“We plan to increase the number of animals we assist by nearly 300 percent over the next five years”
Geoffrey Dennis is the Chief Executive of SPANA (The Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad). He has had a long career with the Red Cross and been stationed in nations such Somalia, North Korea, Indonesia, notably in the midst of the 2004 tsunami and the former Yugoslavia. He reflects with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew on the issues of animal welfare, on the effort of SPANA within Ethiopia, on his own career and on his rare interaction with Queen Elizabeth II and on working with Addis Ababa University and on how the world’s leading working animal organization envisions its work within the nation in the next five years. Excerpts:
The Reporter: You were in Ethiopia twice last year, announcing a number of partnerships and promoting the work of SPANA. Share with me the highlights?
Geoffrey Dennis: As the Chief Executive of SPANA, a major charity protecting working animals in over 25 countries, I travelled to Ethiopia twice in the last year.
The first of these visits, in July, was to meet the new President of Addis Ababa University. SPANA has had a partnership with the university for many years, working out of the Bishoftu campus. On this site we provide free veterinary care for working animals, carry out community training for animal owners, help train veterinary students in the university, and educate local children on how to respect and look after all types of animal.
The meeting with the President and Dean of the university was extremely positive and we agreed to work on the details of a new five-year partnership, turning our joint project in Bishoftu into an internationally-recognized center of excellence, which would be admired throughout Africa.
A year ago I recruited a new country director for SPANA, Teferi Kidane, who joined us from WaterAid. He has settled into his new role extremely well and we now have an ambitious but achievable strategy to significantly expand our work in Bishoftu and further afield, reaching out across the country.
You have had a career in advocacy and humanitarian gestures. Tell me about that?
After graduating from University with a Master’s of Development Economics degree, I joined a multi-national consultancy company and worked on World Bank projects around the world, spending a lot of time in East Africa and Asia. On one visit to Bangladesh, I worked on a rural electrification scheme helping to improve the lives of families living in shanty towns; when I returned to the UK I told my friends I wanted to change my career and work for a charity assisting vulnerable people around the world.
I successfully applied for the position of International Director of The British Red Cross and in that position I ran feeding stations in Somalia during the crisis and a series of medical centers in Rwanda and The Democratic Republic of Congo during that conflict. Diana, Princess of Wales was one of our patrons and I visited a number of countries with her, including a trip to Nepal to visit the health and education projects that we ran in that country.
You have also had an audience with the Queen. That must have been a surreal experience.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is a great supporter of the International Red Cross and I met her several times. On one occasion having just returned from the Former Yugoslavia during the conflict situation there, I introduced Her Majesty to my future wife. The Queen asked her, ‘What’s it going to be like, being married to a man who travels overseas so much?’ My future wife replied, ‘Sounds like an ideal marriage, ma’am’.
How did you end up with SPANA?
After five years working in this role for The British Red Cross, I transferred to the International Red Cross, initially as the Country Director in North Korea, and then for three years as head of the whole of South Asia, managing the Red Cross operations in eight countries including Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
I was later headhunted by CARE International as their Chief Executive and returned to the UK. During my 10 years working in this role I worked extensively in Indonesia and Sri Lanka to rebuild following the 2004 tsunami, in Afghanistan and then, more recently, in Gaza and Syria.
Two years ago I was contacted by a recruitment consultant who said that SPANA was looking for a new Chief Executive and he thought I was a very suitable applicant. I told him that I was very happy where I was, but he insisted on meeting me. There were three very significant things that attracted me to SPANA. Firstly, I do really care about the welfare of animals. Secondly I care passionately about assisting the poorest communities in the world – in total more than three quarters of a billion people rely on working animals for their livelihood. And finally, I am very impressed by the true impact of SPANA’s work assisting both animals and the connected communities that work with them.
Throughout my work with The Red Cross and CARE International I strongly believed that the vast majority of the world’s population are good people and, in my role with SPANA. I also believe that the vast majority of people are not deliberately cruel to animals – they simply need advice and education on how to better look after their animals, which in turn means they are healthier and more productive.
Tell me about SPANA and its work within Ethiopia?
