Roughly constructed buildings, open-air markets and taxis stuffed with people: Caoimhe Kenny's first impressions of Haiti were almost overwhelming. "I was struck straight away by how different it was," she says. The Athlone Community College student travelled from Co Westmeath to Port au Prince, Haiti's capital, with her classmates in June. The trip was part of a prize they had won in the Concern Debates the month before.
Now more than 20 years old, the Concern Debates are a feature of many a transition year, with more than 150 schools competing annually. TY and fifth-year students battle it out through eight rounds to reach the final. In each round they debate a different motion based on the issues that Concern deals with around the world. Thorough research is crucial, and successful debaters manage to achieve a real understanding of their topic.
Sometimes the exposure to development issues can form a major and lasting impression. "A girl approached us at the final in May and said that she was studying human-rights law because of her experience in the Concern Debates a couple of years ago," says Róisín Kelly of Concern's development education department. Indeed, some of Concern's employees are veterans of the debates.
James Mahon of Gort Community School, in Co Galway, was a finalist in the debates in May. "There's a huge amount of research to do," he says. "We'd get the topics three weeks beforehand," explains his team mate Danielle Cuffe.
Then they would mine the internet for information about the UN, poverty, HIV and Aids, GM crops, global warming and so on. "It's almost about out-researching the other team," says James. "It was non-stop," says Kate O'Connor, another member of the team. "It was a bit mental, but it was good."
As usual, this year's final was quite an event. Gort Community School and Athlone Community College battled it out over the motion "Without a war on poverty, you can't defeat the war on terror". "We had a reception with Tom Arnold, the head of Concern," says Emma Fogarty. "It was a great experience."
A tight debate ended in victory for Athlone Community College, and the debaters were soon heading for Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. "We were overjoyed to be going," says Nollaig Ó Scannláin, another member of the debating team. "There was a huge sense of relief that all of our work throughout the year had paid off."
A stopover in New York compounded the culture shock when the students landed in Port au Prince. "Concern had told us about what to expect," says Nollaig, "but nothing can prepare you for seeing and feeling that level of poverty. Even television doesn't come close."
The 10-day trip aimed to give the students as thorough an impression of Haitian life as was possible within the time frame. They were paired with Haitian "twins" - local students who accompanied them throughout the trip. "They had very little English, and we had very little Haitian Creole, so there was a lot of sign language going on," says Caoimhe.
The students quickly realised the importance of greeting people and friendliness in Haitian culture. "People tend to be a bit suspicious of foreigners," says Caoimhe. "If you make an effort, though, it helps."
The trip began with a few days in Port au Prince. The students visited various projects run by Concern and its sister organisations: microfinance and irrigation projects, clinics, orphanages. There were too many to see them all. "We complain about the HSE," says Francis Dowling. "We have no idea. I visited a clinic. It was a room smaller than this office I'm standing in right now, and there were 15 people standing outside waiting for one doctor from Cuba. They could have anything from a cold to HIV."
A visit to a city slum also left its mark, as Nollaig explains: "It's not something you can read about or talk about. The experience of being there, of seeing people living in and coping with that level of squalor, was indescribable."
The students also had a chance to experience rural life, in Saut d'Eau. They stayed with local families for three days. "That was amazing," says Francis. "After the first night you really got to know your family." It wasn't easy. They got a taste of everyday life, helping their families with their chores. "It's a side of life you'd never get to see under any other circumstance," says Francis. It was difficult. "There would be loads of people in one house," says Caoimhe. "We had a cold tap outside for a shower. It was tough, but we were so aware that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Highlights of the trip varied from person to person. For Caoimhe a visit to an orphanage, St Joseph's Home for Boys, opened her eyes to how much of a difference just one person can make if he or she is committed to helping people.
There were nights of Haitian music and dancing - "Haitians love a bit of craic as much as the Irish do," says Caoimhe.
A trip to a waterfall in Saut d'Eau was another favourite. "It was not only exciting and fun; it also was an experience to bond, in a way, with Haiti," says Francis. "Meeting and getting to know the Haitian people was my high point," says Nollaig.
Having done so much research about development issues for the debates, what was it like to see the work being done in real life?
"From what I could see, Concern's aim is to teach local people about how to deal with issues so that, eventually, they don't need Concern any more. I think that's a healthy way to do things," Francis says.
For more information, see www.concern debates.net; numerous days throughout the school year are dedicated to development issues. They include World Food Day, on Oct 16; International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, on Oct 17; One World Day, on Oct 20; Universal Children's Day, on Nov 20; World Aids Day, on Dec 1; Fairtrade Fortnight, from Feb 25; International Women's Day, on Mar 8; World Water Day, on Mar 22; World Health Day, on Apr 7; and World Environment Day, on Jun 5; World Day Against Child Labour, on Jun 12; and World Refugee Day, on Jun 22
Concern believes that child labour can no longer be considered a necessary evil for millions of children merely because of where they were born and because their families desperately need the money they earn. It is confident that, by raising awareness, lobbying for education for all and taking action, child labour can be ended. At the moment:
246 million under-18s work full time.
More than 70 per cent of child labourers work in agriculture, fishing and hunting.
Almost six million children work in forced labour - slavery is not dead.
Trafficking of children is becoming a huge problem. It rivals the illegal trade in drugs and arms, with an estimated revenue of €8.5 billion a year - the amount needed to achieve education for all children by 2015.
What can TY students do? Young people speaking out on behalf of child labourers can be an effective voice for change. Youth clubs, schools and sports clubs can all be involved by showing solidarity with child labourers around the world.