Dereje Wordofa is an Ethiopian with vast experience in humanitarian and development work. He has spent most of his career in international NGOs and the UN. His former role as the Deputy Secretary-General of the UN indicates that his career in the international organization goes right to the top of the organizational structure. He also served as the Africa Director of SOS Children’s Villages. Dereje completed his high school education from Hailemariam Mamo School in Debre Birhan and went on to earn his undergrad degree from Addis Ababa University in Management. He worked for the first ten years of his career in Ethiopia and moved abroad to work for international NGOs and the UN. He is one of only two people shortlisted to run for the Presidency of SOS Children’s Villages International. The Reporter’s Tewedaj Sintayehu spoke to the international civil servant on humanitarian issues, diplomacy, his SOS Presidential campaign and other issues.
How did you first go into humanitarian work?
Dereje: I went straight to humanitarian work in Eastern Harerge in 1988. I was stationed in Dire Dawa. My role was the coordination of emergency assistance and development. The greatest responsibility then was supporting refugees from Somalia, Hargessa and Mogadishu in Harteshek, Jigjiga and other places in the area. The job also entailed dietary surveillance of the people in the area, notifying the government and international organizations of the problems and reaching out to them before the problems aggravate. Vaccination activities were there along with development activities but humanitarian assistance took up much of the budget as the strains from wars were still felt back then. When the war in the Northern part of Ethiopia ended after about five years, I came to Addis and started doing National Rehabilitation works. The activity covered Wollo and Tigray. That part of the country was devastated by drought and war. Reaching out to the people, providing them support and carrying out rehabilitation works such as rebuilding schools, health stations and conducting agricultural activities were some of the things we did back then. We re-structured the health system in collaboration with the Ministry of health and even went into road construction. One of the main reasons for us to engage in road construction was that a number of people died of epidemics after they traveled long distances to reach Korem where they assembled in large numbers, which led to the spread of diseases. For instance, the road from Korem to Sekota was built with our advice as providing people with assistance necessitated the construction of roads. Apart from Northern Wollo, the problem was also severe in Tigray region. Areas such as Shire, Humera, Adigrat and Enticho were all affected. As the armed opposition advanced into the centre, humanitarian assistance required sophisticated steps that included negotiations with the group to avoid attacks, hoisting flags and parading. With the opening of the roads we were able to access those in need.
One of the measures taken back then to rescue the people was resettling them in other parts of the country. With the ethnic based system, however, they have been targets of identity based attacks. Are there some things in the humanitarian response then that you think should have been done differently?
Dereje: The Derge regime took resettlement as a long term solution to the drought in the Northern parts of Ethiopia. It’s one of the options available to address the issue. It’s, however, difficult to cite it as the best option out there. That is because whenever the rain fails, there is no harvest. Whenever there is no harvest, hunger is there. That means agriculture should not only be rain fed. Finding options such as irrigation, water storing techniques, improved farming methods that help harvest around the year and others that help improve their income all help avoid uprooting people from their localities. Had those options been there, uprooting people from their localities and settling them elsewhere would have been unnecessary. However, the resettlement still proved more expensive than rehabilitating people to develop the capacity to harvest more than once in a year and raise their income levels. There is the demand for higher management capacity in resettlement. Work needs to be done to make sure that the people living in the localities where the resettled people would be introduced accept the resettled. The later need to also be convinced of their resettlement in a different part of the country. However, the people were resettled forcefully. Humanitarian organizations did not believe in the need for resettlement; it was strictly a governmental measure. That was why we worked hard to invest on agriculture, health, education and road construction. Therefore, the decision to resettle them was not the best option to take.
In what other countries did you see administrative problems causing hunger and humanitarian problems?
Dereje: Drought has occurred in numerous places. Failed rain is not the only cause of drought and hunger. When something that disrupts the societal way of life happens, drought follows. That something could be an epidemic, flood and security problem. I’ve been to different places to provide emergency and humanitarian assistance in Mozambique when flood induced drought hit; I was in Zimbabwe after the economic problems that led to huge humanitarian problems; and I went to South Sudan after the war there and the poverty combined to render the people hungry. Such things diminish people’s capacity to buy food items.
On the other hand, measures taken ahead of the exacerbation of problems that lead to drought could help avert the danger. For instance, failed rains for a single season may not bring about drought. However, failed rains in consecutive seasons could be enough to create drought. A timely intervention by the relevant bodies when the first sign of the shocks appear could spare people’s lives. I’ve seen countries like Kenya and Uganda rescue their people from impending drought because of speedy response to shocks.
Because of the war in Tigray and ethnic based mass killings in different parts of the country, there have been millions of internally displaced people. What is the state of humanitarian problems in Ethiopia and how do you assess the government’s response to them?
Dereje: In fact, the problem exists all over the country. Ethiopian refugees have fled clashes and moved out of the country; others have been displaced internally to protect themselves and their families from attacks. There are also those that feel insecure. I’ve been following the situation and the number has been increasing. I haven’t gone out to see it for myself but from what I’ve been hearing, the government is aware of the problems and it is preparing itself to be there for the victims; it is also coordinating the efforts of other people to provide life saving solutions. I believe the displaced need to receive support to cope with their daily demands for food, water and medicine with the view to get them back to their villages within a reasonable amount of time. Getting them back doesn’t have to be a governmental decision but changing the situation in their localities could push them to go back on their own.
