A brief history of Concern

January 5, 2023

Those of us who work with Concern consider it to be something very special — as much a movement as it is an organization. We draw great inspiration and knowledge from the those who have gone before us, so here’s a little background to set the scene.

A new window on the world

The late 1960s was a seminal era in terms of public access to stories and imagery from around the world, as TV sets became more affordable and widely available to the average American family. As with the war in Vietnam and the struggle for civil rights around the world, contemporary reporting of humanitarian crises also became much more accessible and immediate. Thus it was that the conflict in the breakaway Nigerian state of Biafra and the subsequent horrific famine there found its way into the international public consciousness.

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People wanted to help and so began the era of international non-governmental organizations, among them the forerunner of Doctors Without Borders and a fledgling Irish NGO called Africa Concern. The mission was simple — deliver relief supplies to the beleaguered civilian population in an effort to prevent loss of life. You can read more about that epic operation here.

After the Biafran War ended in 1969, it seemed only natural that the experience gained and the emergency response mechanisms developed during that crisis could be put to good use elsewhere. And there was no shortage of work to do.

By 1971 the newly renamed Concern was working in India with those affected by the massive Cyclone Bhola, which killed as many as 500,000 people and left millions homeless and destitute. That work included the provision of food and shelter, medical care, and a range of other short-term services aimed at alleviating the immediate impacts of the storm.

a nurse in 1970s Yemen

A Concern volunteer nurse in 1970s Yemen.

Soon the focus would turn to the newly formed nation of Bangladesh, where around 90% of the population of 68 million people were living in conditions of extreme poverty. A combination of newly qualified and seasoned professionals volunteered their time and skills to work alongside local communities. From around the world came engineers, nurses, doctors, agricultural advisors, and teachers to set up development and relief programs funded by donations from people and governments in Europe and the U.S.

Expanding horizons

Concern Worldwide, as it would later become known, continued to expand its operations around the globe in subsequent decades, with the dual mandate of emergency response and long-term development. Over the past 55 years, the organization has managed or supported operations in about 70 countries from Peru to Kosovo to East Timor and responded to some of the biggest humanitarian crises of our time.

Attitudes and ways of working have changed extensively over the decades. The volunteer model had all but disappeared by the 1990s, replaced by a much more disciplined and organized system, and staffed by a cohort of trained development and emergency response professionals. Budgets have risen substantially — into the hundreds of millions — bringing a greater need for transparency and accountability. Robust financial systems are a must.

Also, most importantly, there has been a seismic shift in the way agencies like Concern interact with the communities they support, with an ongoing drive towards greater equity, dignity, and localization. Even the way we talk about our work and the images we use have changed dramatically over the years. The arrival of the internet and social media have also had a profound impact on our operations and capacity to communicate important information.

group of Concern staff

Gashaney Woldie, Nutrition Manager, Sosina Kasie, IYCF Officer, and Mesaiy Woldesenbet, Nutrition Site Team Leader, at the Concern Worldwide compound in Gambella, Ethiopia.

Today, the vast majority of Concern’s 4,700 operations staff are from the countries in which they work, with support teams based in Ireland, the U.S., the UK, and South Korea. Main program areas include: health and nutrition; water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH); education; livelihoods; and emergency response. Through all of this work, gender equality is a core common principle.

An evolving mission

There has been a huge amount of success in the drive to eradicate extreme poverty — one example being Bangladesh, where that early figure of 90% is now close to 10%. But many challenges remain. The number of people forcibly displaced from home, either within their own countries or as refugees has doubled in just the past decade, to over 100 million. The working contexts facing our teams have often become more complex and climate change is now a major factor in driving poverty levels, compounded by conflict.

In the first decade of this century, a strategic decision was made to concentrate Concern’s development work in “fragile” contexts — countries dealing with a combination of poor governance, weak infrastructure, and underdeveloped public support systems. This meant a phased withdrawal from places like India, Uganda, and Zambia and the establishment of new programs in Central African Republic and Burkina Faso. This underscored the long-term commitment to reach those communities least likely to have the supports they need to develop and thrive.

Concern US

Concern US was formally established in 1995, but American support for the organization’s work has been constant since the 1970s. Over the years, hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised to support the mission, driven by amazing individuals and organizations across the country. Special events like the Global Gala, Women of Concern, and the annual Spring Run provide focal points for supporters to coalesce. Many of the faces have changed, but the level of commitment to the cause is undimmed.

Through USAID and other government agencies, American taxpayers also fund extensive overseas programs run by Concern. And it’s not just about the money. Advocating at the highest levels of policy making is an important part of the Concern US strategy, as decisions of global import are made daily in Washington DC and at the United Nations compound in New York City.

Concern Worldwide Haiti Program Director, Victoria Jean-Louis, hands over the Nothing Kills Like Hunger petition to the UN. Within the striking image taken by Alexi Lubomirski are thousands of signatures from the public!

Concern Worldwide Haiti Program Director, Victoria Jean-Louis, hands over the a representation of the Nothing Kills Like Hunger petition to Ireland’s Ambassador to the UN, Fergal Mythen.

One goal remains constant  — to ultimately eliminate the need for organizations like Concern Worldwide to exist.  We have no desire to mark a 100th or even 75th anniversary and with your help we are striving to put ourselves out of job as soon as possible!