Ethiopia: reflection on aid






Before entering Ethiopia, we’d anticipated a number of things: steep mountains, the infamous stone throwing, and lots of begging. Our travel guides had suggested that the long history of aid provision in the country had left Ethiopians expectant of passing Westeners to be there to give them something. After cycling the length of the country, with demands for money/  a pen/ a banana/ our water bottles (the “highland fever” – see footnote No2) from most children and no insignificant number of adults, but also, after speaking to a lot of disillusioned aid volunteers, after noticing that two out of every three cars on the road have some NGO’s logo emblazoned on their side, after being told that some ridiculous percentage of the country’s income is from external aid, but knowing that Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in Africa, we came to question the real relevance of aid here. (And on the Darker Days, those when the stones were too many and the hostilities too frequent, we composed letters in our heads to our government telling them all the reasons these people didn’t deserve our hard-earned money).


I’ve never been very literate in matters of economy or world trade, and although, as most good intended people in the West, I’ve always seen aid as an obvious duty, I do not know it’s workings much beyond the claims of the Oxfam, MSF or Unicef leaflets that come through the door to try to guilt us into giving more. Being here, seeing fragments of the work on the ground, has only confused me more. Why do most peace corps volunteers arrive at their allocated posts only to find their predecessor’s work (who’d left only 2 months earlier) already gone to waste (eg: computer centers gone defunct)? Why am I told that there are five NGOs working in Dejen, a small town north of Addis Ababa, but that due to complete lack of communication, they end up duplicating each other’s work? And why, with all the money poured into the country, is everyone still so illiterate and poor? (On the Dark Days: why do we need to help these people? As the country that has “never been occupied”, what responsibility do we have towards them? They seem pretty happy with their ways, after all, it was “underdeveloped” for years before we got involved, why then suddenly decide to get involved?)


In Addis, we came across a bookstore that had an overwhelmingly good selection of books in English and ended up spending a small fortune. Among those irresistible ones was Aid and Other Dirty Business by Giles Bolton. It came at a time when all of these questions were rife in my head and has done a good job of enlightening me, of at least providing some substance to the questioning. I now understand that aid comes in three broad categories: charity aid (NGO’s, etc, dependant on private donations), national aid (from individual countries, funded by taxes), and international aid (the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the UN, also funded by taxes). They operate with two different aims: emergency disaster relief and development. (I’m only really interested in development.)


Charities work via projects and can usually only have a local/ personal impact. Where the projects seem to go wrong from what we’ve witnessed in the country, is because: a) there are so many of them, and they don’t talk to each other, b) a person may start a project, but if the local people don’t view it as “their” project, or if it isn’t actually relevant to their needs, it will perish as soon as that person leaves (otherwise put, we, as outsiders, can’t assume we know what it needed locally) c) not that this is a fault, but they will, in most cases, only ever be local projects, and hence likely won’t change the “big picture” in any significant way. These projects are all we saw on the ground and so we became very wary of what lasting good aid could achieve.


I don’t want to just badly paraphrase Bolton’s book, so if you have an interest, I’d recommend the read. The overall point I got out of it, though, is this: yes, we give lots in aid, but not efficiently. The only bodies that can give/lend to any effective, worthwhile level that could get Africa out of poverty long-term, are the World Bank and IMF. And the only way they can do so in a sustainable way is to allow the (carefully chosen) African governments to be in charge of how they spend the money. The theory is that this financial boost will potentiate growth through trade, as long as we lift the unfavourable restrictions laid down by the international trade rules on Africa.


The book was in fact good news for the OGRA foundation this trip is supporting thanks to your donations. As Bolton put it, there are three important conditions to the good functioning of an NGO’s work:


   1.Ownership: the project has to be one the people feel they need and want for it to stay in place and grow. The OGRA foundation is home-grown, Kenyan-run, and is growing year by year.


   2. Capacity: the project needs to be appropriate to “people’s experience, expectations and cultural habits”. ISMAT trains medical officers, which is an inexpensive way of providing the medical staff that best responds to Kenya’s immediate needs.


   3. Sustainability: for a wider progress to be made beyond the lifetime of the project. One of the things our money is to go towards is improving the overall appearance of the medical college (painting walls, etc) so that it will be more attractive to the potential future

governmental support.






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Footnote: Reduce, reuse, recycle


If there’s one thing Ethiopia can teach us, it's that. Compared to its neighbours, Ethiopia’s outdoors are mostly, stunningly, rubbish-free. Any drink comes in a glass bottle, which is whisked off as soon as it's finished to be safely returned to the factory, where it will be reused. A hefty fee comes with breaking them.


Contrary to Sudan, there are virtually no plastic bottles lying around, if fact, they are prize possessions for kids (I haven't yet figured out why, but certainly have witnessed plastic bottles used and reused, and why not? Our Evian ones have lasted since London) who chase after us chanting "highland, highland", the brand name of one of Ethiopia's bottled water firm.


And, apart from bottles... one village I spotted a boy tearing up an old plastic bean sac, using the filaments to braid a rope: the perfect camel collar!