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Hope for a better world

Hope for a better world

Haddis Desta Tadesse is Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Director for Ethiopia and the African Union (AU), where he leads a team which oversees partnerships across the region and investments in Ethiopia’s agricultural development, health, financial services, water, sanitation, nutrition and emergency relief programs. Its key partners are stakeholders including Governments, AU and UN officials, donors, private sector decision-makers, NGOs and members of the press. Haddis has been with the Bill& Melinda Gates Foundation since 2007, where he managed government relations with Africa countries from Seattle, Washington,before moving to Ethiopia to establish an office in 2012. Prior to joining the Gates Foundation, Haddis was a senior policy advisor to Greg Nickels, Mayor of Seattle. He has also led outreach programs to immigrants and refugees, and has implemented several new initiatives to support these communities. A US citizen of an Ethiopian origin, Haddis has lived and worked in the US for nearly 25 years.He earned his Master’s in Public Administration (MPA) from the University of Washington. He serves on several boards and has held several fellowships including at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the European Union (EU). A few days ago, following the launch of the Goalkeepers annual report, BirhanuFikade of The Reporter hadcontactedHaddis to talk about the improvement and the challenges of implementing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); and how the likes of global food and health crises are shaping the world in the face of everyday outrivaling discoveries and advances in science and technology. Excerpts:


The Reporter: This year’s report focuses on inequality and the cost associated with it. What’s new about inequality?Why now,since it has been there for ages and governments have never been able to solve it?

Haddis Desta Tadesse:What this year’s report has shown is that while we are making progress towards the SDGs, the gap between the lucky and the unlucky arenot closing fast enough.

For example, high population countries like Nigeria have some of the largest gaps in health and education, between their best and worst-off communities. A person living in Southwest Nigeria is likely to have seven years more in schooling, than someone 400 kilometers away in the Northwestern Nigeria.Kenya tells a similar story,while human capital has improved across the country, gaps still remain. Child mortality ranges from 2.6 percent to over 8 percent – the difference is more than threefold.

Inequality is complex and there is no single way that will improve the gaps caused by geography and gender. We hope that the 2019 Goalkeepers report gives us a better understanding of what is working, where and why, to allow us to focus resources where it is most needed.

The Millennium Development Goals had concluded with an unsatisfactory outcome and perhaps, mostly, without achieving the targets. Similarly,SDGs are approaching the deadline with indications thatthe intended targets arelikely to be missed. How does the Gates Foundation see that happening?

Progress is happening everywhere, but we need to go further to reduce inequalities. Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen that life has improved for millions of Africans.For example, there has been a 28 percent decrease in the number of people living in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa.

We must continue making progress.But unless countries prioritize the poorest, the next generation’s future is in jeopardy. Following current trends in lowand low-middle income countries, new modeling data predicts large and lingering gaps in health and education remaining.

However,things can be better if countries follow exemplar countries and districts. A great example of that is the progress we’ve made here in Ethiopia reducing maternal and child mortality by recruiting and training community health workers. The Goalkeepers report is about highlighting these successes, so that other countries can learn from our lessons.

Ever since the first Kyoto Protocol, world leaders have contributed insignificantly and committed less and less efforts to curb impacts of climate change. Natural hazards and calamities are recurring faster than anticipated. How are the calls made by the likes of the Gates Foundation received and what is the hope for the next decade?

There is no doubt the climate is changing.Unfortunately, it is the likes of people, like our smallholder farmers, who have contributed least to the problem, who will be affected most. As a foundation, for more than a decade, we have worked with a large network of partners to empower smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia to make food production successful – through improving crop varieties, soil health management and livestock vaccines.

Here in Ethiopia, climate change poses a huge risk to agriculture, especially since the population is more reliant on climate-fed smallholder agriculture. Already, we are seeing the impact: temperatures are increasing, and rainfalls are decreasing.

