The former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, has an Irish phrase to describe how she feels about the world – “Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine,” or in her English translation, “it’s in each other’s shadow that we survive.”
She was using it before an audience of Irish and Irish Americans at the Consulate in New York last week, at the U.S. launch of a charity called Self Help Africa
Since the end of her post as U.N. high commissioner of human rights in 2002, Robinson has worked tirelessly on behalf of under-represented groups across the world. The former president is now a member of The Elders, 12 eminent world leaders including Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu – Richard Branson, the British billionaire businessman, brought them together to campaign for world justice. She has also set up her own human rights advocacy group in New York called Realizing Rights.
Robinson arrived late and a little breathless, having rushed from another meeting on how counter-terrorism measures undermine human rights. A fire alarm had interrupted and delayed that discussion, she said, laughing. Alarm bells aren't welcome at sessions on security.
Wearing a red jacket, black polo neck and black trousers, she spoke about her worry that the global economic crisis would cause countries to cut back on foreign aid. But she added that the floods in Ireland “have brought home to people that terrible conditions are devastating.”
Self Help Africa is unusual because it’s a combination of a British and an Irish group. The British Harvest Help and the Irish agency Self Help Development International began their collaboration 18 months ago. And it has been a success, said Ray Jordan, the group's CEO, who's from Limerick. “The Anglo-Irish dimension has thrown a different perspective on people’s perceptions of how you can work together.”
The new agency aims to give people tools with which they can develop their own countries, and it focuses on women, who often do much of the farming in rural areas. “Aid is not the solution,” said Jordan, explaining why the group has come to the U.S. “It has to be about business and facilitating an enterprising spirit.”
“We want to try to influence policy,” he continued, joking “I want Barack Obama on our board!”
It was certainly a good idea to get Robinson involved. Climate change is one of her most passionate interests right now. Robinson explained that Africa produces less than 3.8 percent of green house gasses, but is deeply affected by global warming. She said a cycle of flooding and drought has replaced what used to be the seasons.
African countries have a “right to development,” she continued, and African people “must be able to pursue their own dreams, their own aspirations, their own careers.”
Members of the audience were impressed. Carletta Downs, an investment banker who has worked for Goldman Sachs and HSBC, said she’d like to use her skills to get involved with Self Help Africa. “Women are the focal point of the uplift of Africa, economically and educationally,” she said. “I’d be a big supporter of this group.”
The Irish Consul General, Niall Burgess, spoke about Ireland’s own experience of Famine.
"One of the first things I learnt in New York was how powerful our Famine has been, what a strong narrative it is for Irish America,” Burgess said.
“Hunger and poverty and being without shelter are issues that connect us at a deep level.”