GOAL helping to change lives in West Africa 

Former GAA President Christy Cooney sits of the board of development agency GOAL. Here he write about the work they do in countries like Sierra Leone.
GOAL helping to change lives in West Africa 
Former GAA president Christy Cooney at one of the GOAL projects in Sierra Leone.

It's a 30-minute drive from Youghal to Carrigtwohill, without breaking any speed limits.

The road is dual carriageway from Midleton and those of us who live east of the Lake View Roundabout spend a fair amount of time bemoaning the single lane road we are forced to endure until that point.

A few weeks ago, I discovered we have little enough to complain about.

I was in Sierra Leone, in West Africa, for a week as a member of the board of GOAL.

I travelled the same distance, 38 kilometres, from Kenema to Kebawana in the east of the country.

It took more than two and a half hours, over the worst roads I’ve ever encountered.

As the rainy season comes to an end, the dirt roads are impassable to all but 4x4s and the small motorbikes which most of the local population use to get around – often with four or five people on board.

At one stage, we had to help push a large truck - which had met its match in a particularly bad section of road - out of the way so we could complete our journey, something I’ve never had to do between Youghal and Carrigtwohill!

The arduous journey was worth it though.

On reaching the village of Kebawana we discovered most of the population of 120 waiting for us.

The village’s well has been broken for more than two years ago and the people have had to rely on a local stream for water. This is far more unreliable that a well, obviously, being dependent on rainfall in a country with long dry periods.

It has more significant consequences than convenience and reliability however, as the use of the open stream has increased illness associated with dirty water – particularly amongst the most vulnerable villagers, the very old and the very young.

There aren’t too many of the very old in Sierra Leone as the average life expectancy is just 51 years. While a million of the 6.5 million population of Sierra Leone are under five, mortality amongst children under five is 40 times greater than it is in Ireland.

Over the next few weeks, GOAL with the support of Irish Aid will get the Kebawana borehole up and running – fixing it and deepening it to ensure a reliable and continuous source of clean water into the future.

The overall project, to rehabilitate 10 such wells, will cost less than €20,000, a small price to pay for the health and well-being of over a thousand people for many years in to the future.

People often question the value of overseas development aid and the work of NGOs.

I became Chair of GOAL’s Audit & Risk Committee this year, and as a consequence, it is often my job to ask tough questions about the work we do, and whether it constitutes value for money.

It is very hard though, when confronted with an isolated community of very poor people, with no access to the services most of us take for granted, to deny the value of what overseas development aid achieves.

Admittedly, I am using a very small example to illustrate my point.

It is worth saying however, that the work of overseas development aid is making enormous strides.

Sierra Leone is a very poor country, with an average per capita annual income of just $1,500.

It faces enormous challenges in terms of governance, infrastructure, education and health.

Those challenges were exacerbated by the Ebola outbreak of 2014 and 2015, which claimed over 4,000 lives in a country with one of the world’s weakest health systems and threatened for a time to become a global health crisis.

In the country since 1999, GOAL was well placed to assist when Ebola broke out and is widely acknowledged as having excelled at the worst time in the country's history. Typically of GOAL, we scaled up to meet the challenges of Ebola, at a time when many other organisations were leaving the country.

Now thankfully that crisis is well behind Sierra Leone but many more mundane challenges remain.

Progress is being made, however.

The mortality rate among the under-fives fell from 378 deaths per thousand live births in 1966 to 122 deaths per thousand live births in 2015.

As I said earlier, at 40 times Ireland’s rate, that is far too high, but it is improving measurably.

Economic development you feel is crucial to moving beyond aid, and one would hope that a country with vast natural resources would be able to harness them for the long-term benefit of all its people.

Clearly, infrastructure needs to be improved. It is particularly challenging to improve and maintain road networks when violent rainfall does such damage in short, sharp bursts.

We also know, in Ireland, that vast improvement is possible over a relatively short time if the public and governmental will exists, and as in Ireland’s case you have international financial support.

I was standing one morning on the first-floor balcony of the GOAL office in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital city, when a boy of 14 or 15 emerged from what you could only describe as a shack opposite.

These are buildings constructed from scrap metal and timber, seen all over Freetown, wherever a piece of waste ground can be occupied.

None of what we see as essential services are accessed easily in these homes. Cooking, cleaning and raising a family must be difficult to say the least without running water, electricity or sanitation services.

Nonetheless, this young man was wearing a pristine school uniform, complete with a dazzling white shirt.

You can only feel hope for a country where young people, against such odds, go about their education with such determination and pride.

With the help of organisations like GOAL, and of the people of Ireland, I hope that that young man’s obvious ambition will be rewarded one day and he will be able to make a future for himself in his own country.

As I reminded several people in Sierra Leone, it is not so long since we saw such a future as a very long way off for Ireland.

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