For the past few days in Ethiopia, I’ve been struck by the recurring theme of complexity in the issues we’re encountering. If there’s anything I can tell you absolutely for sure it’s that there is no simple fix to the problems plaguing the people of Sub-Saharan Africa, and most especially Ethiopia.
Though the organizations on the ground here are doing incredible holistic work with the resources they have, the hurdles they continue to face are those that will have to be carefully maneuvered over and around, rather than leapt.
Ethiopia is the single most populated land-locked country in the world, and the second most populous country in Africa. Inhabited by more than eighty-four million people and with just over four-hundred thousand square miles of space this means they’re packed in at roughly two hundred people per square mile. Which is, if you can imagine it, quite astounding in and of itself.
While here we’ve seen over and over again how the tremendous population and high density living circumstances complicate the cycle of poverty. With so many people needing help, scalability is especially important for the organizations working here, but expansion can be slow and difficult. Meanwhile, infrastructure is not what it could be.
Over the past week our group has expressed surprise at the quality of the roads we’ve traveled. Many have been in far better condition than we would have expected — I’ve even observed that the paved roads are far better than many of the roads in my home state of Michigan, of course Ethiopia doesn’t deal with the freeze-thaw cycle that causes potholes either. But as we spoke with entrepreneurs here in Addis during a dinner meeting we were also surprised to find out that even the middle class families routinely lose power and that even in the bustling hub of the their capital, Addis Ababa, they’ve only been able to move away from dial-up internet in the last two years.
At the same time farmers struggle with market access for their products (something I’ll write more about later) and one textile company expressed distress over the world’s perception of Ethiopia and how trust in business relationships — or rather a lack thereof — has cost her company contracts, and, by extension, prevented her from hiring more employees, enriching more Ethiopians’ lives. In fact, while visiting Primary and Secondary Schools in the town of Mojo we were greeted by the difficulties of getting supplies and supporting people where they need to be first hand when we asked if we could donate books to the kids’ very lacking library and were told it was unlikely anything we sent would make it to them.
Meanwhile, in some areas — both geographical areas and areas of need — political red tape and cultural pre-conceptions rail against change in such a way that progress seems virtually impossible. We’ve heard stories of donated medications and supplies being confiscated despite all proper protocols having been followed, and while the Ethiopian people who have been willing to really open up about their government are few, those that have mostly expressed frustration and skepticism. Outside cities, in areas tightly bound by tradition and history, ideas about how to do things are deeply ingrained and difficult to manuever around. Change is coming, but slowly.
It has been difficult to wrap my head around the onslaught of information and experience we’ve been able to gather in the seven days we’ve been here, but as I come to terms with what I’ve seen and heard I’m slowly formulating ideas about ways in which these complex problems could be addressed. While I think Ethiopia and other developing countries like it need continued support in the form of governmental and NGO aid — those programs we’ve seen working wonders on the ground here already — I also believe big ideas and really revolutionary investment will have the most impact on her future.
And on that note, I’d like to leave you with the hopeful sounds of an African children’s school. Because, despite the complexity, hope continues to be what I feel most for Ethiopia.
*All photos by the incredible Karen Walrond.