In the 35 years since a devastating famine caught the world’s attention, Ethiopia has changed drastically. It’s time the world’s perceptions caught up with reality.
By Craig and Marc Kielburger
In Kilenso Mokonissa, one of the smallest villages in its region of Ethiopia, Grade 9 students listen closely to a lecture on the principles of democracy. They sit in a spacious classroom with wide windows overlooking lush countryside. Just six years ago, lessons on the rule of the majority would have been forbidden under the harsh rule of then-Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. But things in Ethiopia have changed.
For those of us old enough to remember the country’s devastating famine in 1984, this small snapshot of Ethiopia is a stark contrast. Growing up, an entire generation saw Ethiopia as a place filled with starving children. Even though 2019 will mark 35 years since the drought, the image of distended bellies and dry grass and poor infrastructure is still strong. Now, as the world mourns the victims of the recent Ethiopian Airlines flight, we have to guard against these stereotypes.
Having visited recently (Marc travelled to the country several times last year), we can say it’s time those perceptions caught up with reality. Because how we in the West think about a country and its issues will inform how we reach out when we want to help.
According to the United Nations, Ethiopia’s economy has grown by at least 10 percent every year since 2004. Investments in sectors such as education and health have more than doubled the country’s literacy rates, especially among women. Maternal mortality rates have plummeted from 1,400 per 100,000 live births in 1990 to 350 in 2015, according to the IMF.
In 2018, the country made history when it elected Sahle-Work Zewde, its first female president. That same year, a reformist named Abiy Ahmed became its youngest prime minister. Both come from the historically marginalized Oromo ethnic group, and their presence at the highest tiers of government has meant hope for many of their people.
“Look at our prime minister and the president, both are educated people from Oromia,” said Jembere Bekele, an Oromo farmer our team in Ethiopia met recently. “I believe we can be great people if we learn to give priority to education.”
The country is also more peaceful. The new government ended its 20-year border war with neighbouring Eritrea last July. The war had claimed tens of thousands of lives and nearly destroyed the economies of both countries. Many of the journalists and activists who’d been locked up or exiled under Zenawi’s dictatorship have been freed.
And businesses all over the world are starting to notice. Prime Minister Abiy announced in January that Ethiopia will host the 2020 World Economic Forum. The event will convene more than one thousand of the world’s leading minds in politics, business, civil society and academia.
Ethiopia still faces significant challenges, but we need to stop thinking about it as a place defined by its problems. More importantly, Ethiopia proves we should rethink how we react when we read about crises in other countries.
We must avoid the pity-based charity that was the hallmark of the global response to the 1984 famine. Band-Aid solutions and handouts only reinforce negative stereotypes in a cycle of dependence. Instead, we have to see the underlying strength of the country and work with its citizens.
This should be our motivation for giving—because we want to become partners in creating transformative change.