Founded in 2013 to tackle issues including domestic violence and forced marriage through songs and online videos Yegna primary aim was to have an impact on the culture of the country by highlighting important social issues in the Ethiopian society. Its members Rahel Getu, Zebiba Girma, Eyerusalem Kelemework, Lemlem Haile Michael, and Teref Kassahun adopted stage names: Lemlem, Emuye, Sara, Mimi and Melat. The initial reception was, to a larger extent good; however, things started to get a bit shaky for the band, dubbed “Ethiopia’s Spice Girls”. It was the victim of a long-running campaign by The Daily Mail, which claimed grants to the group were a waste of money eventually leading the British government to withdraw its support. Now, things are looking up once again for the band having received new funding writes Samuel Getachew.
When Prime Minister Theresa May appointed Priti Patel, the right-wing parliamentarian as the face of British aid in 2016 following a poor electoral result that reduced the Tory party to that of minority status and was forced to appease the influential blue voice within caucus, Patel wanted to change the narrative of British aid as one that held “core Tory values”.
The darling of the ruthless British tabloid media that advocated for a protectionist British society with little regards to international aid and development, she wanted to echo a slew of one-liner initiatives borrowed from the editorials of the nation’s daily tabloid newspapers.
She was urged to help curb “waste in the 12 billion foreign aid budget at a time when social care is in crisis”.
To the British public that is more enthusiastic with band-aid solutions when it comes to Africa – starting from the efforts of Bob Geldof’s Do They Know Its Christmas charity effort – the idea of empowering women and girls was not a popular idea to endorse.
When the media found out the government was about to fund Ethiopia’s Yegna musical group, dubbed the “Spice Girls of Ethiopia”, the posh 1990s British all-female group that produced manufactured sounds, it was seen an excessive waste of money.
That was the shotgun to reduce Britons responsibility in the world and a hit for the British media.
For a period of one-week, Yegna became controversial and The Daily Mail, one of the most influential tabloid newspapers used it to lobby for the end of foreign aid and used a year-old report by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact review of the Girl Hub programme (the name since changed to Girl Effect) to condemn the funding announcement.
The report had highlighted how the now Girl Effect group “remained concerned” (about Yegna) and that “DfID should consider in depth whether ongoing funding is merited and either reach a decision to cease funding or consider extending the project for a year to enable the evaluation to be completed”.
Despite an initial lukewarm endorsement of the initiative from Minster Patel, who credited the effort as one having an impact on women and girls on forced marriage and teenage pregnancies, the government withdrew its support. “We need to provide (taxpayers) with assurance that public money is being spent effectively and that our aid delivery partners apply the highest standards in transparency and ethical behavior,” she said.
The outcry was widespread, including from the aid community, the left-leaning Labor opposition which called her decision “sensationalist, headline-grabbing stories of waste and corruption (that) have become an ever increasing staple of British newspapers and from noted Britons, including poet, Lemn Sissay. “It’s wrong to let Yegna to hang out and dry,” he said. “They were the babies of the British Council, the former British ambassador to Ethiopia and the Nike Foundation. They all brokered this deal for the betterment of Ethiopia”.
Fast forward a year, in the midst of controversy and to some extent secrecy that has clouded its efforts from the outset, Yegna announced a new funding has been allocated to continue its work within Ethiopia. (The Reporter repeatedly reached out to Gayathri Butler, the country director of Girl Effect Ethiopia, but she rebuffed the request). “Our funders, including institutions and private donors are not willing to have their names made public,” she said.
At a press conference held at Assay Public School earlier this week and a concert, Girl Effect released a music video of the group and announced the relaunch of a new radio program that is has named, “Yegna, Ethiopia’s sound of change starting on December 10 on Fana FM 98.1.
There were hundreds of young people singing every song, dancing and yelling to get the attention of the group members, who after five years first being introduced are now much older, transitioning to the responsibilities of motherhoods. To adolescent young people who waited patiently for their performance, the message they carried looked like one coming from a mother, rather than the girl power message they introduced half-a-decade ago.
There was no denying the power of music to attract the attention of these young people with words that transcends generations on the message of history, black pride and personal growth. Before DfID suddenly canceled the funding of Yegna, it was its star project, earning a grade of A in its annual evaluation for three years.
Yegna has had many shortcomings, including restricting their members to do or work anything else that is not associated with Yegna. Critics complained that was limiting the potential of members by financially limiting their advancement and contrary to its girl power message. With the reduction of funding, members of the group confirmed to The Reporter that they are now allowed to venture into other initiatives, provided it does not compromise the Yegna brand.
“We only work part time with Yegna,” one member of the group said. “We are now involved in other projects.”
Branding an ambitious “independent survey” from the Sub-Saharan Africa Research Training Center, Girl Effect had suggested the reach of its efforts to “8.5 million people, or 50 percent of the population in Addis Ababa and the Amhara region of Ethiopia”. These exaggerated figures have continued to follow the effort of Girl Effect as it also claimed that, because of Yegna, “three quarters of girls who listen to Yegna say the band have inspired them to continue their education and 95 percent of young male listeners say they would speak out against a girl being forced to marry”.
“The new and improved radio show will include the most popular elements of the previous program and take them to the next level,” Yenga announced at the press conference at Assay.
For some the announcement sounds like an overstatement but whatever seems to be the case it has not been a bed of roses for Yegna and the controversy that surrounded the project that has undermined the growth and impact of what is otherwise a unique international project that can potentially have an impact. “In an era where funders are requesting the names of funders to be posted on buildings and institutions, the unwillingness to be more open is what makes me nervous and curious,” a commentator who requested anonymity told The Reporter.