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The search for justice: Trócaire: a history

02 June, 2010

372 pp. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online go to www.veritas.ie


Foreward: Bishop John Kirby, Chairman of Trócaire
List of Abbreviations
Introduction: Justin Kilcullen, Director of Trócaire

  1. The Development of Peoples: Establishing Trócaire
  2. The Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Independence
  3. The Anti-Apartheid Campaign
  4. The Marcos Regime in the Philippines
  5. ‘Communists Need To Be Loved As Well’: Breaking the Vietnam Aid Embargo
  6. The Killing Fields: The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia
  7. The Good Shepherd: Dark Days in El Salvador
  8. The Somoza Dictatorship: Nicaragua’s Tragic Decade
  9. The Ethiopian Famine and its  Aftermath
  10. Brazil: ‘A Social and Economic System of Injustice’
  11. Somalia’s Humanitarian Crisis
  12. The Response to Genocide in Rwanda
  13. The Tragic Fate of Nigeria’s Ogoni People
  14. North Korea: The ‘Slow-Motion’ Famine
  15. ‘Death of a Nation’: The Indonesian Occupation of East Timor
  16. Hurricane Mitch Devastates Honduras
  17. The ‘Jubilee 2000’ Campaign Against the Indebtedness of the Developing World
  18. ‘The Gardeners of the World, Not Its Plunderers’: Making Poverty History
  19. The Tsunami Disaster in South-East Asia
  20. Gaza: ‘The World’s Largest Open-Air Prison’
  21. Trócaire’s Ground-Breaking Work in Development Education

Postscript: Facing the Challenges of the Future Justin Kilcullen


When visiting Trócaire’s southern Africa regional office in Mozambique in 2007 I was asked over a meal one evening by our staff there to tell them something of the history of Trócaire’s involvement in southern Africa. That involvement predates my own time in Trócaire, but I had heard the stories about Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in the 1970s, and the work of the Rhodesian Committee for Justice and Peace. I told them of the request to Trócaire for funds to buy a typewriter for the South African journalist, Donald Woods, on which he wrote his story, Cry Freedom, about the life of Steve Biko.

My young colleagues were fascinated. I realised that all of these things happened when most of them were in primary school, or for some, before they were born. So on the flight home from that visit I resolved that it was time to capture the stories from the past. This book, The Search for Justice, is the product of that resolve.

This is not a formal history of the organisation – that is another day’s work. It is an attempt to capture, for the benefit of a new generation of supporters, partners and staff, the inspiring stories of Trócaire’s work over almost forty years. Knowing these will reaffirm Trócaire’s radical roots and illustrate why ‘courage’ is one of our organisational values. In a crowded space, with so many development agencies competing for attention and support, it will help define that elusive issue of what differentiates Trócaire from the others. It will challenge us to stay close to our roots and our legacy in an ever-changing world.

The main sources for this book, worked on so diligently by author Brian Maye, have been press cuttings accumulated since the beginning of the organisation in 1973 and a series of interviews with key people involved as staff and board members over the years.
As such the focus is on the stories that made the news, such as Zimbabwe’s independence, the struggle against apartheid, the famine and oppression in Cambodia and North Korea. The work in Central America, still so central to the Organisation, is a major feature. Here our founding chairman, Bishop Eamon Casey, our first director, Brian McKeown, and Sally O’Neill (currently Latin America regional director) played a crusading role in bringing the struggle for justice and human rights of the peoples of Central America to the fore.

Crises and disasters in Timor Leste, Somalia and the 2004 tsunami-affected countries also feature. However it is important to recognise that our initial ráesponse to these events outlined here is only a small part of the work that Trócaire has carried out over the years. Long after the cameras have gone, the famine has ended, the political crisis has been resolved, the painstaking work of long-term development continues. For instance, eighteen years after the Somali famine of 1992, Trócaire remains in Gedo district working with local communities to provide health and education services.

Not all the stories could be told in one volume. Notably absent is an account of our involvement in Kenya, Sierra Leone and Zambia in Africa; Pakistan and Bangladesh in Asia; Colombia and Peru in South America. What brought Trócaire to many of these countries, and others, was the Irish missionary presence there. In Trócaire early days there was some confusion, and even tension, as to what exactly would be the relationship between this new agency of the Irish Catholic Church and the Irish missionaries. Trócaire was defined in one of its founding documents as ‘a further contribution’ of the Irish Church to the developing world. If in the early days there was a need to create a space for this further effort, Trócaire work must be seen now, with the benefit of historical perspective, as very clearly built on the missionary tradition. The stories in this book bear testimony to this, in larger than life figures such as Bishop Donal Lamont and Fr Niall O’Brien, amongst others. Trócaire work throughout Africa, in Brazil, Pakistan and many other countries was done in partnership with missionaries and was built upon their legacy. The relationship with the Irish missionary congregations – the Holy Rosary Sisters and the Medical Missionaries of Mary, the Kiltegan Fathers and Columban Fathers – has been central to Trócaire’s development, as has been the relationship with so many missionaries from other orders.

