Bandon native Anne O’Mahony has worked with Concern Worldwide for over 30 years in roles ranging from helping Khmer refugees in Thailand to dealing with famines in Africa, writes Kieran O’Mahony
THE fact that a famine in South Sudan hardly made the headlines around the world is something Anne O’Mahony, international programmes director for Concern Worldwide, finds disturbing.
‘It concerns me hugely because I think we all have a responsibility for a better world and I suppose as an aid agency ourselves there’s only so much we can do without the support of the public and the support of the international community. We’re doing a huge amount but there’s an awful lot more that we can and should be doing,’ said Anne.
Dealing with these crises around the world is something that she has become accustomed to throughout her time with Concern. From starting out as a volunteer with the charity to now managing its international programme, it’s a role that Anne finds challenging but also hugely rewarding.
She was recently back in Cork to speak at an event to mark International Nurses Day (IND). The event discussed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and how a qualification in nursing gives an excellent grounding for those wishing to work in the humanitarian sector.
‘The type of training we got in nursing made us fit to take on any role you could throw at us. It makes you think, it makes you manage, it makes you decisive and it enables you to grow parts of yourself that you may not grow if you had picked another career.’
Anne completed her nursing training in the Bon Secours Hospital in Cork before going on to study midwifery at Holles Street in Dublin. Her decision to study nursing had always been part of her masterplan to enable her to work overseas.
‘I applied to Concern and lo and behold they took a chance on me and sent me off to Thailand back in 1982 to work with refugees on the Cambodian border. That was exciting,’ said Anne, who was tasked with managing a feeding centre there.
This was the start of what was supposed to have been a two-year volunteer stint with the charity in Thailand but about half way through everything changed.
‘I only spent a year there and then the famine in Ethiopia began to take hold and I was transferred there for my second year. I’m convinced that if I had stayed in Thailand for my two years as a volunteer I would have come home at the end of that two years and never gone out again.’
Ethiopia, was everything that Anne had expected in terms of what she signed up for.
‘We were living in tents in the middle of nowhere, it was the beginnings of the famine in 1983 and we were there a year before the famine broke in the headlines around the world. It was hard and there was malnutrition all over the place but we were doing a fantastic job.’
The realisation that it was possible to turn people’s lives around and enable them to survive got into her system and never left.
‘I stayed in Ethiopia until about 1987 and then I went onto Somalia and then Sudan. The longer I stayed with Concern the more I moved away from nursing and into more of a management role. By the time I got to Sudan in 1989, I was country director for Concern, and that was really a baptism of fire. I was thrown into the deep end,’ said Anne.
As well as dealing with a staff of almost 300 local and international people, Anne and her team also had the tricky task of dealing with governments, negotiating contracts, checking on security issues as well as budgeting and finding the money to do what they needed to do.
‘It was the start of Gulf War in 1990 and Sudan was one of six countries to fight in support of Saddam Hussein, and so the international community responded by closing international air space. So, I then had to make the decision whether to keep 40 international staff locked in a country that they couldn’t get out of or evacuate them all.’ Anne made the decision to evacuate all the international staff to nearby Nairobi.
‘Three of us stayed behind so we could keep the offices open and the programmes going and to ensure that we would be in a good position when the threat had passed to enable people to come back in. They were exciting times alright!’
Anne is now based in Dublin and has worked in her current role since the end of 2013 where she manages Concern’s oversea fields – a job which she describes as ‘busy and interesting.’
‘I go and visit our various countries on a reasonably regular basis but not too often. A lot of what I’m doing at the moment is looking at a growing problem of famine in Nigeria and its impact on neighbouring countries like Niger and Chad. We’re also looking to get into Yemen as there is a huge amount going on there.’
Anne added that as well as being very busy, it can be frustrating work at times. ‘It’s hard to work in areas where we can see very clearly what we can and should be doing, but we just can’t. Concern is not a lone operator and we link in with the World Food Programme. We have meetings in a couple of weeks in Rome to look at what we are now calling the Four Famines, in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen.’
For anyone interested in working in the humanitarian sector Anne recommends that they should first get a suitable qualification in an area like teaching, nursing or engineering and they should also be prepared to work as a volunteer or intern for a period of time.
Despite working in what were often incredibly difficult conditions over the years Anne wouldn’t have it any other way.
‘I’ve had a very privileged life really, to have been able to work and live in a variety of countries and it’s been wonderful.’