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Ashley Madison, two great movies and International Volunteering.

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Philip Mudge, Comhlámh’s Volunteering Quality Project Officer at Comhlamh, Irish Association of Development Workers and Volunteers chimes in with the fifth in his regular blog series linking popular culture with volunteering.

I confess I spend most of my life spinning between amused bewilderment and ‘D’oh – Ahaa!’ moments that unfortunately don’t usually change my life much a all.  For example only yesterday I found out that a ‘Webinar’ is a Web-seminar. Its obvious now, but never occurred to me before.

So the purpose of this week’s post is to ask for help in sorting out something that I’m really struggling to get my head around at the moment and is really relevant to a couple of stories making all the news headlines this week.

What makes us proud and what brings us shame?


Pride: a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of one’s close associates, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired

Also a 2014 indie movie about a group of London lesbians and gay men supporting a Welsh mining community during the 1984 miners’ strike.

Shame: a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior

Also a 2011 movie mostly famous for showing more of Michael Fassbender than most (if not all) of his other films.

For most Irish people the role of the Irish Diaspora in building the great societies of the world, and in all aspects of International development, from the highways of England, the NYPD, Silicon Valley in California and the mission education developed and delivered by Irish religious communities in the 19th and 20th centuries throughout the global south is a source of great pride. Whenever an Irish priest coaches another Kenyan runner to an Olympic podium, Irish Peacekeepers on a UN mission are the requested as the first choice by both sides in a conflict,  or two teenage brothers from Limerick add another zero at the and of their bank balance we all say “Go Ireland!”.

We’re a little bit like that with our International Volunteering programmes too.  We’re justifiably proud of the calibre and diversity of the volunteers that are recruited for Irish volunteering programmes and we’re told often enough that our quality standards (The Comhlámh Code of Good Practice (CoGP) for Volunteer Sending Agencies ) are among the best in the world.  Although all Irish volunteers are made aware through pre-departure training and ongoing development education, the limitations of what they can hope to achieve during their placement, the programmes are all based on partnerships with local communities and focused on real developmental needs.  Volunteers may be only traveling overseas for a short period of time but they can be assured that they will be really helping and supporting a local community and have the opportunity to contribute to ongoing development before during and after their placement.

But there is a flip side to our Diaspora pride.  In the Pogues great soundtrack of travel, loneliness and loss (no not the Christmas one!), Philip Chevron reminds us of the alternative to the American dream.

“On a coffin ship I came here and I never even got so far that they could change my name”

Even during the current wave of mass emigration following the collapse of the Celtic Tiger in 2008, and in the Ryanair age of cheap international travel, RTE news regularly shows us pictures of mothers, fathers and grandparents crying at Dublin Airport,  afraid they’ll never see their loved ones again.


Likewise with volunteering programmes: for every CoGP signatory organisation training and supporting volunteers and building real sustainable partnerships with local communities there are plenty (not CoGP signatories) that financially exploit vulnerable volunteers and (worse), and provide nothing of benefit to the host communities (some examples are in this article).

Which brings me to the first of this week’s morally confusing stories: the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.   Thousands of  people have drowned trying to reach safety in Europe this year, escaping persecution for myriads of reasons including religious, political, sexual or gender based violence.  Some of them are escaping from the same countries that Irish volunteers sign up each year to volunteer in.  Those risking their lives daily to cross the Mediterranean from war and conflict in Africa are traveling on coffin ships every bit as dangerous as those who brought the Irish to America during the famine.

And yet Ireland , proud of our Cead Mile Failte (hundred thousand welcomes) and our long track record in helping those less fortunate plans on welcoming at most 1000 of the 300,000 rescued in the last year and a half (many rescued by the Irish Navy as part of a multinational Mediterranean fleet) and these will probably be housed in direct provision centres that have been universally condemned by users and NGOs as inhumane.

At the same time a new political party, Identity Ireland has been launched with policy positions of:  stricter border controls,  a return of full Irish sovereignty, and a belief that It believes multi-culturalism undermines the identity of the Irish people.

So should we be proud of our Ireland of the Welcomes, or ashamed  that we are turning our back on those most in need of our help and support?


The other big (ongoing) story in the news this week is the Ashley Madison Leak.  For those of you who haven’t been following this, basically a group of cyber-hackers have obtained and made available on the internet the names and personal details of users of a premium website that targets people looking to have an affair.  Not much to be proud of there at first glance: cyber-hackers are clearly engaged in a criminal act, Ashley Madison users are definitively cheating (if you play with fire…), and the site owners were profiteering from the whole sordid business.

Shame on ye all! 

Except it’s not quite as simple as that.  This article by Yasmin Alibhai Brown discusses the real risks to the health and lives of gay users of the Ashley Madison site in countries where homosexuality is illegal (about 80) and liable to result in imprisonment, physical punishment (either state sanctioned and/or culturally acceptable) or even with the death penalty (around 10).  Meeting other gay men or women in these countries isn’t as easy as popping into the nearest bar or putting a few pictures up on Facebook.  gay people who used the website in these countries weren’t having an affair, that were just trying to meet someone to love.  Now they have been exposed and they are at real risk of imprisonment or physical harm.

Not quite so simple now is it?

I’m bewildered,  get me out of here!

I welcome any comments on this article, but most of all, any help with my bewilderment (on this matter or in general) will be greatly appreciated.


  1. Interesting read! Could we be saying more about what with we are doing in the countries of origin of these Migrants? I’m hoping that The World’s Best News will have it on the front page next month!

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