What we share with the missionaries, of course, is our faith, which manifests itself in the work of development and justice through Catholic Social Teaching. The opening chapter illustrates this very comprehensively. Catholic Social Teaching, however, is not just the historical basis underlying Trócaire’s work. It is at the heart of it today, as the church’s teaching has evolved to address current global issues. Pope Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), published in 2009, is yet a further challenging development in that teaching.

All of Trócaire’s work is underpinned by the main principles set out in Catholic Social Teaching. From the outset the founders recognised that the work of justice lay at the heart of good development work; that the beneficiaries of development projects must be the main authors of their own development, participating in the design and implementation of projects, not simply the objects of projects designed elsewhere by others. We have built up an extensive network of partners over many years, both church-based and secular, and worked with them to develop programmes that promote sustainable development, help communities overcome poverty, and allow each person to fulfil their potential as human beings. Our key approach has been the development of local leadership, called leadership training in our earlier days, now referred to as strengthening civil society. It is this aspect of our work that shines through in the stories that follow. The real heroes of the struggle for justice are the local leaders who have challenged vested interests, stood up to oppressive governments and put their lives on the line, and in many cases tragically lost them, as a result of their courage and leadership.

Trócaire is bound together with the social action arm of the universal Catholic Church as a member of Caritas Internationalis, the humanitarian confederation of 165 Catholic development agencies from around the world. Caritas is organised from the national to the parish level throughout the developing world, giving access to the poorest countries and providing a network for support in times of crisis. It is an extraordinary strength for Trócaire to be part of this network with such a global reach.

The other network which has been central to our work is Cooperation Internationale pour le Développement et la Solidarité, the working group of Lenten Campaign organisations across Europe and North America. Increasingly we have focused our joint work on advocacy and lobbying, pooling our expertise and resources to advocate for pro-poor policies at the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and with national governments. The results of some of this work are illustrated in the chapters dealing with the Jubilee Campaign and Make Poverty History Campaign.

The relationship between Trócaire and successive Irish governments has been something of a rollercoaster ride over nearly four decades. The Irish Overseas Development Aid programme was set up the same year that Trócaire was founded, 1973, which was also the year of Ireland’s accession to the European Economic Community.

In Trócaire’s founding document, the bishops called for a commitment on Ireland’s part to reach the target of spending 0.7% of Gross National Product as development assistance. This call has remained a constant refrain in the dialogue between government and Trócaire ever since. However, that dialogue is now at a much more sophisticated level. The Irish development aid policy has evolved to the extent that Ireland’s aid programme is widely recognised for its poverty focus, its commitment to resolving the problem of world hunger, its eschewing of tied aid and, most importantly, its renewed commitment to increase the volume of aid to reach the UN target. The ‘White Paper on Irish Aid’, published in 2006, stated: ‘For some, political and strategic motives may influence decisions on the allocation of development assistance. That is not the case for Ireland. For Ireland, the provision of assistance and our cooperation with developing countries is a reflection of our responsibility to others and of our vision of a fair global society.’ This vision has been shaped in part by the tremendous work of Irish missionaries and Non-Governmental Organisations over many decades. The recognition by Irish Aid of the role that both the Irish NGOs and missionaries can play, working in partnership with them, in delivering our aid commitment is a distinguishing feature of Ireland’s aid programme. Trócaire is proud to have played our part in establishing the political understanding and commitment to this vital issue and enjoys a solid partnership with Irish Aid in delivering on our national commitments.

In establishing Tró’scaire in 1973, the bishops of Ireland in their pastoral letter spoke of our duties as Christians towards the poorest countries and said: ‘These duties are no longer a matter of charity but of simple justice.’ Trócaire approach to the work of development, based on that principle, took many by surprise. On the tenth anniversary of Trócaire’s founding, Cardinal Cahal Daly, then Bishop of Down and Connor, gave the keynote address. He said: ‘If Trócaire were to be criticised for concerning itself with political issues in Third World countries in cases where political policies and institutions manifestly violate justice and human rights … or were to be criticised for exerting pressure on Irish governments and politicians to increase a niggardly state contribution to world development, then Trócaire must invoke the charter given to it by the Hierarchy at its foundation.’ The courage and steadfastness of the church in safeguarding Trócaire’s mandate has borne much fruit. The history of our work, which you are about to read, bears testimony to that. Let us hope that this volume will inspire this generation, and generations to come, to continue the struggle for justice, for at the heart of justice lie true peace and development for all.

