Inagh man Damien Queally gave up his life as a successful economist to work in some of the world’s poorest countries.
Eight years ago, when the Irish economy was in full flight, Inagh’s Damien Queally turned his back on a promising career as an economist with one of the country’s top banks to become an aid worker.
Having worked with various agencies in India, Uganda, Niger, Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur in Sudan, Damien is now back in Ireland working as programmes’ manager with the children’s development organisation, Plan Ireland.
“Plan is relatively new in Ireland but internationally it is very well known and respected. It is one of the oldest and largest development agencies and directly supports more than 1.5 million children and their families in Africa, Asia and the America’s. Another 9 million people benefit from the development programmes being implemented by Plan in 49 countries” he says.
Although his latest job is mainly office based, it also involves regular visits abroad each year to ensure that programmes are being properly implemented.
“Plan receives tremendous support from the Irish public, 8,500 of whom sponsor children, the government through its Irish Aid Programme and also several companies so it is vital, especially in these times of financial stringency, to ensure that there is no waste,” he explains. Damien recently returned from a visit to Burkina Faso in West Africa, the second poorest country in the world, where Plan is implementing programmes that address some of the health, nutrition and education problems facing children there.
“Thankfully, most people in Ireland have no idea what real poverty is like. The people of Burkina Faso, on the other hand, know only too well the pain of hunger and the despair of watching their children die due to the lack of medicines or simply because they do not have enough food.
“Children make up 53% of the population of Burkina Faso but school enrolments are extremely low, especially at secondary level. This results in extremely low literacy rates, particularly amongst girls which means that future generations do not have the skills to lift themselves out of poverty and so the problems persist from generation to generation,” he outlines.
Plan is trying to help break this cycle of poverty by improving schools and making them accessible to more children.
Damien visited one such educational programme and says the work that he saw being done there is inspirational in that it is changing community attitudes to education, especially for girls.
“Girls often miss out on education in poor communities and Burkina Faso is no exception. If money is tight boys almost always get first choice at whatever educational opportunities there are while their sisters are compelled to work either in the home or elsewhere,” Damien explains.
Plan is trying to address this issue in Burkina Faso and elsewhere by improving schools, making them more attractive to girls and more affordable for parents.
“This programme is mainly about convincing people that the pathway out of poverty is through education,” said Damien.
“One of the schools I visited, in a place called Batie, is typical of this and it is so successful in instilling a desire for education that the demand for places was such that many applicants had to be turned away because class sizes were far too high. There are 96 students in the first year! It is unfortunate that some children have to be turned away but the funds are just not there yet to build more schools,” he laments.
AIDS is another extremely serious issue facing children in Burkina Faso and it has orphaned an estimated 120,000 of them. Many
of Plan’s educational programmes include an HIV/AIDS component with peer educator groups being established in schools to develop programmes on HIV/ AIDS sensitisation and associated activities.
Hunger is an ever-present problem for many of Burkina Faso’s children also. According to figures issued by UNICEF, 37% of them are underweight and 14% of them severely.
Damien visited two nutrition centres during his visit. One of these, which was in the Regional Hospital, was a therapeutic feeding centre for children with more advanced malnutrition while the other was in a health centre and was supplementary in nature.
Plan’s support to nutrition programmes is through government structures such as nutrition centres and clinics and the food provided to children in the nutrition centres is in line with the national protocol.
Children get a full medical check up when admitted to the therapeutic feeding centre and are treated not just for malnutrition but for any other illness they may have.
As if this was not enough to bear, the children of Burkina Faso must deal with regular outbreaks of meningitis and a distressing condition called guinea worm disease which is caught by drinking water infested with microscopic eggs of a species of worm. The worm grows inside the body and emerges when adult through the skin, usually on the leg. It is a distressing and excruciatingly painful condition.
Despite all the hardships they have to deal with the children in Burkina Faso are, says Damien, remarkably upbeat.
“Everywhere I went I met children who were so hungry for knowledge and determined to get an education. The message is finally hitting home that the only way for them to change things for a better future is through education. Plan is doing what it can to help them and we really do need the support of the Irish public.
“I would appeal to the people of Clare to please do what they can. They can sponsor a child and the money can totally transform their life,” he says.
Damien adds that if people want to organise a fundraiser for Plan they can log on to www.plan.ie or phone 1800 829 829.