency response efforts in challenging places such as Haiti, Rwanda, Darfur, Kosovo and Afghanistan. In 2009 Dominic’s dedication to humanitarian and development work was recognized, when he received an OBE for “Services to International Humanitarian Aid”. Not long afterwards, the Northern Ireland all-party group on international development gave him an award for “Outstanding Vocational Commitment to International Development” for his contribution to international humanitarianism. His years of dedication to bringing food and aid to the most vulnerable and what drove his passion to help are discussed in this interview.
WHES: It sometimes seems like the problem of hunger is huge and never ending. What gives you hope; keeps you going?
Dominic: I’m going to speak about why hunger has been such a focus to Concern. Concern was born out of an Irish response to the Biafra Famine. Biafra was the first televised famine; and as the Irish nation watched nightly news reports on the television, it has a visceral impact as people remembered their own history of famine. The organization, Concern Worldwide, started when a small group of people came together to fundraise for the famine response, channeling goods and supplies through to the Catholic Priests who were on the ground in Nigeria, among them the brothers, Aengus and Jack Finucane, who went on to lead Concern.
Raising the equivalent of $68 million in today’s money, Irish support to the Biafran famine resulted in the largest humanitarian aid effort mounted out of Ireland to another country. It was this public support, supporting emergency response and longer-term development, built on a deep knowledge of affected communities that became the hallmarks of Concern from these early days. In effect, Concern is a contemporary expression of Ireland’s own history of overcoming conflict, colonization, poverty and famine and the drive to support other nations that are experiencing these challenges.
In asking why we should care about hunger; we must recognize that empathy, understanding and connectedness between people’s experiences are even more essential today than ever. It was part of Concern’s thinking in opening up a fund-raising office in South Korea with a people who have hunger and famine very much in their history which has influences the focus on their overseas development assistance.
WHES: Can you give an example of an emphasis or example of what your agency has done, which has worked to lessen hunger?
Dominic: As mentioned, Concern’s approach as defined by the Finucane brothers, was not just about saving lives through emergency response but from the outset it was about staying on with communities to work on longer term solutions. The focus was and still is on the hardest to reach and least well served communities, areas.
It is here where the value of public support, especially in areas that were not well funded is so critical. From the outset the public has been one of the largest donors to Concern, over and above governmental donors such as USAID, EU, and UK –our public income on an annual basis has been around 40 million Euros per year (about 65% coming from the Republic of Ireland alone, which is extraordinary) that is something that has been a part of who and what Concern is.
WHES: During the Ethiopian famine, it seemed that at least half of the volunteers in all the NGOs were from Ireland. During that Ethiopian famine, Concern Worldwide was criticized for working in Southern Ethiopia in areas with the forced relocation of Tigrayans.
Dominic: Even before the Ethiopian famine, the language of Concern’s approach was constructive engagement, working within to influence positive change. This has always been part of who Concern is. We were working in Khmer Rouge camps where others wouldn’t’ during the Thai-border era (1980s). This wasn’t political naivety nor compromised principles; it was about humanitarianism. I remember Aengus saying “it is not our job to be judge and jury, it is to work with the most vulnerable’.
WHES: In the big picture, how have things improved, or not improved for hungry people globally over the years?
Dominic: Concern marked its 50th anniversary in 2018 during which we hosted an international conference in Dublin Castle, that called for a “Resurge in Humanity” back then and only 5 years ago levels of people in hunger had fallen below 700 million for the first time in decades. There was a real sense that progress was being made and things were coming together. However, as this year’s Global Hunger Index (GHI) shows any improvements have been vastly undermined by Covid, climate, conflict, and rising costs of food and fuel compounded by the Ukraine war. Famine; a word that we thought had been consigned to history is back.
The GHI, produced annually by Concern and Welthungerhilfe shows that:
- Since 2014, hunger has increased in 20 countries.
- South Asia has the highest child stunting rate and by far the highest child wasting rate of any world region.
- However, hunger is most acute and at ‘alarming’ levels in 5 countries—Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar and Yemen and to this we can we can add Burundi, Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria which are all fast approaching the alarming stage.
We need leadership and boldness at a global level to prevent hunger and starvation and it can be done. I recall when Andrew Natsios, the then Administrator of USAID under George Bush, delivered on the President’s commitment that there would be “no famine on my watch which according to Natsios meant that “decisions” right up to the top level – enabled him to move resources quickly to prevent famine. It showed that when the political will is there much can be achieved.
Focus and commitment are ever more important as we face a global humanitarian crisis where over 100 million people have been forcibly displaced, the highest number since World War II. 828 million people suffer from hunger and acute food insecurity, the majority of which are women and children.
Across the Horn of Africa, 22 million people have been pitched into the highest levels of food insecurity. During a recent visit to Somalia, I was staggered by the suffering and heartbreak that I witnessed in the intensive care center in Baidoa Hospital that Concern is operating with the Ministry of Health. Our teams have already scaled-up in response but, this is as bad, if not worse, than the famine of 1992 when President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, made her now famous visit. We are truly in an era of mega crises and the global response cannot be business as usual, nor does it need to be. The collaboration, and extraordinary action shown during the COVID-19 pandemic, although uneven, resulted in a massive reduction of suffering and saved countless lives and we urgently need that now. We need to recognize that the knowledge to end poverty and hunger exists- the science and technology, are there – it is better, more effective than ever before, and while there is no single solution to today’s record level of humanitarian need, there is a choice to respond at scale, with speed and a truly ambitious level of commitment.
