Ethiopia Series 1: Jobs, Not Aid, Is the Most Urgent Need

Jeff and I spent a week in Ethiopia in February and I'm just getting around to writing about our experiences. This is the first in a series of articles on our time there. 

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“Jobs, not aid, are the most urgent need of these starving people,” I thought. We crouched on the dirt floor of a twelve-foot diameter grass hut in the Omo River Valley of Southern Ethiopia. Twenty-one hours away from the capital city live the Kara, Hammar, and Benna tribes—people who use cell phones to communicate but whose ways are otherwise unchanged from those of their ancestors who settled the region thousands of years ago. Picture the most remote tribal images you have seen in a National Geographicmagazine, and you are likely thinking of these people groups. 

We sat in that hut listening to Ari, a member of the Kara tribe, describe the effects of a government program to dam the Omo River for flood control and to provide hydroelectric power to parts of the region. The dam ended the practice of planting crops in receding flood waters. Plus, the dam changed the chemistry of the river making the water muddy, undrinkable, and unfishable. 

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In the first few years after the dam was completed, these problems were manageable because a Turkish company opened a 25,000-acre farm that employed many people from the local tribes. It also operated an irrigation pump to bring fresh water to the villages. Unfortunately, all than ended 18 months ago when the company hit hard times in their corporate office and left the region abruptly.

Ari described how since then people have been starving, and entirely dependent upon bags of sorghum that an aid group intermittently delivers. While he talked, Ari’s wife sat with us, occasionally dipping into a plastic bucket of mud-colored liquid. As she drank, she became more and more disengaged. 

“Do people use the sorghum to make hooch?” asked one member of our group. The answer was vague but we later got more of the story from our host, Lale a man born in the Kara village and who later attended boarding school, ultimately obtaining a college degree in the US. As the only member of his tribe to ever have traveled abroad for schooling, he is one of only a handful who are college educated. Lale explained that his friends spend most days drunk. Without fishing, farming, or a job to fill their days, there is little reason to do anything else. 

 Lale, who lives in a nearby city, and another member of the Kara tribe during our visit to the village. 

Lale, who lives in a nearby city, and another member of the Kara tribe during our visit to the village. 

As hard as it was to watch the scene inside the tent, it was heart-wrenching to watch the children outside the tent. Little ones with distended, undernourished bellies, clamored for attention but many adults were too affected by alcohol to give it. Instead of learning farming, fishing, and household management practices that have been passed through generations, the kids are learning from these elders how to survive on handouts.

We will never “charity” our way back to sustainability for the Kara, Hammar, and Benna people. Worse, as people become dependent on the charity’s aid it threatens their way of life as they lose ancient skills in a single generation. Our time in the hut demonstrates in miniature what is happening all over Africa due to war, genocide, AIDs, drought, corrupt governments, and too much aid. 

Charity or government aid is critically important component of emergency response to crisis, such as genocide, famine, war, and mass displacement. The question becomes at what point should the focus appropriately shift from aid and emergency relief to investment and economic development.  

Carried too far, aid can create dependency and cause more problems. Many good books have been written to elucidate this cycle, like When Helping Hurtsand Toxic Charity,but our new favorite is Social Impact Investing: A New Agenda in Fighting Povertyby Kim Tan and Brian Griffiths. Through data from the United Nations and the World Bank, the authors point out the inverse relationship between the volume of aid dollars and economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa. In other words, the more aid that is sent, the worse various economies fare. We cannot sustainably overcome poverty with aid.

There are bright spots in Ethiopia, though, where large-scale business is making a difference in driving back extreme poverty and ills of too much aid. The next blog posts in our Ethiopia Series will highlight the transformational work of Verdant Frontiers.

 

 

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