Director of Trócaire April 2010



To discover the inspiration behind the founding of Trócaire, one must go back to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and particularly to the social teachings of the Catholic Church as enunciated at the council.

Of particular importance is the encyclical issued by Pope Paul VI on 26 March 1967, Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples). In addressing issues of trade, debt, the limits of capitalism, oppressive regimes and the temptation to violent revolt, superfluous wealth and the need for generous development aid, Paul VI set out issues that would become Trócaire’s mandate from the bishops of Ireland in their pastoral letter establishing the Irish Catholic Church’s development agency six years later.

The 1960s could be referred to as the first development decade. It was a period of decolonisation, with the emergence of newly independent states throughout the developing world. It was a time of great optimism in developing countries. But it was also a period of great naivety as regards development. The ‘trickle-down theory’ (the politico-economic argument that an increase in the wealth of the rich is good for the poor because some of that additional wealth will eventually trickle its way down to the poor) was very much in vogue and development was characterised by large infrastructural projects. There was very little attention paid at this time to human development.

From the outset, the Catholic Church could see the dangers and limitations in this approach. Pope Paul VI published his encyclical to highlight these limitations and to offer a different vision of development. His opening sentence set the tone: ‘The development of peoples has the church’s close attention, particularly the development of those peoples striving to escape from hunger, misery, endemic diseases and ignorance; of those who are looking for a wider share in the benefits of civilisation and a more active improvement of their human qualities; of those who are aiming purposefully at their complete fulfilment.’

Pope Paul warned of the dangers and evils of uneven economic growth, in contrast to proponents of the trickle-down theory. ‘Rich and poor alike – be they individuals, families or nations – can fall prey to avarice and soul-stifling materialism,’ he wrote.
A key passage of the encyclical stated: ‘The development we speak of here cannot be restricted to economic growth alone. To be authentic, it must be well rounded; it must foster the development of each man and of the whole man.’ Central to this sentiment was the recognition that sustainable development requires the participation of communities and peoples in the development process, and that basic human needs must take precedence in development planning.

The mandate for Trócaire was outlined in the Irish Bishops’ pastoral letter on development of February 1973 and that letter drew heavily on Populorum Progressio. The political and economic analysis in both documents is very similar and the issues raised continued to be dealt with by Trócaire over the next thirty-seven years and beyond. The agency continued to apply the teachings of the encyclical as it planned its responses to the modern world.

Asking why they are poor
Two events occurred in the early 1970s that were to prove defining in the foundation of Trócaire. Serious flooding, war and famine devastated Bangladesh and the country’s plight received widespread media coverage. The Irish Catholic Church decided to hold a special collection to fund aid to the stricken country and the Irish people responded generously, donating some £250,000. This led some in the Irish hierarchy, and particularly Cardinal William Conway, to contemplate the need for an Irish Catholic Church agency to channel such generosity. The second event – and it strengthened this train of thought on the cardinal’s part – was a visit he and Monsignor Tomas Ó Fiaich paid to Mother Teresa’s community in Calcutta. The grinding poverty they witnessed left a lasting impression on them.

Into this evolving situation came a man named Brian McKeown. He had trained as an engineer in his native Belfast but his first job was as a lay missionary with the Legion of Mary in the Congo for four years in the 1960s. He then went to Queen’s University Belfast to study sociology and his next job was as assistant secretary-general of Cooperation Internationale pour le Développement et la Solidarité (CIDSE), a Brussels-based coordinating group for Catholic development agencies around the world.

He was aware that in a number of countries the Catholic Church had set up development agencies for the Third World, but that this had not yet happened in Ireland. He made contact with Cardinal Conway and found him very interested in development issues and in what was going on within these other countries. He also found the cardinal very anxious that the Irish Church would do something, but uncertain that he would have the support of the majority of Irish bishops. Gorta was already in existence and Bishop Michael Harty’s brother was chairman of that organisation (Bishop Harty was Bishop of Killaloe). The Concern agency had also been operating in Ireland since 1968.

