Although it has been just a year serving in Ethiopia, Irish ambassador to Ethiopia, Sonja Hyland, is no stranger to the country anymore. She has travelled to many areas in the country, including in the Somali, Oromia, Southern, Gambella, Amhara and Tigray regional states visiting Irish aid projects in addition to promoting trade, and the culture of home. The ambassador reflects with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew on the highlights of Irish aid in Ethiopia, trade, on hosting Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney and finally reflects on the most famous Ethiopian-Irish actress, Ruth Negga. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Ireland recently announced needed resources to the Ethiopian Humanitarian Fund. Tell me about that?
Sonja Hyland: The Government of Ethiopia and the UN launched the 2018 Humanitarian and Disaster Resilience Plan this week. The plan outlines the immediate humanitarian needs in Ethiopia, with more than eight million people needing humanitarian assistance. The Plan also outlines the need to invest in resilience and prevention. Ireland immediately responded by announcing three million euros (100,000,000 birr) to the Ethiopian Humanitarian Fund which will go to support the eight million people in need in Ethiopia. We want to assist by disbursing funds as early as possible so that the government, UN and NGOs can reach vulnerable communities as early as possible. We are really encouraged that gender equality is a central priority in the Plan, because women are disproportionately affected by humanitarian crises.
Within Ethiopia, the efforts of Irish aid and those of the Irish celebrities are historic. From Bono to Bob Geldof, there has been an engagement in helping the humanitarian needs of the nation. How do you envision your nation to be engaged in Ethiopia when it comes to aid?
Ireland has been a partner for Ethiopia in meetings its humanitarian and development needs for decades. Next year, we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the opening of our Embassy here and of Irish Aid’s cooperation program. We currently provide 30 million euros (one billion birr) a year to support Ethiopia’s development priorities. There has been steady progress in reducing poverty, hunger and malnutrition, maternal and infant mortality, and building more resilient and prosperous communities. We would love to get to the stage where aid from Ireland is no longer needed and our partnership is based on mutual exchange and experience sharing on science, technology and innovation; education and skills training; trade, investment and entrepreneurship; tourism, culture and heritage; and best practice in transparent, open and citizen-responsive governance. We are starting to build partnerships with Ethiopia in some of these areas already that don’t rely on aid money. That’s our long-term vision. In the meantime, we are committed to continue to support Ethiopia’s development priorities.
You have highlighted how, in particular the issues of women and girls will be a priority in the efforts of Ireland in Ethiopia. Why is that?
No country can exit poverty and meet its development goals without empowering women and girls. There is overwhelming evidence that not only countries, but governments, institutions and companies do better when they are gender balanced. It makes total sense – if you are only using 50 percent of your potential talent base, you are not going to get very far. If women don’t have equal access to education, economic opportunities, an equal say in decision-making right up from the home to the top echelons of government and business, and access to reproductive health care so they can choose when and whether to have children, then we are trying to fly on one wing. That’s the case in Ireland, in Ethiopia, in Europe, in Africa – everywhere.
We want to support Ethiopia in its efforts to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment because it is the right thing to do but also because Irish Aid’s investments in health, social protection, governance, job creation, rural livelihoods and agricultural development programs will not deliver results unless women are fully included.
You have been in the country for less than a year. What have been the highlights so far?
The Embassy organized a fantastic visit of our Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney, to Ethiopia last November. He met with Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn, Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu (PhD), the African Union Commissioners for Peace and Security and for Political Affairs, with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and with UN and NGO partners. That visit really gave an impetus to our partnership with Ethiopia, the AU and IGAD.
Let us talk about trade, an area the Ethiopian government has put much emphasis on. What are some of the Irish companies operating here in Ethiopia and how is your embassy facilitating this Ethiopian ambition?
Probably the best known Irish company in Ethiopia is M-BIRR, the mobile money transfer service. It started with a small amount of funding from Ireland and Finland and now has millions of customers and is also supporting the PSNP program by facilitating cash transfers. We have also seen some interest from Irish companies in the agri-business and manufacturing sectors. We’ll be working with the Government of Ethiopia to share our experience of attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Ireland accounts for less than one percent of the EU population but we attract 4.5 percent of all FDI coming into the EU.
We’ve been named the best country in the world for attracting high-value foreign direct investment. To get to that position, we have focused on investing in education and skills, ensuring a stable regulatory environment, strong rule of law, a transparent and competitive tax system, a globalized and pro-business environment and a strong research capacity.
The capital is an ever metropolitan nation that is becoming culturally diverse. I notice there is now an Irish pub in the country. When you long for home, where do you usually spend your precious time?
I go up and walk in the Entoto hills behind my house! One of the things I miss about Dublin is the fresh air and being beside the sea and the mountains. There is no sea in Addis but there are beautiful mountains!
Since you came to Ethiopia, you have made various trips in the country. This, as you have made an announcement of funds and the inauguration of completed projects. Share with me the highlights?
So far, I have visited Somali, Oromia, Southern, Gambella, Amhara and Tigray regional states, to visit Irish Aid projects and also to look at trade, investment, cultural and education cooperation opportunities. One highlight was celebrating Meskel in Adigrat, Tigray Regional State at the invitation of the Mayor. My children loved the demera!
There is now an European universal concern of illegal migration throughout Europe, including Ireland. How is your nation affected and what are some of the projects Ireland is involved in, in curbing this epidemic?
Ireland provides financing for the EU Trust Fund for the Horn of Africa, which provides funding for programs that tackle the root causes of irregular migration and displacement. Ireland’s is probably less affected than some other European countries by irregular migration, due to our geographical position on the north-west edge of Europe. We support EU efforts to resettle some of the migrants who have arrived in southern Europe countries in other countries in the EU and Ireland will resettle 4,000 migrants, mainly from Syria and Yemen, who are currently in Italy and Greece.
But we are also very conscious that it is Africa, not Europe that hosts the largest number of refugees and irregular migrants. Ethiopia alone hosts almost 900,000 refugees. We admire the generosity of the government and people of Ethiopia towards refugees from neighboring countries and provide financial support through UNHCR.
Any plan to use Ruth Nega, the famous Ethiopian-Irish actress for public good?
Stay tuned! (laughs)