I am extremely honoured to have the opportunity to tell you about a project that I and my family have committed to for the next few years in Sri Lanka. A project that has changed my view of large scale philanthropy through international organisations. I speak honestly to other donors cautious but curious to embark on a similar journey.
This idea was the vision of my late father, as a result of the time spent as a young man in Sri Lanka in the late 70’s. As a pilot based there for a number of years, he got to know the country very well and was always humbled by the innate elegance of the people and their unrelenting determination to be educated. He returned to Ireland in the early 80’s as the 23 year civil war in Sri Lanka broke out but never lived to see the war end. The conflict finished in May 2009. He directed in his will that a substantial portion of his fortune be donated towards the lives and education of children in Sri Lanka.
It was also an effort as a single parent to allow his children to work on an important project together. Allowing his death to be put into perspective against the tragedies of a country broken by war.
We named his contribution the Cathal Ryan Trust and with it we would return to Sri Lanka and make a real difference. The only question was: How does one go about that?
It was about his time that we were put in touch with UNICEF Ireland. We voiced our intensions within Sri Lanka and our concerns that channelling through a large organisation, our vision would be diluted and our contribution generalised.
They organised a very detailed trip to Sri Lanka to see the work on the ground. Still very tentative, I decided to be open minded but slow to commit.
I was amazed at what I saw. The reality of the work in motion was the compassionate but focused approach of UNICEF Sri Lanka.
It became all too apparent; this was not a project we could do in isolation. First of all, most of the areas in most need would only allow UN access; even the international NGOs were not permitted.
Working in partnership with organisations like UNICEF allowed access, personal protection, detailed expertise in each area, financial protection and the ability to communicate with Government to work alongside our vision. It was going to allow us to do more than we expected in a shorter amount of time, with very little stress.
However, our vision sometimes went beyond UNICEF’s normal remit. Working closely with UNICEF Ireland, they listened carefully to what we wanted, as we did them. It was important that both sides were open and respectful. I was delighted as the outcome was an individual tailored agenda of works. Our vision was uncompromised – in fact it was stronger and more effective.
Working alongside the wonderful Melanie Verwoerd in UNICEF Ireland, was a man named Kieran O’Brien who we were extremely impressed with. After he accompanied us to Sri Lanka we requested that he become our man on the ground. A single point of reference and a mediator between the trust and the team in the field in Sri Lanka. This gave us a huge amount of comfort and allows me to be heavily involved in each moment of the project as it unfolds. Financially, the funds are released in stages based on performance. This drip feeding model alongside regular step by step updates allows us to remain completely in control of the project.
We have targeted four of the worst effected towns in the main post-conflict area in the North of Sri Lanka. Within these towns we will be rebuilding through construction and practical community programmes. In education, we will fund large schools over up to A levels, grants for University potentials and will introduce an accelerated learning syllabus for students that have naturally fallen behind during the conflict. We’re promoting hygiene, supply water and sanitation facilities, training teachers and building capacity within the Department of Education.
In health, we are making sure each town will have a maternity ward, a paediatric ward, medical outreach programmes and small medical centres. We will also help fund local sports groups for children and promote commerce and employment through small business loans.
Education is a rewarding investment within a country that has 92% literacy rate regardless of their tragic obstacles. A country that is desperate to move on and rebuild.
I am, by nature, at times sceptical. I, however, now deeply believe in this model of philanthropy. I am extremely grateful for our partnership with UNICEF Ireland. I thank them for their efficiency and openness.
As my father always taught me, look up from the pavements when you’re walking and take in the world around you. Be interesting enough to learn from others. The children and the teams that dedicate their lives to those children’s futures have taught me so much. Their bravery gives you an overwhelming perspective on life and things start to make wonderful sense. This project will allow my children to understand the same.
On behalf of my family, to all those that have made this possible. I thank you very much.