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Fiona O'Reilly interviews John O'Shea
On the go for 25 years GOAL continues to carry out the mission of its founder John O Shea, in assisting the world's poorest people. "We are not there only to help provide basic needs in terms of food water shelter health care etc, more importantly we are there to show the poor we care". John describes the organisations ethos as centring on 'love of the poor, when we love, we care and when we care we do the right thing". I interviewed John for Field Exchange in the same spot as he had interviewed me fourteen years ago for a volunteer position in Sudan. The venue was the lounge in the Royal Marine hotel in Dun Laoghaire (South Dublin). John uses the hotel for meeting people, a hang over from the days when there was no room for this in the GOAL office and indeed from before that to the days when there was no GOAL office. It's also convenient, as he can't be disturbed or more likely distracted by the bustling business of the energetic humanitarian organisation.
John himself over the years has got good press and bad press but always press, because he always has an opinion and is not afraid to give it regardless of how controversial it may be. John hates injustice and screams from the mountain tops when he sees it. He feels the same indignation and outrage today when he sees a child die of hunger or not having access to basic health care as he did 25 years ago. He is not afraid of being critical and taking on governments if that's what he thinks needs to be done. John is no diplomat. He comes from the same bolchie Irish school as Bob Geldof where you're taught to say it as it is (or as least as you see it) and embarrass people and organisations into living up to what you see as their responsibilities. John knows his strengths and weaknesses "I'm not a good listener and I've no patience but I can get things done".
Prior to establishing GOAL, John was a sports journalist (making the rationale behind the organisation's name obvious) but he also did volunteer work for the Simon community.1 What was often needed he recalled was the ability to just sit and listen to homeless peoples' problems for hours on the streets of Dublin "I wasn't very good at that but if someone wanted a roof over his head I could make it happen". The other thing John discovered he was good at was organising events and raising funds. Over 25 years ago when it was frowned upon to watch a soccer match rather than support the national sport -Gaelic football, John pulled off a coup in getting the Dublin Gaelic football team to play soccer as a fundraiser for the Simon community. This was a remarkable achievement in a country where today the bid for hosting the 2006 European cup may be scuppered by reluctance to allow soccer be played on the 'holy ground' of the Gaelic football Association. To this day GOAL's fundraising sporting events are supported by sporting heroes like John Mac Enroe. Pat Cash, Padraig Harrington, and Sonia O'Sullivan.
Although John applauded the work of the Simon community he did not feel completely suited to it and so began looking for other channels through which to direct his considerable energies.
When he first looked into the problems of developing countries to see if he could do anything to help, the breadth and complexity of the problems overwhelmed him. However when he came across a Fr. Pat O'Mahoney trying to raise money to feed the starving on the streets of Calcutta he found himself saying "how much do you need?" quickly followed by "I'll get it". A visit to India made him realise that the enormity of the problems and the limited scope to make an impact was not an excuse to walk away but a reason to try harder to make a difference. He didn't however feel that the solution was feeding people on the streets as "the scramble for food meant the strongest and not the weakest got it". He was encouraged by work being done to provide Mother and Child health services and quickly identified motivated and committed Indian professionals and groups who required his support. On arriving back in Ireland he convinced Irish Aid to commit £40,000 for a MCH Training School. This was the start of GOAL. "I convinced a few friends to commit a small amount of money for administrative costs and set about raising funds to support and implement projects" he says.
It was on this trip in 1977 when John met Mother Teresa. "I was fortunate enough to be stuck in a car with Mother Teresa for 2 hours on the way to a leper colony. Being a journalist I asked her 8 million questions on the way there and 9 million on the way back. Being me I couldn't remember any of the questions I had asked or any of the answers" he explained "but what I did remember was looking out the window and being overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people and enormity of the poverty. I asked Mother Teresa did she really think she was making any impact on any of it. 'What we do is this' Mother Teresa said 'we pick up the poor, the starving and the destitute and shower them with love and affection. This might not be the best thing to do but it is the right thing to do'." This response inspired and still influences John's approach to humanitarian work.
