Transforming lives in Ethiopia

2024 partner visit: Q&A with our CEO Lisa

Reading time: 8 min

Sunrise view from a mountain, yellow grasses and trees and the city of Hawassa in the distance.

Updates and highlights from Lisa's trip

Last month our CEO Lisa Cousins visited some of our partners in and around Addis Ababa, Hawassa and the Afar region. In this CEO update Q&A, she shares her highlights and updates from this trip, and gives further insight into how we work.

"It is such a joy to be able to see the work as it happens. These experiences never fail to humble me and highlight the impact that you, our supporters, are making day in and day out with your steadfast support."

It is usual for me to travel to Ethiopia up to two times a year to meet with all our partners and to monitor how your funding has been used on the ground. Ethiopiaid do not have staff based in Ethiopia and work solely through local partners.

I try to visit all our 13 main partners in person at least once a year. Some of whom we have worked with for over 15 years, so it can feel like visiting old friends. Emails and video calls are okay, but nothing quite matches being able to spend time with them. There is huge value in seeing the work, meeting their staff and the communities they’re helping and getting a real feel for how we can best support them from the UK.

Lisa with some of the APDA team

Visiting the Afar Region

I had never quite made it to Afar before, so with this being my first visit to the region it certainly made the biggest impact on me this time.  The landscape, culture and people were different to other regions I have visited.  I found spending four days with the Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA) team and their programme coordinator Valerie Browning particularly memorable. We drove vast distances across the very rural landscape to see the work APDA are doing across the region to end harmful practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage.

Leaving the main town of Semera, we travelled by land rover for many long hours to a place called Awra. Here we were greeted by a gathering of women outside of a village of small traditional Afar domed homes, deboitas (pictured below).

Working to end harmful practices

Spending time here in discussion with the women and girls really hammered home to me that meaningful development work is not about quick wins, but about establishing trust and building relationships over a long period of time.  Valerie and her team explained that they have been working with this community for several years. I was introduced to Myram, a women’s health extension worker, and Shewit who is one of four traditional birth attendants (TBAs) in this community.  They told me how they are working to end early marriage and that girls (and their families) are encouraged to complete school and not marry until they are 18 years old.  Before APDA’s programme, girls in this village were considered suitable to marry at 13 years.

Speaking with women and girls about stopping harmful practices.

Dedicated to bringing about change

I asked the women about FGM practices, and I discovered that whilst attitudes have changed it was a slightly different story.  Changing deeply ingrained practices takes time and commitment. It requires not only working with women and girls, but working with clan leaders, religious leaders, the community and wider family members.  Through this work the women told me that they no longer perform extreme forms of FGM and it is now a ‘lesser’ type. 

Initially I felt disappointment that FGM was still happening, but then I realised just how far this community had come.  The TBAs and some of the women told me that they want all forms of FGM to stop and are working to make that a reality.

I was in awe at these determined and brave women speaking out in front of the men and the religious leader of the village.  They are striving for change and what has been achieved so far is thanks to APDA. They are working with them, committed to be there for as long as it takes to eradicate it altogether.  My lasting memory was the lively and intense discussion in the car among the APDA team as we drove away from the village.  They are determined to return very soon to support the women and work with the men to address their attitude to harmful practices. 

Ethiopiaid has been working with an organisation to support older people (aged 70+) living in poverty in Addis. This partner (Support for Children, Women and Older People) provides monthly pensions to 1,071 people, who would otherwise have nowhere else to turn. Without any state welfare, the prospect of ageing, being unable to work and declining health can be terribly scary for people who have no family to support them. 

Visiting this project is always both encouraging and heartbreaking for me. I realise how essential this work is and although we cannot reach everyone, for over a thousand people, our support is a lifeline.

Tsehay

I met 82-year-old Tsehay who was selling ground cabbage seeds on the side of a busy road.  Her name roughly translates as ‘sunshine’ and she certainly lived up to this.  She welcomed me with a huge smile and laughter, and then proudly guided us to her colourful home down a narrow side street. Tsehay lives in a basic one room shelter, her few belongings neatly stacked around her bed.  She told me that SCWOP helped her to start her petty trade business which tops up the monthly pension of 600 ETB (approx. £9).