While the global debate may continue, we are seeing leadership from African countries on the issue. Let us consider the work, the government has been doing here, to help cushion farmers against the changes. For the last 20 years, the government hasinvested in ensuring farmers had better access to the tools and knowledge they need to be resilient when faced with the challenges that climate change brings. I think an example of that success was the 2015 drought, which while bad, didn’t have the same impact on lives and the economy, as the 1984 drought did.

Africa has been suffering from man-made and natural disasters. Gates Foundation and numerous philanthropists have joined hands to tackle the challenges that Africa alone couldnot address. But it is argued that efforts are not that ample compared to expectations. What could be said about that?

I would say the efforts of the global community are paying off. Over the last 20 years, life has improved for millions of Africans. Successes in the fight against poverty, poor health and education, show progress is possible. However, what this year’s report has shown is that unless we address the persistent issues around inequality, and prioritize the poorest, the next generation’s future is in jeopardy.

The more science is advancing,severe are the crises becoming. Diseases and food supply, for instance, are quite few which can be pointed out as a predicament. What is it that the world does not understand about these things and why don’t we have a better world despite so many breakthroughs?

Again, we are seeing progress. Every country in the world has reduced child mortality and increased years of schooling in the past 20 years. Over the same time, we’ve seen a 28 percent decrease in the number of people living in extreme poverty in the SSA region.

The challenge is, as the report points out, that persistent inequality is slowing this progress. Where you were born, and if you were born a girl or a boy, are the biggest predictors of your future.

In the report, we use the example of a girl born in Chad to highlight this.Here in Ethiopia, a person born in a large city such as Addis Ababa has a much better opportunity of living a healthy, productive life than someone born in a rural environment.

We need to use data, such as that provided within our report, to measure progress, celebrate success and focus investments. By showing which districts within countries are faring the worst, we can focus investments into the most needed services and regions.

What is the activity in Ethiopia like at this moment, compared to the prior periods,before the Gates Foundation introduced its presence?

We’ve been working in Ethiopia since 2000 and opened our office here in 2012. Throughout this time, we have partnered with donors, the government, the private sector and civil societies to improve agricultural productivity and increase the coverage of life-saving health and nutrition interventions.

Across agriculture, we prioritize research and innovation, and strengthening policies. Across health, we have expanded access to immunizations and helped strengthen existing health systems and health data. By focusing on policy, we hope to respond to emerging opportunities like improving gender equality and addressing systemic resource challenges.

It has been once saidthat Ethiopia was one of the main target countries for the Gates Foundation. Is that still the case?

Yes, it is. We’ve been a partner for development in Ethiopia for 20 years now and our office has been here for the past eight. Our strategy focuses on supporting the country to achieve itshealth and development goals. From our office in Addis Ababa, a dedicated team works with many Ministries and partners to reduce poverty and help all Ethiopians live a healthy and productive life.

The new administration in the Ethiopian government has been well received by the Western World,almost instantly. What can be said about it from the Gates Foundation view point?

As you may know, the foundation is non-partisan and works with countries and governments across the world, to find solutions to the problems that are at the heart of poverty and inequality. That will always be our priority. Ethiopia is going through unprecedented political and economic reforms, and as those reforms become institutionalized, we believe it will accelerate the progress that is being made in development. 

Many health policies are changing including disease control and prevention approaches. Does that affect how the Gates Foundation operates in that regard in Ethiopia?

In all the countries that the foundation works in, including Ethiopia, we partner with local government agencies and affiliates at the federal and state-level, to help support their development strategies and goals. This collaboration ensures we focus our efforts on the initiatives that work and align to national priorities.

What holds positive and promising about the coming year and what should we fear to likely happen in Africa or beyond? More people, more problems?

Africa’s greatest asset is its youth. Africa is giving birth to the biggest generation the world has ever seen. The growing population is young and will get younger: 60percent of Africans are under the age of 24 and the median age across the continent is 19. This can be either an asset or a source of instability.

Only with the right investments will we unlock the continent’s enormous potential. And Investing in human capital – like health and education - is essential to drive innovation, boost economies and build more resilient societies.