Gen­er­ous Ir­ish help to raise hope as Ethiopia eyes a new dawn

Leo Varadkar saw for him­self how the vast African na­tion is chang­ing for the bet­ter — but ma­jor chal­lenges re­main, writes Laura Larkin

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Worldwide -

IRE­LAND has been di­rect­ing sig­nif­i­cant aid to Ethiopia for 25 years, with our in­volve­ment likely to in­crease un­der the up­com­ing state aid plan due to be pub­lished later this year.

Ir­ish links run deep in the vast coun­try, with sev­eral NGOs work­ing in ar­eas such as ed­u­ca­tion, agri­cul­ture, san­i­ta­tion pro­vi­sion and health ed­u­ca­tion.

The diplo­matic ties also run deep, with six diplo­mats linked to the Ir­ish em­bassy in the cap­i­tal, Ad­dis Ababa, led by am­bas­sador Sonja Hy­land.

But the coun­try con­tin­ues to strug­gle with many of the same prob­lems that first trig­gered the flow of Ir­ish tax­pay­ers’ money into it.

Ethiopia is bat­tling cli­mate change is­sues, mi­gra­tion and in­ter­nal dis­place­ment of its cit­i­zens forced from their homes by lo­cal con­flict and a con­flux of ed­u­ca­tion is­sues in­clud­ing a lack of school­ing for girls.

Poverty re­mains ram­pant de­spite the fast-grow­ing econ­omy, and drought and food in­se­cu­rity still blight some re­gions with crip­pling ef­fect.

Leo Varadkar spent three days tour­ing the coun­try in a bid to get to grips with the chal­lenges that it faces.

Some of the aid pro­grammes in Ad­dis Ababa high­light the com­plex­i­ties of im­prov­ing life for peo­ple in Ethiopia. Tucked away be­side a monastery, a Tro­caire project looks to ed­u­cate women in vo­ca­tions such as em­broi­dery and pot­tery. The women are equipped with health edu- cation and busi­ness train­ing to help them pur­sue a small en­ter­prise on their own.

How­ever, in ad­di­tion to train­ing women — most of whom have never worked out­side the home — the char­ity has learnt that it must bring the men along.

Fe­male em­pow­er­ment for the women who come to the cen­tre to train is found not only in their new skills but also in their friend­ships. There are reg­u­lar group ses­sions in which is­sues such as lead­er­ship are dis­cussed in small rooms where the walls are adorned with im­ages of fe­male Ethiopian lead­ers such as Eleni Zaude Gabre-Mad­hin, who was among the founders of the Ethiopian stock ex­change.

But the lo­cal cul­ture also proves a stum­bling block — as well as the men of­ten re­sist­ing the idea that a woman should work out­side the home, there are some myths that must be over­come. These in­clude the idea that the holy wa­ter in the monastery will pro­vide a more ef­fec­tive cure for HIV than med­i­ca­tion.

Women who opt to train in pot­tery may also find them­selves bat­tling an old lore that peo­ple in­volved in pot­tery have an ‘evil eye’, lead­ing to the marginal­i­sa­tion of those who prac­tise the craft.

Across town a Goal ChildS­pace project looks to bring hun­dreds of street chil­dren through a pro­gramme to help them re-so­cialise and learn how to be­come self-suf­fi­cient through en­trepreneur­ship or to help them re­unite with their fam­i­lies. There are 600,000 chil­dren liv­ing on the streets of Ethiopia in dan­ger­ous and dam­ag­ing con­di­tions, many at­tracted to the cap­i­tal.

Both ini­tia­tives are funded in part by Ir­ish State aid.

In ad­di­tion to com­plex do­mes­tic prob­lems, Ethiopia is bat­tling a refugee cri­sis of its own, with al­most one mil­lion refugees reg­is­tered with the gov­ern­ment, though the true num­ber is not known.

The Ir­ish del­e­ga­tion vis­ited a camp in the north­ern re­gion of Tigray on the fi­nal day of its trip. While most Ethiopian refugees have fled from South Su­dan, the re­open­ing of the bor­der be­tween Eritrea and Ethiopia has led to a surge of peo­ple flood­ing over.

Many hope to travel to Eu­rope where they believe a bet­ter life awaits but for some the camp has been their home for a decade.

The Taoiseach spoke to sev­eral fam­i­lies, mostly women who had trav­elled with their chil­dren to the rel­a­tive safety of the camp. One woman was hop­ing to go on to Lux­em­bourg, while oth­ers who met the del­e­ga­tion were happy to find a home in the ‘sec­ond coun­try’ of Ethiopia where they share the lan­guage with the peo­ple of the Tigray re­gion. There are more than 12,000 peo­ple in the camp.

De­spite the chal­lenges fac­ing Ethiopia, lo­cals say they have more rea­son to hope at the mo­ment af­ter Abiy Ahmed was voted in as prime min­is­ter last year. A young and re­form­ing politi­cian, he has pledged to over­haul the econ­omy and has brought peace by end­ing the bor­der dis­pute with Eritrea. Many of his moves have been pro­gres­sive, in­clud­ing se­lect­ing a gen­der-bal­anced cab­i­net and end­ing a state of emer­gency in the coun­try. He has wel­comed back ex­iled op­po­si­tion lead­ers and ap­pointed them to sig­nif­i­cant roles, and has also vowed to tackle cor­rup­tion, with sev­eral high-pro­file peo­ple ar­rested.

The gov­ern­ment has pledged to end the cul­ture of surveil­lance em­bed­ded in the coun­try which to date has run on the ‘one to five’ sys­tem where one house­hold would be re­spon­si­ble for mon­i­tor­ing five oth­ers.

The Ir­ish con­tin­gent no­ticed the dif­fer­ence; lo­cals say they feel more free­dom to dis­cuss pol­i­tics, even with their ex­tended fam­ily. The prime min­is­ter has promised free and fair elec­tions in 2020.

But his elec­tion has not come with­out con­cern — he is the coun­try’s first Oromo leader, shift­ing power from the Tigray re­gion where it has resided for gen­er­a­tions.

There is also the fear that his prom­ises are so sweep­ing that fail­ure to de­liver on them may see the frag­ile peace in the coun­try upset.

But for the mo­ment Ethiopia looks to be on the cusp of rad­i­cal change and the visit by the Taoiseach has reaf­firmed Ire­land’s in­ter­est in it.

The re­la­tion­ship is chang­ing; as well as di­rect state aid there is a need to bol­ster eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity in the coun­try and to en­sure that Eu­rope’s re­la­tion­ship with Ethiopia is not lost to Chi­nese in­ter­ven­tion.

At the close of his visit, Mr Varadkar de­clared the need for Eu­rope to “get Africa right” in or­der to tackle the prob­lems cre­ated by mi­gra­tion at the root. But he could have left in no doubt that there is no sim­ple so­lu­tion — and find­ing the po­lit­i­cal will in Eu­rope may prove dif­fi­cult.

‘There are 600,000 chil­dren liv­ing on the streets of Ethiopia’

LEO AFRICANUS: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his Ethiopian coun­ter­part, prime min­is­ter Abiy Ahmed, in Ad­dis Ababa

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