Our Blog

TPW’s Global Journey to Ethiopia

Jo Ensor | The Philanthropy Workshop | 24 November 2015

Christian Orthodox Priests await the start of a Community Meeting on Child Marriage and Child Labour in Amhara Region
Christian Orthodox Priests await the start of a Community Meeting on Child Marriage and Child Labour in Amhara Region.

As a teenager, images of the Ethiopian famine of 1984 were haunting and life-changing, re-directing me towards a career in international development, where I have since worked across 18 African countries (and 40 developing ones) to reduce inequality and social injustice.  It was with the news of a repeat famine, 30 years on, that I visited Ethiopia, to plan TPW’s global journey taking place in February 2016.

In these intervening thirty years, much has changed. Ethiopia has witnessed rapid economic growth, with a GDP averaging 10.9% between 2004 and 2014 (and yes, I do mean 10.9%, rivalling China), which is lifting the country from the second poorest in the world to becoming a middle-income country by 2025.

Amidst criticism from organisations like Human Rights Watch, and indeed, emails from TPW members questioning the decision to visit Ethiopia, I wanted to uncover what has fuelled this growth, who has benefited and who might have been left behind.

Over a 10-day visit, Marylou Gourlay and I met over 50 organisations, implementing a wide array of government-led, market-based, community-based and non-profit solutions to poverty alleviation. Together these paint a fascinating picture of development, which we will share with you in February 2016. If you are unable to make that journey, here is my beginner’s guide to Ethiopia, a country in transition.

A Mother carries Ethiopia’s staple food, injera, back to her family across a barren mountaineous landscape
A Mother carries Ethiopia’s staple food, injera, back to her family across a barren mountaineous landscape

Firstly, Ethiopia does have barren, drought-prone lands on its edges and these areas and their communities are being pummelled by the impact of climate change, to which the Sahel region is particularly susceptible. We will be exploring this further in February, along with the wind farms and huge hydropower dams, testimony to Ethiopia’s commitment to become the world’s first Green Economy. But the country is also lush and fertile, beautifully so, and its growth in agriculture, coffee (a coffee producer we met casually mentioned he supplies the Starbucks Christmas blend), and wine have largely contributed to the economic growth.

A growth spurred, in part, by a large grant from the Gates Foundation to set up the impressive Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), run in parallel to the Ministry of Agriculture, and focused on research, system strengthening, capacity building and supply chains. This organisation alone is a case study in strategic philanthropy. We will look at how Ethiopia is starting to embrace the private sector to achieve growth, developing public-private partnerships with Heineken and Diageo (which you can visit), linking small-scale producers of barley to the Guinness you buy in your local bar. 

And it’s not only the big players: we also met (and you can too, in February) a boutique impact investing agency supporting small scale businesses, such as the one supplying injera (local Ethiopian food made from tef, gluten-free and delicious) daily, to the American domestic market. They are investing in a private ambulance system too, and green energy, creating jobs, achieving a social impact, all with a financial return.

So what else has shaped this growth? A well-educated government, rather communist in nature but committed to growth and slowly embracing market liberalisation, who, uncomplicated by colonialism, have taken the best models of development from other countries (including, I hear, the UK’s tax system) and replicated them, in almost textbook fashion, over the last 30 years. This planning and resulting increase in services in health and development is hard to believe.

Let’s take health – we were told that in five years, the number of births taking place in a health clinic rather than at home have increased from 18% to 60%. 34,000 health extension workers have been trained and are now working in 16,000 health posts serving 90 million people, and 18 million household medical records have been created.  Life expectancy has increased from 59 to 64. The statistics for education are similar…. This is impressive stuff, and the reason Ethiopia met all the MDGs (just marginally missing one on maternal mortality).

So the plan and the results sound good. But is this matched by reality? We will take you to Bahir Dar, in Amhara region, to find out. Ethiopia is big, and it’s a federal system, and here is where the cracks start to appear. Why should the regions, with their own governments, party politics and power structures, do what the central Government requests?  Take the regions of Somali, South Omo and Afar, where most of the traditional pastoralists live, and where, due to particularly severe effects of El Niño, 10.5 million people are currently food insecure, having the potential to reduce all the MDG gains in one dramatic year of failed rain, hunger and misery. Food aid is being delivered in partnership by the NGO and government sectors, and if the hard lessons of 1984 have been learnt, the next few months will prove it.

Jo and Marylou participating in a community meeting on child marriage and child labour
Jo and Marylou participating in a community meeting on child marriage and child labour

But the inequality is not just geographical, which is why we will also address the issues facing girls. Ethiopia is a strongly patriarchal society. We will meet some powerful Ethiopian women, such as a lawyer who has campaigned tirelessly for girls’ rights and an end to child marriage, whose story has been made into a Sundance award winning film – Difret - produced by Angelina Jolie.

Campaigned, that is, until the Civil Society Organisations (CSO) law came into place five years ago, effectively banning advocacy and reducing foreign funding of rights-based groups. “Why?”, we asked government officials. “Because we do not believe in your model of Western democracy”, “because to achieve growth we need to reduce conflict and political dissent”, “because we live in a fragile region, surrounded by states at war and we want peace” came the responses. Not disheartened it seems, former women activists have turned to banking, embracing the private sector and opening the first women-owned commercial bank in order to empower women with loans and savings accounts. 

The growth is trickling down and we will introduce you to the women who have benefitted. Progress is being made and it is fascinating. But in a country where 69% of marriage still takes the form of abduction and around 40% of girls are still subject to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), much still needs to be done. You will have the chance to meet (in very small groups) women and girls on the edge of this growth: commercial sex workers, girls saying no to early marriage and FGM in the rural areas, girls living in slum communities and female victims of domestic violence rebuilding their confidence in a safe house. There’s a strong steady movement taking place and for those of you interested in women’s rights, Ethiopia’s women make a great case study.

A social enterprise set up by a local business woman to make reusable sanitary pads. The vast majority of women and girls in Ethiopia do not have access to sanitary products and do not attend schools whilst menstruating,  leading to high absenteeism.
A social enterprise set up by a local business woman to make reusable sanitary pads. The vast majority of women and girls in Ethiopia do not have access to sanitary products and do not attend schools whilst menstruating,  leading to high absenteeism.

Women carry firework back to their homes to be sold later at the market as fuel. In a highly patriarchal society, women do the vast majority of the back-breaking work in rural communities.
Women carry firework back to their homes to be sold later at the market as fuel. In a highly patriarchal society, women do the vast majority of the back-breaking work in rural communities.

A visit to Ethiopia wouldn’t be complete without the opportunity to see its historic culture and breath-taking landscape and we hope those of you joining us will take a few extra days to do so. As a group we will spend two days in Bahir Dar, in the Amhara region, where Marylou and I, on a rare, spare hour off work, went on a sundown boat trip to a monastery and came across some hippos, at the source of the Blue Nile… As with the growth rates, it was so improbable, you couldn’t make it up. We hope you will join us.

A herder keen to show us his caravan of camels taking crops over the mountains in Tigray region
A herder keen to show us his caravan of camels taking crops over the mountains in Tigray region

Jo Ensor is Director of The Philanthropy Workshop. For more information, follow Twitter @TPWgivebetter or visit TPW.org. 

Archives