When passion meets profession
Mitiku Abebe has more than a decade of experience in development and aid within Ethiopia. Here, he reflects with The Reporter's Samuel Getachew on the ideals of development, on his own career, on helping change the narrative of aid and on how to make it better, as well as on how it can become more effective on the ground rather than a way of life for the intended experience and more.
The Reporter: You have had a career in development for more than a decade. Can you share the highlights with me?
I started my career 12 years ago with international humanitarian and development organization called Christian Horizons (CH). I joined CH within a month after my graduation from college. Enjoying humanitarian work is a passion that I discovered when I was in primary school. I was a leader of charity club - where we collect small contributions from our friends and teachers to buy school supplies for our friends who needed it.
So, when I joined CH Ethiopia, it was like having the dream job. I got the passion and gut, but have no experience in structured work environment. I had to do a lot of reading, ask my seniors unending questions to learnt more about development. As I joined the organization at the lowest level post, I had enough time to explore and learn. So my career grew progressively, but fast. I think that was a great opportunity for me. Had I started from a junior or senior level, I may have not made a healthy progress.
At CH Ethiopia, I met with very good people who supported me in my professional development and emotionally. Even though I had the gut to throw myself in a humanitarian and development organization, I was not sure if that feeling was lasting. Because, I heard a lot of rumors about NGOs.
So, I gave myself a timeline to work with CH Ethiopia only for one year if the rumors I heard were true. Just in my first three months, I was able to get to know the projects of CH Ethiopia and realized that not all NGOs are the same. That’s when I said this is my place. Many friends ask me ‘why I do not change the organization I work for?’ My answer is – I do not work for, rather I work with CH Ethiopia. Because, my personal passion and purpose aligns with what CH envisioned. That is why I am here for more than a decade, but still felt as if I was only here for a while. I enjoyed my everyday at CH Ethiopia.
My days with the beneficiaries, the staff and donors and partners are full of joy. When the project schedules are getting tight, we work until late evenings, there are times when we work Monday to Monday, but do not feel overburdened. The changes you see in people, the tone of their voice, the look in their eyes on the first date when you meet with and after some time in project is totally different, which fills you with joy to serve more. I enjoyed walking to project sites that takes six hours, only one way. So as to me, this last decade of my life is a time spent well.
What interests you about working with development organizations?
In my experience, I like the organizations that invest in people to think differently and show the path for change. Not those who provide free handout to let people take the supports as ‘Menna’ and always pray for it – just sitting and waiting. I believe that, development is all about helping persons or communities to get started on journey towards change with initial investment. Somewhere, the supporting organizations have to leave, and the development should be self-led by the beneficiaries/communities. That’s what we do in CH Ethiopia.
Our motto is “let the communities lead, government facilitate, and we will follow your lead to extend supports to fill the gap”. For example, we start primary schools and Special Need Education Units where kids have no access to education because there is no one. First, we start with community awareness, mobilization and role demarcation.
We have never done it alone and say “come and take over”. We say “let us do it together, and then now you can go on by yourself”. We, with the community and government started 35 public schools in hard to reach communities, more than 150 Special Needs Education Units and left it up to them a long ago, today they totally look different.
The community worked on them to add more classrooms, hire more teachers and accept more number of children with and without disabilities. That is what I like about the true development organizations: not just aid, rather empower others to explore their challenges and opportunities and take the leading role in their own progress.
Tell me about CH Ethiopia?
CH Ethiopia is an international NGO formerly known as Children’s Homes International. It’s a wing of Canada based Christian Horizons Global. It’s been operating in Ethiopia since 1992. Our work mainly focuses on disability services alike our mother organization.
CH Ethiopia promotes and implements projects that praise the equal opportunity of education, work and social and development engagement of persons with disabilities. It aspires to see persons who experience disability valued and respected in the communities, where they belong.
What makes its services different from others and what has been its impact on the ground?
Unlike many international organizations, CH Ethiopia was always led by local people. And, projects are not top down structured. As donors, they listened to the local needs and responds, accordingly. We are not told “do this”, rather we are asked “how do we best support your community?”. Local leaders develop projects in a way it will best serve the interest of the local community. With this opportunity, I would like to extend my gratitude to senior leaders of Christian Horizons at Corporate office in Canada.
Thus, the impacts are alive and lasting as the projects are need driven and development focused, rather than just a free handout.
What about the impacts on the ground?
As I mentioned earlier, almost all of the projects started with limited amount of resources are now growing. Special Needs Education units we started with 5 students have now more than 20. Schools we left with two blocks have now six block or more just in five years.
Disability associations and women self-help groups that were given small startup or matching funds have now become market suppliers and retailers. The children who were sponsored for schooling are now civil servants at different level of government offices, NGOs and businesses.
There is donor fatigue in most western nations and among locals who see little progress to change lives via aid organizations. What is your take on it?
That’s right. I think there are two dynamics for this. The first is the nature and interest of the donor itself; and the second is how the local organization has formulated its strategies, project priorities and staffing.
So, on the first hand, you won’t see significant changes where the project priorities are set by donors with no or little involvement of the targeted beneficiary communities. I see some international organizations try to do need assessment, but they do that to know just if their only (donors) priorities can be done here.
Not to understand what is the most the needed project here. The local staff and government have stake on that, too. Often, I hear that government representatives say whatever the project-just come and do it here with our office. I understand that this comes from our vast and untapped community needs.
It is also irresponsibility of the locals not to ask for priority alignment of both the donor interests and local needs. So, they both rush to start the project implementation. They may do well as far the resource is there. But, the question is – for how long will communities in accordance with its established culture, norms and values take to elevate the changes to the next level after the project phase out or handover?
The second one is, where if the staff does not understand the local context well and the projects are not harmonized with the local setting from the very beginning, then you can count how many events are organized and conducted, how many people show up on those events, how many facilities you put there – but it might be hard to tell how far the people come towards the aspired change after you left the project up to them. So, if the staff was just there for earning, have no passion to lead change, have not gut to challenge the donors, have no courage to challenge the government policies where it needs to be done, there for sure you will see a little or no change.
Any parting thoughts?
Ethiopia is not the same as when I started my career, like I am not. There are changes and developments in progress. The donors and their local partners should rethink and take different strategies to support the new face of Ethiopia. I believe that no country will be changed by international aid unless there are local sustainable developments initiatives led by locals. Thus, donors and local NGOs should shift to empowering local social entrepreneurs.