After a very productive scouting trip in Ethiopia and Guatemala, I’m home again — and I’m already looking forward to going back. I’ll be there again in April with our crew, to film a one-hour public television special on the hows and whys of modern development aid. My trip was made possible by many wonderful non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and I’d like to credit them now for their support and commitment to making our world a better place. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a great impact on Ethiopia. They were my primary “fixer” there, and Meron Semunegus, from their Addis Ababa office, was my guide. Gates is synonymous with smart development in Ethiopia — a country with a changing image, thanks to recent progress. I’m a big fan of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), and part of the inspiration for this project came from David Beasley, the executive director of the WFP. A year ago, I had dinner with him in Rome, where he oversees the distribution of UN funds to fight hunger, and his passion for this challenge was contagious. On this trip, I visited WFP health posts in southern Ethiopia and Guatemala. In Guatemala, I worked the director of the WFP there, Laura Melo. In Ethiopia, I visited a village in the Tigray region supported by A Glimmer of Hope, which provided many vivid examples of how to help people help themselves. And we visited with Bete Demeke, who heads up Project Mercy — an NGO that’s innovating winning ways to stoke development. In Guatemala, I hired Augsburg College’s Center for Global Education and Experience (my alma mater in Central American educational tourism) to provide me with essentially a private tour. CGEE’s Guatemala Site Coordinator, Fidel Xinico Tum, was my primary guide there. We met with Nate Bacon, of InnerCHANGE, to learn about Guatemalan gangs and life in a Guatemala City barrio, and Karen Larson of Friendship Bridge took us to see their microloan and women’s empowerment work at Lake Atitlán. I spent a very busy day in Huehuetenango with the Guatemala director of Project Concern International, Pascale Wagner, seeing the impressive work they do — and another experience-filled day in Nebaj with Chris Megargee, seeing the inspirational work of Agros International in three communities (El Paraíso, La Esperanza, and Cajixay). Every day on this trip, I met people whose mission is to help struggling people lift their lives out of poverty. And I flew home excited to make a TV special that shows that the battle against extreme poverty is a battle worth fighting — and it’s a battle we can win. Stay tuned.
It’s a hopeful time for Ethiopia. The country’s young new leader, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, is a peacemaker — and he seems to be moving this multiethnic land toward democracy. Two of his first actions as prime minister: releasing thousands of political prisoners and ending a 20-year war with Eritrea.
Under Dr. Ahmed’s leadership, the federal government seems to be striving for good, decentralized governance — by taking full advantage of the “kebele” system, a network of several thousand small administrative units with locally elected leadership, stretching across the whole country.
While there will always be poor people, overcoming extreme poverty in our lifetime is well within reach. Two big hurdles: climate change and conflict. Economists believe that by 2030, nearly half the remaining people living in extreme poverty will be citizens of war-torn countries. All too frequently, national borders — often drawn by colonial powers — ignore ethnic regions. That’s certainly a basis for the strife in Libya, Iraq, and Syria. And it’s been a challenge in Ethiopia, which has a proud ethnic group for each of its many languages.
In countries with multiple ethnic regions, good governance means decentralizing — with regional governments that are empowered, but still accountable to the national government. Development needs stability rather than conflict, and that requires respect for ethnic regions.
We’re producing a new special about hunger, airing next fall on public television — and for the past week, I’ve been scouting in Ethiopia, one of Africa’s development success stories. We’ll use the information I learn on this trip to write a better script and, ultimately, produce a better program when I return in April with our TV crew.
One big takeaway has been that education is a government priority — and a fundamental part of Ethiopia’s success. The number of K-8 schools here has tripled in the last 20 years, and almost all Ethiopian children now go to primary school. Here’s a fun look at the art that decorates the playground at one of them.
Traveling this week through Ethiopia, my favorite moments were far from the cities and far from the main roads. (If you simply assess things from what you experience on the paved main roads, your judgment is skewed by “road bias.”) We’d drive in rugged SUVs almost cross-country to reach communities of people who aspire to earn $2 a day. Of course, with little language in common and economic realities that are so vastly different, there is a big gap between them and me. But the big smiles, the lack of any angry edge, and the adorable children have left me tuned in to our common humanity. These memories are the Ethiopian souvenirs I’ll be taking home.
Here in Ethiopia, I’ve seen the value of foreign aid in the faces of its recipients — and you can see it too, in this little clip that shows the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) in action.
Foreign aid dollars are some of the best dollars America can spend on stability — and in an ever-smaller world, stability makes America more secure. Rather than old-fashioned charity, this is an investment in people. It’s smart development in action, funded by rich countries…and making a difference. I believe that if every American could stand where I’ve stood in Ethiopia, the vast majority would see that funding this work is simply a good investment. And they’d be proud — because the USA is a big funder of the WFP.