Government representatives from around the world convened in Addis Ababa from July 13th to 16th to outline a funding plan for the United Nation’s seventeen post-2015 sustainable development goals (SDGs). The title of the gathering – the Third International Conference on Financing for Development (FFD3) – implies the central theme of the discussions: money. Who will pay to end poverty and hunger, provide access to justice for all, and achieve gender equality in the next fifteen to twenty years? According to the final Addis Ababa Action Agenda, signed on July 16th 2015, ambassadors hope that in addition tax revenue, about half of the resources will come from the private sector. Yes, governments are now asking profiteering capitalists – from small businesses to multinational corporations – to contribute to equitable social progress.
Let’s pretend for a moment that CEOs are willing to squeeze their profit margins in order to help the UN achieve its aspirations. How would they begin to shift their business strategies to meet the UN’s standards? One organization, the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) (where I work part-time back in New York), is tasked with engaging business people in the UN’s work. The ICC registered 753 interested business representatives for the conference and helped organize a full day of panel discussions on July 14th, called the International Business Forum, which featured speakers from Mastercard, Unilever, and Citibank, among other multinationals.
I assisted with logistics by working in the badge center, a large white tent near the airport parking lot called Millennium Hall, where attendees presented themselves upon arriving in Addis. For three non-consecutive days I sat behind a long counter of desktop computers, each with a different database of conference participants. Mine held names of business people who registered through the ICC, ensuring that I would not be able to admit anyone from outside the private sector constituency. Government officials, NGO workers, journalists, and drivers would have to stand on separate lines leading to their respective desks, none of which seemed to be correctly labeled.
Every day of FFD3 week, Millennium Hall overflowed with confused conference goers wandering between long queues in search of their appropriate badge issuer. On July 14th, I was sent away from the International Business Forum back to Millennium Hall on an urgent mission – to print the badge of one impatient CEO using his LinkedIn profile for the photo. In the taxi on my way to the badge center my phone rang. “Are you Rachel Sander?” the unidentified caller asked frantically.
“Yes, this is Rachel Sander.”
“You need to come to Millennium Hall now! There are 20 people who have been waiting for two hours to get their badges!”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I’ll be there in five minutes.”
When I arrived at the badge printing station, about ten people were arguing with local staff members who were not authorized to approve of non-registered business representatives. Workers behind the non-profit desk watched nervously, also unable print badges for private sector participants. I took my seat behind the computer and all eyes turned on me – suddenly I was the decision-maker in the room. I explained to my Ethiopian colleagues that we could add the new registrants and asked the first businessperson to step forward for his picture. As soon as camera clicked, the room’s tension evaporated. After about twenty minutes the badge-printing area was completely cleared.
Navigating bureaucratic procedures doesn’t come naturally to fast-paced doers of the business world. If governments expect CEOs of multinational corporations to take a stronger role in the deliverance of social services, both parties must collaborate sufficiently to ensure transparency in project design and implementation phases. The controversy of public-private partnerships warns that autonomy between the two sectors will be compromised, opening doors for corrupt, rent-seeking behavior. So, what is the ultimate solution to channeling private funds into public services? Intercept tax avoidance and evasion, close the loopholes, and reallocate funds to the bottom, the foundation, of the global economic pyramid.
In Africa, there is an expression that warns natives and newcomers not to be shocked when plans don’t go as expected.
“This is Africa,” Alelign, the driver for Wide Horizons laughed as he weaved through oncoming traffic on Addis’s peripheral highway, narrowly avoiding collision with overcrowded buses and cargo trucks.
“This is Africa,” Alebel, my tour guide through Gonder and Bahir Dar shrugged, as I emerged from a roadside bush, commenting on the wads of toilet paper I found in the dirt.
“This is Africa,” my friend Eden whispered as we walked up an unlit street to Absinthe bar, urging me to clutch my pocketbook.
In a humorous context the phrase is used to assuage anxious tourists. But spoken more seriously, it crystalizes the pervasive idea that social norms don’t apply here. Just as I might shoot a suspicious glare towards strangers who tell Jewish jokes, “This is Africa” is one those idioms that should only be uttered by locals. I’ve decided to stop using the expression in a cautionary context. If “Africa” is ever to shed its image of helpless disorder, no slogan should reduce the continent to a single, distorted concept that strips 54 countries of their national character.
For three years a bicycle has served my primary mode of transportation. So when I arrived in Addis Ababa in early June, I had no intention of spending the summer entirely on foot or in cramped public transit. I told Daweet, the owner of a local Wi-Fi café, about my dream to cycle long-distance post-IFP. As I spoke, he reached into his pocket and began texting on his smartphone. I assumed that my plans bored him, but then Daweet told me his friend David enjoys cycling and would come to the café to advise me.
Less than 10 minutes later, David arrived wearing a formfitting sports jersey and cargo pants. He said I could have one of his bicycles to use for the summer free of charge. A few days later we met again at the cafe and David handed over a twelve-speed mountain bike, lock chord, and helmet.
