One of the most remarkable things about Trócaire, according to Seán Farrell, director of the charity’s international division, is its reach. Best known to Irish people as the Irish bishops’ relief and development agency, the organisation is part of the Church’s global relief and development agency Caritas Internationalis, second in scale only to the Red Cross as a relief organisation and to UNESCO as a development one.
“I think if you look at Caritas and its structure, what makes it completely unique is that practically every country in the world has a Caritas structure,” says Seán. “What makes it unique is that it is such a global family. That’s the first thing. It is right across Latin America, North America, Africa, the whole continent, the Middle East, right into Asia. It allows the Catholic Church to respond quickly and effectively to humanitarian crises no matter where they happen.”
As an example, he says, when Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in November 2013, Trócaire was able to respond within hours through the Caritas network, with the same being said of other natural disasters such as the Nepal earthquake of April 2015.
“Because this global structure is in place through the Catholic Church it means that for us as an organisation it will always be our first port of call to get in touch with the local Caritas in a country where a natural disaster hits, and to help them in two ways,” he says. “One, obviously, is financial resources which are important – we raise money and provide them with the resources in order to do the work – but the other thing that we do as an organisation from time to time is also provide technical support. We send people with particular skills that are needed in that humanitarian crisis.”
Originally from Longford, Seán has worked with Trócaire since 1999, having had a variety of roles in the organisation, including spending six years in Uganda and two in Zimbabwe for two years, and now heads the international division which oversees Trócaire’s work in 20 countries.
“So as part of that role, obviously I travel extensively and then I work with our teams on the ground across all those countries,” he says.
“What makes Caritas unique is that it has such a massive, broad membership all over the world. It’s locally owned, it’s not for example a bunch of Germans or a bunch of Irish or a bunch of English running Caritas Malawi – it is Malawians on behalf of the Malawian Catholic Church,” he says. “It is an integral part of the Church’s work in every country, and what makes it unique is the global presence of the network and the fact that we all work through local partnership in terms of the work that we do.”
The partnership model, where Trócaire and other Caritas agencies always work closely with local groups is, Seán says, not simply an effective vehicle for development, but something with its own intrinsic value.
“We believe that for example the development of Cambodia should be led and driven by Cambodians, the development of Malawi should be led, driven, and owned by Malawians. And we are simply partners in that mission,” he says, explaining that development needs to be driven by local people who can determine their own needs, their own responses, and their own future.
“Because what happens with international organisations is we all come and go, that’s the truth. And ultimately the future of Malawi or Cambodia is going to have to be forged by Malawians and Cambodians,” he says.
Typically working in about 22 countries every year, depending on humanitarian catastrophes, Trócaire is increasingly having to deal with countries being hit by droughts on increasingly frequent cycles, Seán says.
“I travelled with a number of Irish bishops to Kenya last year to look at the impact that the drought was having in northern Kenya,” he says. “At the same time it was decimating crops in southern Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, but we’re now seeing these challenges come at us every 18-24 months. I think even 10 years ago these were events that happened in five- to seven-year cycles”
This increasing frequency of droughts goes a long way to explaining Trócaire’s huge emphasis on climate change of late. “It is about helping people to connect those dots really,” he says. “We are a development and humanitarian organisation, and with our local partners on the ground what we see on an increasing basis is that the people who are paying the highest price for climate change are the ones whose lifestyles contribute least to creating the problem.”
Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ is, he says, a real call to action for today’s world. “I think that we are dealing very much on a daily basis with the impact of what the Pope speaks about in Laudato Si’, which is that climate change is now delivering more uncertain and unpredictable futures to some of the poorest people on the planet,” he says.
Naturally this means that Trócaire is engaged in advocacy and in working with people who are on the coalface of climate change, dealing with prolonged droughts and sudden deluges.
“We find ourselves working with farmers who are responding to the crisis, and also helping them to prevent it, doing work around irrigation, doing work around water storage, doing work around different seeds that are maybe shorter grain seeds that grow quicker and can be harvested quicker because this is about helping these communities to adapt because the climate is changing for them,” he says.
“And it’s also about drawing attention constantly as we do in Ireland to the impact of climate change and to the moral questions that I think are presented to all of us. I suppose when Pope Francis speaks about it he is putting in front of us the big moral question of our time.”
On the ground, Trócaire helps around 2.8 million people every year, Seán says, describing how privileged he feels to meet so many people who the charity helps, and how aware he is that it is only through the kindness and generosity of ordinary Irish people that is possible.
“I’m lucky enough in what I do that I get to meet thousands of those people every year,” he says.
“Whether we provide people with medical attention, whether we provide them with education, whether we provide them with support where we give them water or seeds or tools, whether we provide them with support when they’ve suffered violence, no matter how we’ve reached any of those 2.8 million people, I’m always very aware when I lived in Africa or now when I travel so much that we only really do this because of the support we get from people.
“Where people do leave us a gift in their wills, where they leave us a legacy, our message always is that every donation matters, and that no matter how small or how large that donation is, it all matters and makes a huge difference in terms of what we do,” he says.