Rising to the position of Deputy Secretary-General entails being a top diplomat. Therefore, how do you evaluate the dynamics of Ethiopian diplomacy? Has it become stronger or is it weakening?
Dereje: Ethiopia has a great experience in poverty reduction, pursuing development and ensuring security locally and regionally. Ethiopia has come to be known for these positive strides. Agricultural extension, health services and peacekeeping are also taken as the best practices the rest of the world seeks to learn from Ethiopia.
The ongoing internal tension and clashes have the tendency to cover these positive strides. I believe these problems are temporary. When these problems are done away with, I believe Ethiopia’s capacity to solve the problems of its people will improve. If we managed to ensure relative peace, I don’t think there is any reason for the rest of the world not to hear our voice. Our diplomatic capacity has not diminished but I think it has been blurred by negative stories that have flooded the media. Although there might be people who might have developed negative views about Ethiopia, there are no moves to ostracize Ethiopia at the UN level.
Some people argue, however, that Ethiopian diplomacy has become considerably weaker as diplomats are not assigned based on merit. People with this view claim that politicians viewed unfavorably by the government are assigned as Ambassadors, just to keep them far.
Dereje: A lot has to be done to strengthen the diplomacy further. Ambassadors have to be assigned based on their educational and psychological capabilities. However, we cannot raise a few cases and conclude that Ethiopian diplomacy has gone weaker. For instance, the confidence and the strong analytical power of some of the Ethiopians in the UN that represent Ethiopia is a symbol of pride for themselves and their nation. Ethiopian diplomacy is still strong not just in the UN but also in its bilateral and multilateral engagements. There is tension in Ethiopian politics. Such analysis is brought by groups that do not want the very existence of the country and seek to belittle everything about the country. However, there is a lot of room for improvement.
Moving on to Agenda 2030, do you think the goals set could be achieved in the remaining time?
Dereje: These are multifaceted principles and programs designed to promote development. The effort is to take everyone, no matter where they live on the planet, out of poverty. It’s an ambitious goal that needs multiple billions of dollars annually. The UN has a number of agencies. However, the responsibility of ensuring sustainable development primarily rests on national governments. The UN’s role is to support efforts towards that end. Therefore, the UN’s plans have to support governmental goals on development. Governments, on the other hand, are expected to avail the necessary conditions for the two parties to work together.
Despite their ambitious nature, these goals might be achieved as we are midway into the time allotted for them. However, there are numerous factors that work against the achievement of the goals. The first of such factors has to do with the ability to absorb shocks. Inability to improve the security situation for countries like Ethiopia could, for instance, make it difficult to achieve the goals. The negative impacts of the pandemic can also be considered in here. Such a scenario could even see such countries track back on the changes registered thus far. The second factor is finance or budget. Government has to raise its revenue. The revenue needs to be spent on poverty reduction schemes. The third factor has to do with loans, aid and grants from international sources. There should be enough resources pulled from foreign sources. The resources raised from international organizations and states need to be spent on the programs. The finances available are, however, not enough. There is a huge gap. Counting on the finances from these sources is very difficult.
Has the Ethiopian government integrated and aligned its goals with those of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
Dereje: The government has aligned its goals with those of the SDGs and it is working closely with the UN to realize them. It’s not just the UN but also other international actors that have deliberated and supported these goals. The major issue is whether enough resources are pulled from the national government and the international actors towards realizing the programs. The government should also successfully play its role of creating conducive conditions for various bodies to carry out their duties. There should be conducive conditions for farmers to get back to farming.
You are currently running for the top post in SOS international. How is that progressing?
Dereje: The organization’s statutes provide that a person needs the support of ten countries to run for its Presidency, out of the 118 registered countries that can vote. SOS is a prestigious organization that has served children for 70 years. About 28 countries have already supported me. The final election is going to be held in June. I’m currently introducing the organization’s member associations to my vision of improving the lives of children and protecting their rights. Considering that I worked as the organization’s Africa Director before I went to the UN, Africans know me. Those that supporter the Africa programs, such as those in Europe and Latin America, also know me. However, others elsewhere may not know me and the vision and experience that I put on the table. We’re currently working to meet this group of people and share ideas with them.
What is your vision for the organization?
Dereje: If elected, I will become SOS’s third President. There has never been a competition between candidates for the post. This is going to be the first election drawing candidates for the Presidency. There were about 20 candidates at the onset of the election process. Currently, there are only two of us left. My only competitor is the current leader of the organization. If elected, I will work on achieving better coordination and unity between member countries. That could lead to better service for the children. The second issue I would work on is strengthening the senate’s capacity to pass timely decisions. The senate administers the federation and thus needs to reflect its strength through its strong decisions. Its capacity to monitor the activities of the General Secretary should be bolstered. The third is improving the service and care provided for children and youth. The fourth is coordinating the organization’s developmental and social activities with that of the international goals set for 2030, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The fifth is advocacy and engagement. Through this activity the organization would work to protect rights of the child that have been recognized by a number of international agreements and coordinate with other international organizations working on Children.
What do you advice Ethiopians who would like to have a long career in international organizations?
Dereje: They need to have passion and they should be determined to help others. They also have to update themselves constantly, both academically and psychologically. They need to learn from the good and bad experiences they have had. Dedication and discipline are very important in pursuing a successful career. I had colleagues who lost their lives because of job related hazards; therefore, persevering such hardships always builds up the stamina to go ahead.