The following Sunday I set out to explore AddIs. I began riding right on the dirt road in front of my house where I’d normally go left. I turned onto a two-lane paved street, weaved between oncoming taxis, tire-eating potholes, and cart-hauling donkeys. Arriving at an unmarked roundabout, I merged into the orbit of vehicles and continued onto an uphill dirt road.
My bicycle bumped up and down over rocks and recesses. Vendors peered over their kiosks and called “Firenje” (foreigner) as I passed. A round man shouted “Konjo” (beautiful) from his porch seat and held up a tall glass of golden liquid, undoubtedly tej, Ethiopian honey wine. He waved me over, his porch-mates laughing embarrassedly, but I continued pedaling towards tree-lined hilltop ahead. I felt something drop beneath my right foot, looked down, and saw that the pedal had fallen off the crank set. I swerved the bicycle back downhill, the drunk man yelling excitedly, “Awo! Come!” but my eyes remained fixed on the ground, scanning the dirt for my missing bike part.
I found the pedal across the road from my admirer’s home. By the time I reached down to pick it up, three more men were at my side, looking to see why I had suddenly changed course. I handed the cracked, plastic part to the most eager onlooker and twisted my wrist as if to gesture “Wrench?” He inspected the pedal earnestly, scratched his thick mustache, and disappeared behind an open gate adjacent to the house of tej drinkers. I followed helplessly and discovered a row of Addis taxis resting under a canopy of corrugated sheet metal. A scrawny teenager lay face-up on the ground, tapping the underbelly of one of the tired vehicles.
As I propped my bicycle against the auto shop entrance, the drunkard rushed down the steps of his porch carrying an empty glass and a pitcher of tej. He extended both arms towards me but I wagged my hands, nodded towards the bicycle, and mimed a steering wheel maneuver. After a few minutes of avoiding the day-drinker’s lecherous glare, the mustached mechanic finally arrived. He knelt beside the bicycle and began threading a strand of flexible wire through the pedal. Using a set of pliers, he twisted the thin chord around the crank arm. Fifteen minutes later my pedal was firmly reattached. I handed the mechanic 50 birr and mounted the bicycle. The tej drinker lunged forward and planted a kiss on my cheek. I allowed the bicycle to roll away back down the hill and waved goodbye at the men behind me.
Visit to Hawassa
Last Sunday six interns and our program coordinator accompanied Haftu, WHFC’s Country Director for Ethiopia, to the organization’s Hawassa office in the southern zone of Sidame. As our van broke away from Addis traffic, the scenery changed from ashy construction sites to verdant valley. For five hours I admired the passing landscape: roadside teff glowed like plots of neon light strips; human-sized cacti rose from patchy plains reminiscent of a Dr. Seuss illustration; Eucalyptus forests, planted 150 years ago by Emperor Menelik II, emanated fresh, medicinal scents.
I found my spirits lighten with the clearing air. Life in Ethiopia’s countryside, I thought, would surely be brighter than the crowded slums I saw last week. I looked forward to an encouraging, 3-day stay in Hawassa, a city of about 200,000 and growing.
On Monday morning a WHFC social worker brought myself and two other interns to visit clients in Family Empowerment Program. First we met Tigest, who illiterately manages 3 businesses so she can put her orphaned niece, Galani, through high school. Our second host was Felekech, a divorced grandmother who supports seven school-aged dependents by renting three decrepit bedrooms in her home. Five of Felekech’s children have dropped out of school to work as day laborers, earning barely enough income to cover basic necessities.
The next day the group of students traveled two hours to the wooded village of Gowadamo. There we met the biological family of our program coordinator’s twin daughters who he adopted seven years ago when they were two years old. The girls’ birth mother shares her thatch-roofed hut with three children and one goat. The family has not been able to improve their farm’s yield beyond consumption and remains vulnerable to unproductive harvests.
On our final morning, the group of students and WHFC staff met in the office to debrief the 3-day visit. Haftu explained that poverty tends to be less severe in rural areas because farmers can at least produce their own food. Villagers benefit from cleaner air, more spacious environments, and a close community for social support. They are nonetheless more deprived in education because schools tend to be further away and less equipped. An average classroom holds 80 students per teacher.
After thanking our hosts, the interns piled back into the van for our journey home. Again I watched the scenic views drift passed. Orange, teal, and lavender houses lined the unpaved road. But how much cheer do these facades bring when inside a mother lays her child to sleep on a hard, dirt floor? On the way we visited the newly opened Leku Hospital, whose construction was funded by WHFC but is now run by the government. How much hope can the facility inspire when its intensive care unit consists of three beds and two IV infusion machines? Continuing north we stopped at a roadside market where children swarmed our van selling handicrafts and fruit. How much joy do their smiles radiate when they reveal brown, decaying teeth?
If poverty is more bearable in rural areas, it is because small acre farms protect families from chronic hunger. Still, lack of electricity, running water, and access to education mean less opportunity for mobility. As I continue to study and practice international development, I must remember not to pit urban and rural poverty against each other. Just as each government faces its own contextual challenges, so does every deprived household from both city and country.