The next country GOAL became operational in was Cambodia, prompted by John Pilgers report on the atrocities caused by Pol Pot. GOAL sent doctors and nurses to work in the Cambodian Refugee camps in Thailand. GOAL continued to send staff overseas from this point.
John is humble about his organisations' ability to make significant changes however those familiar with GOAL's current projects in 12 African 4 Asian 2 Central American and 3 east European countries can see the organisations' concrete achievements. GOAL is involved in emergency health and nutrition work in Afghanistan, Malawi, Sudan, DRC, Angola and Ethiopia. Though GOAL responds to problems of the poor rather than specialising in particular kinds of interventions it has, over recent years built capacity in food security and the agricultural sector. GOAL's largest programme is in Afghanistan with an overall budget of almost $10 million. School rehabilitation and sports projects are co-ordinated in Kabul, while in Mazar-I-Sharif in northern Afghanistan GOAL is the lead agency for the WFP's food distribution programmes. In Samangan and Jawzjan provinces GOAL implements cash for work, food for asset creation and agricultural rehabilitation programmes. In Malawi GOAL is involved in general ration distributions, supplementary feeding and provides nutritional training for MoPH professionals. GOAL is currently registering in Zimbabwe with a view to becoming operational. In DRC GOAL is involved in food security and infrastructure rehabilitation programmes as well as emergency primary health care provision. In Angola GOAL is responding to the emergency following the signing of the peace accord. In Ethiopia, supplementary feeding and emergency health programmes have expanded in the Afar and Oromia regions in the past three months.
Since its foundation GOAL has spent over ?175million on its humanitarian programmes deploying over 900 GOAL volunteers. From the beginning of 1997 it has received a total of ?16.6 million from the Irish government representing a total of 15% income in corresponding period.
The volunteer ethos is important to GOAL. "We have been very lucky with the hundreds of highly professional volunteers who have given up so much to assist the poor in other countries". When asked about the drive towards professionalisation and minimum standards amongst humanitarian agencies John appears moderately tolerant and supportive of related developments "as long as it doesn't waste money." I got the distinct feeling that others within GOAL are the main impetus behind striving for increased professionalism within the organisation. Neither will he limit or pigeon hole the organisation into a development or emergency slot. "We are in the business of solving problems and problems have so many strands, we're not going to say we'll deal with this one and not the other". Basically GOAL responds to the needs of the poor wherever these are evident, i.e. in a stable situation or emergency. GOAL adheres to Sphere minimum standards in disaster relief and other international protocols for humanitarian practice.
O'Shea has strong views and has criticised the Irish government and others for bilateral aid policies that he said often put money into the hands of corrupt leaders with little chance of getting services to the intended beneficiaries. He is however less clear about viable alternatives but has great praise for the work of the missionaries and NGOs like GOAL. He accepts that these players are too small to provide comprehensive programmes like health services to whole countries and believes that bilateral donors should by-pass corrupt national governments and provide direct service resources. "Uganda is one of the biggest exporters of diamonds in Africa, which it looted from its neighbour DRC, and our government still gives the Uganda government huge amounts of money". John acknowledges that he doesn't have all the answers but is adamant that by and large politicians do not care and in broad terms the plight of the poor today is as it was 25 years ago because the international community doesn't care either. "A global revolution of thought is necessary for the situation to change," he says.
"GOAL cannot make the changes that need to be made, this is the job of governments" John would like to see the Irish government "taking on the cause of the poor nations and having the moral courage to stand up for the poorest countries". He attributes the huge increase in DFAs aid contributions to years of dedicated work and advocacy by the missionaries and organisations like GOAL. "If we can create the space and provide the impetus for others to enact their responsibilities to the poor than we have done something, in the meantime we'll continue to provide assistance where we are needed" he says.
Taken from Field Exchange Issue 17, November 2002