Cardinal Conway suggested to Brian McKeown that he sound out a few of the Irish bishops informally, which he did. The cardinal then contacted Mr McKeown in Brussels to inform him of the collection that had been made by the church for Bangladesh. Cardinal Conway was astounded by the amount that had been donated and said he would like advice on how the money should be spent. He also said that he was going to go ahead with promoting the idea of an Irish Church development agency among the hierarchy and that Bishop Eamon Casey of Kerry would be getting in touch with Mr McKeown.

Before his appointment as bishop of Kerry in 1969, Bishop Casey had spent ten years ministering to the Irish in Britain. There he had set up the Shelter organisation to help Irish emigrants (and others) to acquire housing. As a result of this work, he was invited to join the board of the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development (CAFOD), which had been set up by the Catholic bishops of England and Wales in 1962. In a recent interview for this book, he stated that part of the impetus towards the establishment of Trócaire was his awareness that CAFOD was interested in setting up a branch in Ireland.

Bishop Casey met Brian McKeown shortly afterwards and asked him how they should go about advancing the idea of setting up a development agency of the Irish Catholic bishops. Mr McKeown suggested that there would be a general agreement among the bishops on the broad outlines of the policy of the new organisation and that this policy be agreed by the Irish Bishops’ Conference. The next step would be to put this agreement into a pastoral letter that would be issued by the bishops announcing the new organisation.

Brian McKeown was asked to go ahead and draft a pastoral letter on development for the bishops’ approval and to return to Dublin to assist in the setting up of the new agency. He returned in December 1972 and laid the groundwork for the first Lenten collection in March 1973 – from then on the Lenten Campaign became the cornerstone of Trócaire’s fund-raising. The idea for the Lenten collection was Mr McKeown’s; he had seen how many of the other Catholic Church development agencies in Europe raised their funds by means of such a collection.

In the meantime he had also set up a structure of subcommittees to work through a set of policy recommendations which would be made to the bishops. One of the subcommittees concerned itself with how the funds collected should be distributed, another with how best to organise and carry through a policy of development education. These policy recommendations were presented in the Progress Report to the Hierarchy at a conference of the Irish bishops at Maynooth in October 1973 at which Trócaire was formally launched. It was Cardinal Conway who came up with the very effective and resonant title for the organisation, which means ‘compassion’ in Irish.

Brian McKeown was appointed the first director of Trócaire and Bishop Casey became its first chairman. There was a board of trustees consisting of the four archbishops of Ireland and three other bishops, one of whom was the chairman. In addition, the new agency had an executive committee which comprised two bishops and five lay people. The role of the Committee was to review requests for funding and to recommend projects for acceptance to the trustees.

In their pastoral letter on development, which is the foundation document of Trócaire, the Irish bishops had set out the following two-fold aim for the organisation: ‘Abroad, it will give whatever help lies within its resources to the areas of greatest need among the developing countries. At home, it will try to make us all more aware of the needs of those countries and of our duties towards them. These duties are no longer a matter of charity but of simple justice.’ To generate a greater awareness within Ireland of the problems of underdevelopment and its causes, Trócaire went on to implement a development education programme jointly with the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJP), which was also an Irish Catholic Church body (national commissions for justice and peace were specifically provided for by Vatican II).

Development education, informed by ‘the universal purpose of all created things’ to use the great Vatican II phrase, was aimed at creating an informed public opinion in rich countries which would demand changes in the economic, social and political structures that maintained the gap between rich and poor countries. Such changes, which were necessary for the development of the Third World, could be undertaken only at governmental or inter-governmental level. But Trócaire believed governments would act only where there was an informed public opinion demanding such changes.

Development education was a long-term process. Part of Trócaire’s programme involved the research, compilation and dissemination of information to individuals, groups, schools, organisations and so on by means of a wide variety of material which Trócaire produced on development issues and problems.

Trócaire announced it was to devote 20 per cent of its core income to development education, one of the most innovative aspects of its approach and one which differentiated it from agencies already existing. In addition, 10 per cent was to go to emergency aid and 70 per cent to development cooperation programmes. Bishop Dominic Conway of Elphin told a press conference in mid-December 1973 that the main part of Trócaire’s effort would be devoted to tackling the basic problems of underdevelopment that made disasters in Third World countries such catastrophes. He also said that development education was not just a matter of giving statistics about underdevelopment but was concerned with helping to form the attitudes of people in the West, which would eventually lead to a change in outlook towards problems in Third World countries.

