Every community deserves the chance to develop and thrive

Dóchas' series on Irish people working in the international development sector.
Joanne Galvin, UNICEF

05 Oct 2022

"Aid is about helping people to help themselves, making sure they are invested in their own future. It’s a slow process but every community, from rural Ireland to rural Africa deserves the chance to develop and thrive." - Joanne Galvin

I grew up in a new housing estate in Waterford in the 1970’s and 80’s, and I just remember being outside playing with all the other kids all day. Like my dad, everyone’s parents seemed to work in Waterford Crystal and so I really felt a sense of community and camaraderie. I went to one of the first co-ed community colleges and it really felt like a microcosm of the bigger world.   Like any community, there was trouble to be found for those who wanted it, but luckily I was very involved in swimming so had something to focus on.

During my Erasmus year working in a lab in Germany for my degree in biochemistry in UCD, I realised this wasn’t the career I wanted.  My dad wasn’t very impressed I wasn’t going to put my degree to good use, but he supported my decision to do a Masters in Rural Development.   It was one of the first of its kind and although I didn’t come from a rural background, I got swept up in the energy and excitement that was stemming from the European Union support and funding that came into being in 1991, and Ireland benefiting from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and European Social Fund (ESF) and the surge in attention around community development.  All my professors where from the Department of Agriculture, and as part of Irish Aid had gone overseas to train and share their expertise. They’d have come back from Tanzania and other African countries, inspiring me with their experiences working in the development of communities and rural extension overseas.

Ireland was involved with the LEADER programme that provides funding to support community-led rural development, and through my Masters I got interested in people and business development. I realised I had a skill in facilitating community groups and ended up working for LEADER with companies in the East of Waterford and eventually the whole South East region supporting communities to set up projects and social enterprises. But after being inspired by my teachers I knew I wanted to go and work overseas.

My boyfriend, at the time, and I applied to The Agency for Personal Services Overseas (APSO), who sent graduates overseas. Looking back, I’m not sure what work or life experience we brought to the projects at the tender ages of 25 but our lives certainly benefited.  I was sent to Swaziland (now Eswatini) to work with UNICEF for two years and met the most fantastic people. I was given the job of Project Officer for Water, Environment and Sanitation and I remember it was the first time I ever used email.  The UNICEF programme at the time was actually a sub-office of Mozambique, and I learned so much in terms of putting plans into action, and worked on awareness campaigns around sanitation and washing hands. The things we take for granted like clean water and sanitation can have such a profound impact when it isn’t there.  It was a hugely interesting time in the late 1990’s because Nelson Mandela had just been elected and because Eswatini borders South Africa, it was caught up in the feeling of potential that was around that time.  

During my two years there I got married and conceived my son and the whole experience had such an impact on my life. So much so that many years later, my husband Mick and I brought our three children back in 2013 for a nine-week trip of southern Africa including South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi. The kids were 10, 13 and 15 at the time and it was an amazing experience for them. In fact, my eldest was so taken with Africa, he’s been working in Ghana for the last few years.   We went to visit him this summer and being an all year daily swimmer here in Ireland, I was looking forward to swimming in the gorgeous Atlantic Ocean. My son Fionn had warned me though that there is terrible pollution but until you see it you can’t believe it.  Just like climate change, the damage is often felt most by the poorest countries who don’t cause it. To see the level of rubbish in the sea, rubbish that has come from countries like Ireland which is sold to China and ends up being dumped in the sea is horrific. It was the rainy season and so the water was churned up and the rubbish washed up on the beautiful shores.  It reminds me how much we are a global community and responsible for everyone.

Obviously, I saw the impact that development can make to the lives of the very poor. Gaining access to clean water, improving sanitation practices to prevent disease have such a transformative impact on the lives of individuals, families and communities. 

But I was also able to see first-hand how supporting someone personally is transformative My husband worked with street children through the Salesian Brothers and we got involved with a few of the boys by putting them through school. We paid the schools directly and made sure they had the uniforms, books and access to school.  It began when we developed a theatre company called Power to Be Your Best and we secured some grants to fund a number of performances and art therapy. It had a huge impact on some of the kids - even from the point of view of giving them somewhere to go and get them off the streets where drugs are a huge problem. There were four boys in particular who we could see were so bright and interested in learning and so we made the commitment to put them through secondary school.

It’s exactly the same in the estates I grew up in and today on the streets of Waterford. If we can provide structure and something to focus on for kids, they’re much less likely to end up in trouble.

After my two years in Eswatini I came back and raised my family in Ireland but continued to work in community enterprise until 2014. Communities are the same everywhere, the only difference is some have the potential to support everyone and thrive, while others don’t. I always remember Mick’s mother coming to visit us in Swaziland. She was from Belmullet in Co Mayo and had studied for a degree in Commerce which was unusual for a woman in the the 1950’s. She was so observant and I always remember her saying to me, “You know, this is very like Ireland 40 years ago.” That was mid 90’s and she was right. We’re all the same. Aid is about helping people to help themselves, making sure they are invested in their own future. It’s a slow process but every community, from rural Ireland to rural Africa deserves the chance to develop and thrive.


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