We know that CASH transfers that are directed at female headed households will produce the biggest return in terms of food on the table for their children and today cash assistance is supporting millions of female headed households across the horn of Africa – its working, its effective and it can be scaled up. Cash is important, but alone, it is not enough. A good example of our longer-term hunger prevention work is the ‘Building Resilient Communities in Somalia’ (BRCiS) – a consortium of 9 national and international NGOs that was established 10 years ago and today works in 34 districts across Somalia, engaging over 450 communities in resilience strengthening. How does it work? The central ethos is a ‘no regrets’ approach – So instead of responding to an emergency based on certainty, you begin to respond, proportionately, to the probability of a disaster.
BRCiS’s Real-Time Risk Monitoring System combines technology generated early warning indicators, like remote sensing weather data and market prices, with community-level information on a wide variety of shocks and stresses. This data is automatically visualized on a public-facing BRCiS dashboard where machine learning algorithms red-flag areas of concern according to predefined thresholds up to 25 days in advance. District-level Early Warning Early Action committees consult the dashboard and recommend early action. When early action is triggered, safety net scale-up is implemented. This almost always includes multi-purpose cash assistance and often includes water vouchers, health and hygiene kits, mosquito nets, agricultural inputs, or fodder for animals.
Finally, with 8 billion people already on the planet, we know global food production will need to increase which is why for the past 10 years we have worked with over 900,000 small farmers across 19 countries. By bringing conservation agriculture techniques and climate-smart training, we are tripling agricultural yields for farmers and taking them from producing enough to feed their family to becoming small businesses of the future.
Humanitarian needs today are at unprecedented levels and while funding has increased, the gap between the funding and need is much greater, with the Global Humanitarian Overview less than 50 percent funded. I was speaking to the UN representative in CAR. I saw that they received only 20% of what they theoretically needed. I asked, “how do you manage that?” He said, “well you pretty much cut everything, but you start with food; supplementary feeding goes from two meals a day to one meal, because food is an expensive commodity”. Gender and protection, already underfunded, don’t even get a look. The consequences are devastating.
The private sector can and must do more. At the UN General Assembly in 2016 there was much discussion on the private sector (in development) and their commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Back then something like 75 percent of the participating corporations supported the ambition of the SDGs, however, only 35 percent were actually committing resources; hunger and climate were the least resourced.
WHES: Where should we, as a society, concentrate our efforts to have the biggest impact on hunger in the years ahead?
Dominic: For Concern, a core focus for us has been the impact of conflict on hunger. Last year we launched a campaign called Nothing Kills like Hunger (www.concern.org). It is about ending conflict induced hunger and raising awareness of the younger generation around the use of starvation as a weapon of war. We collected 10,000 signatures from people in Ireland and did interviews with young people in Haiti, DRC, and Somalia, in which they spoke on how conflict had impacted on their lives, their future and their hopes and they spoke powerfully about needed to change.
There appears to be an empathy gap around conflict or “so called man-made disasters”. Although that is changing, it is now more complex than it was… Take Haiti; trying to get any attention, any media, donor response is difficult at best. Haiti may not be a safe investment, but in all of these difficult places there are channels to get assistance into desperately needy communities – and let’s be honest – we need to take some more risks.
- We need to get back on track behind the Decade of Action 2030, the UN Secretary General’s call for a massive global effort around civil society and private business to fund longer term funding commitments and around Overseas Development Assistance (ODA). Nobody should die of hunger while Humanitarian appeals remain underfunded by 45 percent.
- Prioritize prevention particularly in conflict affected states, there needs to be new thinking and shift of funding.
- Global food system should feed every person everyday everywhere; we need a more resilient food system.
- Challenge the global ambivalence to diplomacy and peace building; of the 13 current food crises around the world ten are due to conflict. We need member states to put muscle behind diplomacy to prevent war rather than react to it.
The world is much more interconnected now, but we need to use data, evidence and storytelling much more effectively. Remember the image of the young boy whose body was washed up on the European beach, remember that image just ricocheted around the world and every person saw that image of the child on the beach and it struck them, that could have been my child, or my grandchild, or my sister’s child. That sparked human compassion, and tragically sometimes it does take that kind of image to initiate that spark…
Finally we cannot be overwhelmed by the challenges – solutions exist and we must create an expectation of success, that will bring donors, public and the media with us – success is not built on aspiration but on hard proven data and evidence ….and drive to deliver on the promise of world without hunger … promises are not new and go back as far back as June 4 1963, at the opening session of the first world food congress, US president, John F Kennedy said;
“So long as freedom from hunger is only half achieved, so long as two-thirds of nation have food deficits, no citizen, no nation, can afford to be satisfied. We have the ability, as members of the human race, we have the means, and we have the capacity to eliminate hunger from the face of the earth in our lifetime. We need only the will”.
This was 60 years ago and today we are better resourced; we have more capacity and we are more informed – hunger is not inevitable; it is preventable, and it is everyone’s right to live a life free from hunger and suffering.