Alastair’s Trip – How do we make a difference?

I’m finally at the conclusion of a stint with Link Ethiopia just shy of 3 months.  I’ve been very kindly sponsored by Integrate Hands, a small post-conflict charity founded and run by Katinka Nicou.

I’ve spent the majority of my time here sleeping, or involved in two long term projects, both education-based, a Libraries and Literacy project very directly related to education, and a project to increase female attendance at school with a broader background and impact.

It is now a cliché as worn as an Ethiopian welcome mat that education is the building block for a society, or words to that effect.  But it’s so oft-repeated because it’s an accurate reflection of its significance.  The one disclaimer is mostly too obvious to be added, that education must be of sufficient quality.  More than the presence of a student in a classroom for eight, nine, ten, even twenty years is needed.

Leaving aside its impact in the UK, through varied methods Link is working to increasing the quality and quantity of that education in Ethiopia.  And in doing so, provide the tools that today’s children will need when it is their turn to be part of the ripples of change that will overcome problems Ethiopia will still be facing in ten, twenty or thirty years.

And not that many tools are required; an ability to read and write in English (which opens a world of knowledge and self-teaching not available in local languages), basic arithmetic, an inquisitive mind, and that old cliché from a thousand commencement addresses about a liberal education, ‘the ability to think’ (actually surely gained far earlier than university).  Given those tools, who knows where the next Ethiopian generation could end up.  

They could be doctors, or lawyers or bankers.  They could make truly dedicated teachers, who put the hours of planning into their lessons to raise education levels across the country.  They could be part of the efforts to pull some of their most ill-fated compatriots out of significant poverty.  They could have the insight and courage to see female genital mutilation for the mutilation it is and help reduce the horrific rates of it in the country.  They could have the daring and ambition to fight violence and all the forms of discrimination against women, the tirelessness to develop truly representative government, the perspective to appreciate their countries role in minimising the effects of climate change, the empathy and thoughtfulness to help improve the well-being of the animals they work and live with, or they could simple be able to live richer and more creative or fulfilling lives..

None of that is to say that present day Ethiopia does not have many of those people. Indeed I met a bunch of them already working for Link and in local schools.  A group of dedicated individuals, lots of whom could perhaps be earning more money for more predictable hours (and less demands from ferengi’s like me), elsewhere.  I have great admiration for their daily efforts.  However, it is important too, not to deny the distance that the country still has to come, if it is to create an environment for the greatest human fulfilment, to this sprawling and at times beautiful country.

Those are just words and perhaps over-dramatised words at that.  For that reason, and a more general fear that my involvement in development work will be more back patting than doing good, the most interesting part of my time here has been setting up and running programmes to monitor the progress of the projects I’m involved in.  Not only is showing improvement vital for funding – it’s vital for the work, vital for the people Link are trying to help help themselves.  We’re not interested in a programme unless it works.  Unless we see a measurable improvement, to hell with it, we’ll put our efforts into a different programme that we know does work.

Collecting data is not very glamorous or sexy.  But it’s finding what is effective.  And that’s about as important as development work comes.  During the seven or so months I’ve spent in Africa to date I’ve heard more than enough stories about hindsight revealing vast amounts of wasted effort and money.  Therefore being involved in projects that we’ll very quickly know the impact of, know if they are implementing the change they seek, is great.  And although there’s a long way between a measure of literacy and some ultimately immeasurable feature of collective human well-being that we’re striving for, it’s at least on the right road, long and winding

Together We Learn - Ethiopia