Women of Aidlink

Anne Cleary

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I grew up in Dublin, the second in of five children, 4 girls and a boy, my Mum from Kerry, and Dad from Tipperary – my rural roots are very important to me! From when I was in primary school, when asked “what are you going to be when you grow up?” I would say “I am going to be a nurse and go to Africa”. I never changed my mind.

I trained as a nurse in St. Michael’s Hospital in Dun Laoghaire and then onto London’s Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital to do paediatric nursing. I loved nursing, I didn’t always love night duty and there were challenging days but I remember my time nursing as a really happy one.

I volunteered with GOAL in 1990 and was posted to Ethiopia. There I had a very unique experience as I was seconded to work for a local NGO, Bruh Tesfa (now AGOHELMA), supporting vulnerable children. Bruh Tesfa was founded and led by Abebech Gobena, the ‘Mother Teresa of Africa’. Working with Abebech gave me a very unique perspective – I was a staff member in a local organisation, my boss was an Ethiopian woman, and my colleagues were all Ethiopian. Together we worked to improve health outcomes for the orphans and vulnerable children attending school in Bruh Tesfa and worked to extend the health care facilities to include vulnerable women and children from the surrounding Merkato district of Addis Ababa.

Can you tell us about someone who inspired/inspires you?
My parents were very influential, particularly my late father, who worked in community development in Ireland. He was the CEO of Foróige and while their agenda was domestic, the principles and values of personal and community development had no boarders for him. He was passionate, committed and caring – he remains a great inspiration to me today.

Where did you draw your professional inspiration from?
My time in Ethiopia had a tremendous impact on my professional life. The localised nature of that experience and the people I met there influenced my choices ever since. In addition to Abebech Gobena, I was also inspired by Terry Dutto, a passionate Italian with a huge amount of empathy who worked from an Italian NGO in Ethiopia. I loved the way he lived and worked, and the respect, dignity and confidence he showed to the community and his Ethiopian colleagues. Another person who inspired me while working in Ethiopia was a Holy Ghost brother named Brother Gus O’Keefe. He was modest and understated and treated everyone as equals.

How did you begin your career in human rights and development?
After Ethiopia I came home and worked with GOAL full-time in communications and development education. That gave me the opportunity to work in a number of emergency response teams, the most notable being Rwanda in 1994. I spent a short but significantly impactful time in Rwanda. I was one of the first English speaking nurses on the ground, working in the refugee camps on the Rwanda / Zaire boarder. It was an extraordinary experience, impacting me both personally and professionally.

My time in Rwanda made me think about where I wanted to be, who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. When I combined all I had learned at home, in Ethiopia and in Rwanda, I developed a real belief in development work. For me working and walking with local NGOs and communities, tackling poverty and injustice early is the only sensible option.

I first heard about Aidlink through a Blackrock College fundraising initiative supporting both Aidlink and GOAL. In some ways, it was a seamless transition. Working with local partners, supporting long-term poverty alleviation programmes and working with communities so that they would never find themselves in the position of the Rwandans in ’94 or the Somalians did in ’93, was the real motivation for me. I was driven by the partnership approach: trusting in African colleagues and communities, working towards lasting change.

What was one of the most pivotal moments in your career?
From an Aidlink point of view, meeting Mercy Musomi, CEO of Aidlink’s longstanding partner the Girl Child Network in Kenya, and the partnership and friendship that blossomed from this was pivotal. It was a real turning point the when that partnership became a reality: when two organisations, with different cultures and backgrounds could come together, share values and a vision of the future, work together to achieve tangible results among targeted communities. As partners, we began speaking out about “delicate issues” such as sanitary towels and FGM, and in a way we shared the burden of talking about these issues and gave one another confidence in taking steps to challenge negative social norms in targeted communities. We figured out how to work together bringing our unique perspective, skills, knowledge and capabilities to address core issues to improve the lives of targeted girls and women in Kenya. Our unique model of partnership is replicated among other partners across Uganda.

What is your favourite part of your job?
My favourite part of the job is working with partner organisations visiting communities we work with and spending time with them. In the early days of monitoring and evaluation, we would measure impact simply through counting the number of latrines, protected springs and children in school, all of which are important pieces of information, but insufficient. We need to try to better understand the challenges people face and the real impact of interventions by interacting directly with the community. We are always the ones asking questions, and over the years I have learned that we learn more and gain deeper understanding when we not only ask the questions but answer them as well! Whether it’s about Irish culture, the weather and rain patterns, family life or even about similar challenges in Ireland such as teenage pregnancies and gender-based violence. Spending time with community members, building relationships, listening to people and learning from them is critical. This sharing can be the key to better programming and better outcomes.

For me the immersion programme is an extension of that relationship building. It’s a real joy watching young people engage with each other, sit together in a school setting, look one another in the eye, exploring similarities and differences and over the course of a few days seeing preconceived perceptions and notions about each other dissolve and be rebuilt. Development is about people and people are my favourite part of the job!

Do you feel the opportunities for women and girls are growing? What changes need to occur to ensure gender equality becomes a reality for women and girls in Ireland and in the global south?
I think in Ireland the gender balance has definitely improved. When I was in school, career guidance for girls was steered toward secretarial and nursing roles. For many, nursing was a traditional role, but for me it was a passion and a passport! Clearly education has been extraordinarily significant in Ireland. Most young people stay in school until they are 18 and continue to study at third level. Expectations have changed and girls are now allowed and encouraged to dream big. Saying that, I think it can be very difficult for a young girl in Ireland today because she is expected to be everything: ambitious, academic, sporty, even body perfect. The bar is very high, and as a society we have to help manage these expectations.

I believe education was a key driver of change in Ireland and I believe it has been and will be in Africa too. We have to be careful when speaking about Africa, because many countries, communities and villages are at different stages of development. Aidlink works with targeted communities who still live a very traditional way of life and I think it will take some time before we see the real change. I do believe “you have to see it to believe it” – that it’s really important for girls in Kenya and Uganda to see roles models such as Mercy, CEO of GCN and Agnes, CEO of ARUWE excel in their leadership roles effecting change in their own countries. In the same way, it’s important for girls here in Ireland to see women in leadership roles across all sectors of society.

What would you tell young women who are just starting out to work? What would you like them to know?
Find the thing that is highly motivating for you. For me, it is very easy to get out of bed in the morning because I am doing a job that I believe in, that has value and purpose and that makes a difference. Pick the studies and career that interests you, you can adapt your learning and skillset to do anything that you want to do. Have confidence in yourself – work hard – be happy!

How did you come to be involved with Aidlink? What makes Aidlink special to you?
I became CEO of Aidlink in 1997. I was drawn to the concept and model of partnership. I really like the small size of the organisation, because it allows you to be engaged and connected to partners, communities and all stakeholders at home and abroad, and I think that is what has kept me here for so long!