SPANA was formed 96 years ago, initially in Algeria and Morocco. The charity now works across Africa, Asia and beyond, with Ethiopia one of its major countries. We have five major activities, including providing free veterinary care to working animals – particularly horses, donkeys, mules and, in some countries, camels and elephants, training local vets so that in time they can take over our work, educating owners of animals on how to better look after them as well, educating children, particularly in rural areas, about how to respect and look after animals and working on projects like water supply in emergency and conflict areas.
In Ethiopia we plan to increase the number of animals we assist by nearly 300 percent over the next five years. Ethiopia has the highest number of donkeys of any country in the world. We plan to develop our work into new parts of the country where there is a great need for our assistance.
Our Education Director, based in London, is planning to visit Ethiopia in the next two months to work with our Country Director and his team on substantially expanding our education programmer. Our Veterinary Director will also be visiting in the next few months to make sure we substantially develop our veterinary work in many parts of the country.
One month ago, I returned to Ethiopia to sign our newly formed five-year plan with the President and Dean of Addis Ababa University. Teferi Kidane and I had a really positive meeting, with the President emphasizing the need for a developing concentration on veterinary training, research and particularly community training. The university is extremely excited about our new partnership, and we have produced a video to explain our previous operations in the country and our plans for the future.
While in Ethiopia, you were also able to review other operations in the country.
Following a series of very successful meetings in Addis, I then travelled to the University of Gondar to discuss a new potential project with the President, Dean and Vice Dean of that university – all three of these representatives qualified as Vets at Addis Ababa University and think very highly of SPANA.
In Gondar, the university is constructing a series of new veterinary buildings and SPANA has agreed an initial one-year partnership to improve training for veterinary students and local animal owners too. In the north, west and central regions of Gondar (which is the area served by the new university facility) there are approximately 18,000 horses, 350,000 donkeys and over 15,000 mules.
How about other projects in the rural parts of the nation?
The other new development for SPANA in Ethiopia is a project targeted at supplying water through a new pipeline to rural communities which have been hit by severe drought in Shashemene. As part of my last visit I met with our potential partner – the Centre for Development Initiative. Together we will improve facilities to provide: water supply for animals and humans – two drinking troughs will be built for animals at the end of a 10 kilometer pipeline, animal feed, shelters for animals and community training in animal care.
The project is being developed in close collaboration with The Ministry of Agriculture. This project will also substantially assist the women in the community, who are largely the water collectors at present and it is estimated that over 6,000 donkeys will immediately benefit from the project.
I recently visited a similar water project in northern Kenya, supported by SPANA. In this case, thousands of animals and people are benefitting from a new solar powered borehole, which firstly means that villagers who used to have to walk 15 kilometers to collect water now have a full supply directly in their villages, and secondly the quality of the water is significantly improved, dramatically improving the health of both the villagers and their animals.
How about SPANA’s work within the region?
SPANA now has an agreed worldwide five-year strategy targeted at increasing our reach in countries including Ethiopia, but also developing our work in new core countries. In East Africa, this will include a substantial expansion of our work in Tanzania and Kenya.
We are a very practical, impact-driven charity. We keep a very tight control on our costs and report back fully to our donors. One area where we are working hard with governments and animal owners is in reducing the number of donkeys that are being sold or stolen for the donkey skin trade in China. Donkey skins are exported to China to make gelatin, used in cosmetics and traditional medicines. In Zimbabwe, we recently ran a successful conference to highlight this issue and the fact that a reduction in the number of working donkeys seriously affects the livelihoods of a large number of communities. Subsequently, the government in that country has now banned the construction of abattoirs for this trade.
My plans for SPANA center on an expansion plan in veterinary care, teaching and training and we have already experienced a significant improvement in the way that animals are treated in a number of our countries. One of our long standing trustees, Lady Slynn of Hadley, visited Ethiopia at her own cost last year and was extremely impressed with our developments in the country.
I plan to continue to develop SPANA significantly in the next few years; SPANA is a great charity, with all our staff around the world caring passionately about our work which makes such a difference to the lives of working animals as well as the communities they serve.