Bishop Conway stressed Trócaire’s aim of transferring responsibility for decision-making about development cooperation programmes to competent and representative groups within the developing countries themselves. The aim was to help, as far as possible, the efforts of those working towards their own development and to arrive at a real partnership with those they were trying to help.

Mary Sutton worked as research coordinator for Trócaire for more than ten years. In a recent interview for this book, she said that from the outset she would have been aware that Trócaire was different in a number of respects from existing Irish Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) at the time, especially in its decision from the beginning to spend 20 per cent of core income on development education. Research was to be part of the development education process – the part for which she was to be responsible.

She regarded this approach as very far-sighted in that Trócaire was always keen to have a strong evidence base for what it was saying on the issues of the day It was also farsighted, she believed, because it indicated that the new agency was not content to take a superficial perspective on the question of world poverty. For Trócaire, she said, it was not just about feeding hungry people but about questioning why they were hungry, and analysing the causes and underlying structural determinants of poverty.

Tackling the causes rather than treating the symptoms
A few months after Trócaire’s establishment, the Catholic Standard newspaper had the following to say about the organisation (in early January 1974): ‘It embodies in its activities the principles of accepting the cultural differences of the world, of self-determination in policy-making for individual people, of awareness of the dangers of paternalism, and of helping those in need, irrespective of creed and the possibility of making converts.’ The article said that in many ways Trócaire had to be ranked as ‘one of the most advanced of the church’s development agencies in the world’. The Catholic Standard saw it as a matter of ‘extreme relief that the Irish hierarchy had not only not blocked Brian McKeown’s plans but had actually welcomed and defended them.

In an interview he did for Africa, the magazine of St Patrick’s Missionary Society, Kiltegan, Co. Wicklow, in June/July 1974, Trócaire’s director stressed the new agency’s commitment to tackling the underlying causes of poverty in the Third World:

Trócaire could collect much more money if we adopted a different policy of fund-raising. But this would not be in the interest of the Third World. You can put up the image of a starving child, which will evoke sentiments of pity and fill collection boxes, without telling the people why the child is starving, without attacking the causes of the problem. The starving child may be a good fund-raising gimmick, if your aim as an agency is the collection of the largest amount of money, irrespective of the underlying needs of the Third World or the feelings of people whose dignity is continually hurt by being shown on posters and appeals as wretched and starving. Such gimmicks can wound international relations irreparably.

During the first full year of Trócaire’s existence various papers, both local and national, reported on the amounts of money that the agency was allocating to projects in developing countries. The Irish News, for example, in October 1974 said that Trócaire had allocated almost £440,000 towards Third World projects since the previous December. ‘The latest grants are for medium- and long-term development programmes aimed at tackling the causes of underdevelopment rather than treating the symptoms,’ the paper made clear. It went on to say that funds were given to people and groups working on the ground, ‘in keeping with Trócaire’s policy of encouraging local participation and initiative’.

From the outset, Trócaire effectively conveyed to the Irish public, via the media, what it was really about. In doing so, it also managed to get across that it was not just about providing disaster relief. Nor was it about converting people to the faith or building churches in the developing world because there were already other organisations in existence providing support and funding in those areas.

However, not everyone in the media was convinced that it was all sweetness and light in the new agency. An article in Hibernia (8 November 1974) suggested that tension existed between the director of Trócaire and the bishops, the legal trustees. The article asserted that Brian McKeown was too radical for them, that they wanted Trócaire to send money to help missionaries and to repair damage after disasters anywhere in the world, while Mr McKeown wanted to channel funds to people on the ground who best knew how they should be spent. His actions, the article argued, made it obvious that he wanted ‘to help create an anti-imperialist consciousness in the Third World, rather than merely giving money to local disaster cases’. The article went on to declare that Mr McKeown had fallen foul of a number of Irish bishops and it expressed doubt that he would be able to continue on his independent course for long.

A fortnight later, Bishop Casey had a letter published by Hibernia in which he described the article as ‘mischievous and misinformed’. The bishop said that all proposals for funding for projects were submitted to the executive committee of Trócaire for recommendation to the trustees, who made the final decision, and that Mr McKeown did not make independent decisions on projects. Bishop Casey made it clear that it was the trustees, i.e. the bishops, who controlled funding for projects.

When asked about this Hibernia article in a recent interview, Mr McKeown said that the best evidence for refuting it lies in the fact that it was the bishops who employed him. They knew what they were getting when they did so and they also knew very well what the policy of the new development agency was going to be since, he said, they approved of that policy in their February 1973 pastoral letter on development which established Trócaire.

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