Less than one month ago I sat alone in a side conference room of the New School library close to to 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Facing a disarrayed spread of graded assignments, class notes, and textbooks, I wondered if the school stress would eventually pay off. Who was I to think that passing an Econometrics exam would lead to positive change for 80% of the world living in poverty? Maybe I should have gone to trade school, learned to fix bicycles and support myself as a mechanic. Wouldn’t I be happy that way, if not self-sufficient?
These questions were quelled this past Monday on my first day interning with Wide Horizons for Children (WHFC). Some time after 9 a.m. at the WHFC offices, I sat down with two New School colleagues and Atsede, a late-twenties Ethiopian social worker with a soft, gap-toothed smile. Atsede explained the organization’s “Economic Empowerment Program” which provides monthly stipends of 350 birr (about $17) to poor, mostly single mothers. The stipends are invested in micro-businesses, such as yarn to weave baskets or teff grain to cook injera for local restaurants. Once the business proves profitable for a number of years, the client qualifies for a grant ranging between 5,000 and 20,000 birr ($250 to $1,000). The lump sum pays for improved technology or additional materials allowing the recipient to become financially independent and “graduate” from the program.
After running through the details and sharing a buna (Ethiopian coffee), Atsede took us interns to the homes of three women in the Economic Empowerment Program. First we met Birhane, who sells plastic jewelry and hair accessories to her neighbors in an Addis slum. Birhane was widowed 15 years ago while pregnant with her first child. Without any family support, she nearly gave birth on the street until a stranger brought her to a hospital. Birhane later moved into the dirt-floored hovel smaller than my college dorm room where we heard her story. Equipped with one light bulb and no running water, these spaces were originally provided by the government as places of business but eventually became homes for Addis’s poor. Birhane reluctantly remarried in order to ward off men from entering her home and harassing her every night. She bore two more children with her second husband who occasionally brings by a few dollars of child support.
As Birhane recounted her life since entering motherhood, her expression shifted between sadness, gratitude, distress, humor and fear. I often heard her say “exabiermeskin” meaning “thank god” in Amharic. At one point she waved her hand across the narrow room and laughed, “This is how we live.”
Birhane told us that as a young girl she was eager to learn, but her family could not afford good schools. For that reason Birhane’s first priority is her children’s health and education. She saves money from her unstable income to send her eldest child, 14 year-old Dhine, to after-school tutoring. Dhine is the top student in her district, loves biology and physics, and is determined to win a scholarship so she may attend a private high school and university.
After leaving Birhane we drove a few minutes to the home of Sayie, who lives in a slightly larger shack with her sister and daughter. Sayie sells handwoven baskets and potholders to her contacts at the Swedish Embassy. Before meeting WHFC, Sayie made string by ripping plastic bags into thin strips. She uses her stipend to buy colored thread and hopes to one day purchase a sewing machine.
Finally we met Aster, a 39 year-old grandmother who, for the past 18 years, has washed her neighbors’ clothes in plastic buckets. Transporting water by hand in 2 to 3 gallon containers, Aster built a reputation as the neighborhood laundress. She saved 3,000 birr supplemented by a 7,000 birr grant to purchase a washing machine. The investment will increase Aster’s electricity bill by 200 birr per month, but she expects the advanced technology to improve her market share and efficiency. Aster supports 5 family members who live in her small, tin-roofed home. She hopes to begin saving enough money to qualify for public housing, which the government promises to build in the next three years. Aster has lived with HIV for 13 years, and has been taking ARD for the past seven.
So, will the pressures of final exams, thesis deadlines, and student loans pay off after two years at the New School? Upon remembering how fortunate I am to ask these questions, it seems they already have.
Roaming through Addis Ababa during orientation week of the IFP, I was often reminded of my first international development internship in Dhaka, Bangladesh four years ago. I suppose some sights, smells, and sounds are commonplace in developing cities: bamboo scaffolding supporting cement buildings frames; small piles of trash burning along residential roads; roosters from neighboring slums crowing at daybreak. Around the world, urban poverty manifests itself through similar physical traits. While these resemblances are easily recognizable in Addis, my comfort level here reaches far beyond what I felt in Dhaka. Addis air doesn’t scratch my throat with every inhalation. Almost no beggars suffer from disfigurement or maiming. Even public transportation, usually shared minivans, seems safer than shaky rickshaws.
Perhaps the most appreciated improvement in daily life, especially for a Westerner living in the upscale neighborhood of a poor city, comes from treatment by the locals. Bangladeshis were unabashedly curious about foreigners. They stared intently and sometimes snapped cellphone pictures as we crossed paths. Ethiopians welcome newcomers with friendly greetings, but generally focus their eyes ahead towards their destination. For a native New Yorker who walks fast and impassively, the social reservation feels like home.
Over the next two months I will continue to be awestruck by sandal-clad construction workers, barely averted traffic collisions, and goats herded along city highways but will take solace knowing that I myself shock nobody. Without the worry of disapproval by my new neighbors, all that remains is settling into another routine.