War raged in Vietnam, dividing Americans and leaving deep wounds across southeast Asia. Within the space of two months, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. The “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia sparked hope for reform and liberalization, only to be snuffed out by a Soviet-led invasion. Sectarian violence and riots broke out across Northern Ireland, the early stages of the three-decade struggle that would come to be known as “The Troubles.”
The Troubles were a destabilizing force in the Republic of Ireland as well, as the country was experiencing a period of modernization and economic growth in the late 1960s. The economy was hardly booming, but in 1968, the Irish people performed a feat of monumental generosity that would be the envy of wealthier nations, and Concern Worldwide was born.
In 1967, the province of Biafra had attempted to secede from Nigeria, drawing a massive response from the Nigerian army, displacing millions of people who became further isolated by the government’s blockade of food, medicine, and basic necessities. Famine soon followed.
Images of suffering and death flashed across televisions and newspaper front pages worldwide. In Ireland, they resonated deeply. They were painful reminders of the “Great Hunger,” Ireland’s own famine. Just a few generations earlier, one million people died of hunger and related diseases, and between one and two million more emigrated, in all decreasing the island’s population by one-quarter.
In addition to the emotional connection, there was a physical one — church missions, mostly small-scale operations that had been in the region for years. Irish missionaries — some 700 in Biafra — were making a real impact, but the sheer scale of the crisis rendered their efforts a drop in the bucket: an estimated 6,000 children were dying every week due to lack of food and medicines.
A more robust, modernized approach would be needed.
Enter John and Kay O’Loughlin Kennedy, a young couple who opened their townhouse on Northumberland Road in Dublin to a small group of concerned people who, like them, wanted to do something to help. John’s brother, Father Raymond Kennedy, a long-serving missionary in the region, helped galvanize their initiative. The first visitors to these meetings were two Nigerians who brought eyewitness accounts of the massive suffering and death. Immediately, though without any clear idea of what could be done, the assembled group decided to call themselves Africa Concern.
They launched a first-of-its-kind fundraising campaign in Ireland. It reached out to churches, but looked far beyond, determined to reach a national audience, urban and rural, to be non-sectarian and secular, and to reach across the border to the north, even in the face of The Troubles.
The Irish people responded in force. In less than one year, they raised the equivalent of more than $6 million.
As the money flowed in, the group enlisted experts to help engineer a solution the delivery of life-saving relief supplies around the blockade. First, they secured a boat — the Columcille — that would be loaded with food and medical supplies, and sailed to the island of Sao Tome, off West Africa. From there, they relayed the goods via a series of bold, night-time airlifts, which had to adapt in real time to bombing activity by government forces.
On the receiving end were the tireless missionaries, including priests Aengus and Jack Finucane, brothers who exhausted every logistical means available to deliver relief to hundreds of thousands of Biafrans, saving countless lives.
In both Ireland and Biafra, the people of Africa Concern displayed the kind of relentless ingenuity, practicality, and innovation that characterize Concern’s ethos to this day.
After fighting ended in January 1970, the situation in Biafra began to improve. However, the work of Africa Concern did not end there. Events in other parts of the world soon demanded the organization’s attention. A cyclone disaster in East Pakistan and civil war and refugee problems in Calcutta became the next intervention for the organization, which ultimately became known as Concern Worldwide to reflect its global reach.
The Finucane brothers and former missionaries like them would be central to Concern’s early growth and future globalization. But the organization remained committed from the start to its secular identity, and these clerics developed into dynamic, world-renowned, humanitarian leaders.
As a country director in many of Concern’s fields of operation Jack drove the professionalization of Concern, transforming a small organization of volunteers into a humanitarian force equipped with skilled agriculturalists, nurses, doctors, and engineers. Aengus ascended from country director to Chief Executive in 1981, serving until his retirement in 1997. He was also instrumental in the establishment of a U.S. affiliate in the 1990s — Concern Worldwide U.S. — with fundraising and support offices in New York and Chicago.
The modern era
Concern’s organizational identity was cemented through bold, practical, effective responses to major disasters in the succeeding decades: East Pakistan/Bangladesh in the early 1970’s; famine in Ethiopia in 1973 and 1984; refugees along the Thai-Cambodia border in the early 1980s; famine in Somalia in 1992; genocide, refugees, and cholera in Africa’s Great Lakes region in the mid-1990s; mass suffering in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the late 1990s; the mostly silent suffering of millions in DRC in the early millennium and beyond; earthquake in Haiti in 2010; flooding in Pakistan and famine in Somalia in 2010; and response to conflict-driven emergencies in Syria and South Sudan in recent years.
These mass disasters have punctuated Concern’s growth over nearly 50 years, but they’ve been matched by a commitment to responding to lesser-known, smaller-scale disasters, and an ever-expanding breadth of comprehensive development programming. Always recognized as a humanitarian leader, Concern has also gained recognition — from the grassroots to governments to peer organizations — as a transformational force in nutrition, maternal and child health, community empowerment, gender-based violence, climate-smart agriculture, and primary education.
Almost always, from one country to the next, Concern’s work has followed a continuum from response to recovery to long-term development, in line with our mission to stay as long as we are needed — until major improvements can be sustained without our help.
A lasting legacy
In all, over half a century, Concern has worked in more than 40 countries. Today we are working in 24, with a focus on the poorest and most vulnerable communities. We are nearly 4,000 workers of some 50 nationalities, and more than 90% of us are working in our home communities and nations of origin.
Sadly, in recent years we have lost a number of Concern’s founding leaders. Aengus Finucane passed away in 2009; Kay O’Loughlin Kennedy, in 2016; and Jack Finucane, in 2017. But, the animating forces of compassion, empathy, practicality, ingenuity, and innovation that emerged from that Dublin townhouse in 1968 are as powerful as ever — in Ireland, the U.S., the U.K., in our newest fundraising office in Seoul, South Korea, and across the developing world, from Haiti to North Korea.
2018 is yet another year of global upheaval. Concern Worldwide is as committed now as we were then.