A Global Journey to Ethiopia

Jo Ensor
The Philanthropy Workshop

Traditional community greeting in Amhara Region

In early February, TPW went to Ethiopia on a learning journey to look at a country in transition. We wanted to understand how it is that a country – until recently one of the poorest in the world and still remembered by many, 30 years on, for its terrible famine in the 80s – has put itself on track to become a middle income country in 10 years’ time, with growth rates to rival China’s. We focused our attention on three developmental themes: sustainable agriculture, health and women’s rights.

Over the course of a week, and through in-depth conversations with over 50 non-profit, governmental and private sector leaders and communities, we were party to a deep uncovering of a fascinating country and a people with complex political and cultural history, and a multitude of effective initiatives, attempting to lift a population of 90 million out of poverty.


Beneficiaries at PSI's Drop-In Center

For those interested in our learning, here is my personal synopsis.

For Ethiopia’s success, add together the following ingredients:

1) A determined government.

TPW members had a session with the incredibly impressive Minister of Health, His Excellency Dr Kesetebirhan Admasu (and I’m sure I was not the only one surprised by how youthful and humble he was) who spoke about the impressive work going on in health within the country. The Minister himself is a member of the well-educated, committed, controlling government, with a somewhat communist ideology (originally the party were part of the Tigrayan resistance to General Mengistu, leader of the communist Dergue regime that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in the 1970s), who are embracing market liberalisation and who are proud and driven to achieve rapid growth. The Minister gave us mind-boggingly impressive statistics: the creation of thousands of health posts for every community, staffed by thousands of community health workers and the recruitment and training of 16,000 midwives over five years. In terms of quantifiable (as opposed to qualitative) evidence, the commitment to bolstering human resources for health has been huge.

2) An excellent economic plan.

A focus on getting children into primary school, expectant mothers into health centres, training farmers to use improved production methods, targeting engagement with the private sector and the creation of supply chains linking coffee and barley producers to the global market. Throw into this large numbers of newly-recruited government-employed teachers, midwives and agricultural extension workers (albeit poorly paid), fresh out of the recently bolstered education system to roll out the plan at regional level. The next step on the development path is industrialisation and export. The economic logic is textbook and makes sense. And this government, unlike some others, is accepting advice, (albeit very privately) from trusted intermediaries such as philanthropist and former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative – who kindly briefed us before our Global Journey – on how he is using his prime ministerial knowledge to help Ethiopia’s senior statesmen to translate these ambitious plans into practice.

What has resulted are impressive growth rates and apparently faster progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) than almost any other country. The change was visible – health posts and high levels of primary school enrollment in every community. I say apparently because we became increasingly aware of widely differing statistics on all things (from child marriage to growth rates). “Are the GDP growth rates really double digit?” we continually asked. Responses varied depending on the political positioning of the respondent. A large nod towards the importance of research and data to produce reliable and consistent statistics and inform decision-making.

Community meeting organised by Plan International in Fakita Legoma District, Amhara to address the topics of early child marriage and child labour

Community meeting organised by Plan International in Fakita Legoma District, Amhara to address the topics of early child marriage and child labour

Much of the development we saw, be it quasi-governmental, NGO, private sector or public-private models, was impressive. And if the statistics are to be believed, significant reductions have been achieved in infant and maternal mortality, child marriage, harmful traditional practices such as FGM, and increases in agricultural productivity, household income, primary school enrollment and access to health services.

Take Diageo’s impressive public-private partnership with the government for example. Diageo buys barley from small-scale farmers who are in turn helped to increase productivity by government extension workers and NGO Technoserve. Diageo then refine the barley and make and sell the beer.

Smallholder farmer in Amhara Region in ceremonial dress

Or Oxfam’s supply chain strengthening programme linking women honey producers to the international market, where sustainable, enabling them to generate and diversify income for poor households.

We met with Fosera. – a private sector investment in solar energy, with the potential to go to scale under excellent leadership – much needed in a country where power outages are a bottleneck to growth.

Job creation and further training is a key part of Fosera's social impact in Bahir Dar

And RENEW’s impact investment model. Small scale maybe, but channeling foreign capital into small private organisations creating jobs, investing in local entrepreneurs to help them bring to scale projects that start to fill gaps in society: the delivery of a private ambulance service where no other exists, or helping an injera factory become the first large scale exporter of Ethiopia’s food staple, teff. And all providing financial and social return for investors.

Then there is AMREF, whose one off, up-front investment into urban water and sanitation facilities (implementing the globally successful model WASH) provides clean water. Careful community management of the WASH facilities by local residents has meant almost immediate improvements in health and income-generation.

These models were all achieving change, improving livelihoods, health and quality of life.

Some organisations were delivering extraordinarily valuable services, such as PSI’s drop-in center for commercial sex workers seeking to reduce HIV infection and abuse and working on educating all those involved in transactional sex, or the enormous investment in R&D and training programmes for farmers through the Gates-funded Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), set up within the Ministry of Agriculture to transform agricultural productivity in a green revolution to rival India’s.

But how, we asked, do the multitude of interventions delivering change find a way to genuinely achieve sustainability and replicability, by passing these services on to underpaid, undertrained, often demotivated local government employees (or the nascent private sector) remains to be seen. The Agricultural Transformation Agency is in the fifth year of a 20-year programme seeking to do just that. The ATA is based in, and works alongside, the Ministry of Agriculture, and reports directly to the Prime Minister (a key reason for its success says its CEO, Khalid Bomba) and the strategy, logic, leadership, collaboration and vision is enormously impressive. But sustainable? It’s too early to say.

Maybe one accepts that the bilateral and private flows of aid have to continue; that change (however impressive) is small scale, piecemeal and that there is no magic formula or quick and easy path to growth and development. Instead, the patchwork of initiatives eventually blend together over time, lifting the population out of poverty through a combination of income-generation, skills transfer, job creation, behaviour change and trickle down economics.

Hugely influential human rights lawyer Meaza Ashenafi talks to TPW members in Addis Ababa

Alongside the marginalisation of women, there has also been much mention in the international press recently (though only whisperings within Ethiopia) of widespread oppression of ethnic minority groups, who are rising up in peaceful protest against a government they see as directing the national resource towards their own political elite. 

So what next for Ethiopia? Will the continued focusing of national resources into areas dominated by the ethnic elite and resulting inequality lead to a popular uprising against this one-party state? Will it continue its impressive rate of growth in provision of health and educational services by finding the resources to improve wages, quality and training? Will the government relax its stronghold on the private sector to allow more investment? How will rural populations, living on the geographical, economic and political margins, whose lives are already difficult, fare through the current terrible drought? Does this have the potential to reduce all the gains made against the MDGs in one ghastly year of failed crops and hunger? Maybe these are some of the problem areas requiring philanthropic brain-power and investment. We will watch with interest.

Sharing the aroma of the beans: an integral part of Ethiopia's traditional coffee ceremony

Aside from these strategic musings which continue to occupy the minds of all of us committed to achieving change in poor economies, this learning journey was, as always, a wonderfully bonding and pleasurable experience, helped in no small part by TPW peers’ commitment to learning and sharing their knowledge, the kindness and openness of the Ethiopian people to share their personal stories, incredible optimism, spectacular scenery and the most delicious national cuisine. The lessons we learnt will continue to be relevant to our own philanthropic endeavours over the months and years to come.

Traditional Coffee and Popcorn Ceremony shared with women's safe haven, AWSAD

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

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