A woman smiling, standing in front of a metal door and colourful blue and green walls
Tsehay outside her home.

With no family members to rely on, Tsehay must stay as healthy and strong as possible so that she can continue to look after herself.  She has only two sets of clothing and shared that one set is almost unwearable now. She asked the team if she could have another dress so that she can wash the dress she was wearing.

For many years we have been the sole funder of this work. SCWOP find it difficult to attract other donors to support them.  Perhaps this is because it focuses on older people or because it is about welfare rather than development.  Without our funding these people would struggle to survive. As I left her at her home, I couldn’t help but be moved by the positivity and warmth of such an amazing woman.  

We work with locally led Ethiopian registered organisations. We call these organisations our partners. Their depth of local knowledge combined with technical expertise, means their programmes are responsive to local culture and have strong community engagement and ownership.​ 

We listen to them and respond to their needs, whether it’s emergency funding, changes to agreed budgets, links with other organisations or capacity strengthening (staff training).

Some of our partnerships date back to when Ethiopiaid was first founded, others have joined more recently via recommendation or application. We encourage small local organisations to get in touch if they are delivering meaningful impact and addressing real needs in line with our vision and mission.

Travelling to Ethiopia is an experience that is both enriching and unforgettable – the culture, history, landscapes, and people.

Addis Ababa cityscape, high rise buildings with mountains behind.
Addis Ababa

Addis Ababa, the capital, seems to be busier every time I go! With a population of over 5 million people and an altitude of over 2,300 metres above sea level it takes a few days to adjust. We travel by local taxi which can quite an experience, navigating the traffic and noise. Endless rows of corrugated small homes, businesses and markets fill the gaps between modern high-rise buildings and an ever-increasing number of construction sites.

Outside the capital city

Afar was very different, it is the 4th largest region in Ethiopia (out of 9) yet has a population of less than 2 million. It regularly reaches temperatures of 45-50+ degrees. The majority of the Afar communities live a nomadic lifestyle following the pasture lands and rain.

I was struck by just how remote and disconnected these communities are from essential services like health centres, schools, transport, and how different their challenges are.

A lake under a blue and cloudy sky, green patches of reeds, birds and a fishing boat.
Lake Hawassa

Hawassa again is in stark contrast. Following the shores of Lake Hawassa the small city is alive with wildlife. Huge storks perch up in the trees, hyena run along the hills as you drive past and hippos doze in the shallows of the lake.

What always strikes me most is how warm and hospitable everyone is.

No matter where we visit, we are welcomed with exceptional coffee and often delicious fresh baked breads. Ethiopia is famous for its coffee and the smell of fresh roasting coffee, prepared on a small open stove in the corner of the room, is present almost everywhere.

The wonderful compassionate staff running the projects. Their dedication to helping their communities, and the gentleness and humility with which they interact with those they help is humbling.

I think that’s where the strength of our model lies. We don’t drop staff and projects in for a short time. The projects are created to fulfil a real need, they’re led by people who are known, trusted, and respected within the community. Our partnership supports and expands their impact, but whether we were there or not, these people would be serving the communities regardless.

This year will be a challenging one on many levels. Reports of drought and famine are increasing, the BBC reported on this recently: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-68198484. Inflation in Ethiopia means that our partner’s budgets are overstretched, and there are increasing numbers of vulnerable people needing support. The increase in the cost of goods such as grain, milk, and services like school fees and transport has and will continue to tip many families into poverty. Communities struggling to recover from conflict are now facing multiple challenges with drought and food shortages.

What can we do to help?

In the face of so much adversity it can feel overwhelming and difficult to know where to begin, but having seen how lives can be transformed by our partners and the knowledge that this is happening right now means we cannot give up. We are committed to sharing their stories and encouraging people to lend their support. I am often asked ‘What can I do to help?’, and the reality is, it’s financial support that’s needed. Our partners have the skills, they have the experience, and they are in place already and working. We just have to stand by them.

If you have any questions about our partners’ work, their plans for the coming year, or how you can support their life-transforming projects please do contact us.

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