Theory Teacher's Blog

Finfinne Diaries 6: The Ethics of Aid in Ethiopia

me with GTF staff and Karayu in front of grain store

Following up on my last blog post, with all my photographs of Hararge, this post will have some more photographs from my trip to Oromia. This time I will focus on the day I spent in Fentale with members of the Gudina Tumsa Foundation (GTF) who showed me the work they do with the pastoralist Karayu tribe. I meant to blog about this a week ago, but I kept procrastinating, and I think the reason for my procrastination is that the subject is so important, complicated, and difficult. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say or how to go about saying it, and I wanted to read a book about Gudina Tumsa first. The subject of aid is something I blogged about before [here] after my trip to Kenya last summer, and my title “the ethics of aid” comes from the title of an episode of NPR’s Speaking of Faith in December, 2008, in which the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina shocked the host of the program by saying that Europe and the United States should stop trying help Africa. No aid was better than misguided aid. Similarly, just a few weeks ago, Newsweek published an article arguing that some forms of humanitarian aid to Ethiopia are actually bad for democracy and human rights.  In my opinion, both Wainaina and Newsweek are overstating their case (Wainaina for rhetorical effect, and Newsweek to sell magazines), but they raise valid concerns.

road from Metahara to the GTF elementary school

Honestly, I don’t know what to think, and I’m not even sure as I type this what I’m going to say. I guess what would be simplest is for me to first describe what I did in the Fentale district and show some of my photographs. (By the way, you can click on the pictures to make them bigger.) And then I’ll get to the hard questions after that. Please keep in mind that you are getting an abbreviated account of my day in Fentale. It could be a book.  

So, as you can see from my photographs below, the Karayu are quite poor, and where they live is hot and dry. In my previous blog post about the ideology behind some kinds of representation, I pointed out that most Americans think of Ethiopians as starving people in the desert who desperately need our help, and I demystified these stereotypes. But Fentale is a different story altogether. Different, and not at all what you might expect, as I’ll try to explain.  

Karayu man in the hot and dry Fentale district of Oromia

village and cattle

The Karayu are an Oromo tribe, and traditionally they are pastorlists and move from place to place with their cattle. They govern themselves through the democratic Gadaa system; their religion traditionally has been Waqeffata, though today many are Muslim and some Christian. For the past half century, their culture and their economy has been severely disrupted by Ethiopia’s economic development, which I discussed earlier in my blog [here] and [here]. The good land is taken by large industrial plantations, and here is the troubling reality that the American media and many American humanitarian organizations often neglect to mention — the poverty in Ethiopia is neither simply a natural disaster caused by drought nor simply the fault of bad governance. It is those things too, but it is also in part a man-made crisis produced by the modern capitalist world system. Take a look at my photograph below. On the left side of the image is a lush and green sugar plantation started by Dutch investors in the 1960s and irrigated by the large Awash river. On the right side is the arid land where the Karayu live. Not only do the Karayu no longer have access to water, but their cattle and goats often have to drink the run-off water from the plantations that contains pesticides and chemical fertilizers.  

boundary of Metahara sugar plantation

The stark contrast between the lush, fertile plantation and the almost-desert environment was so painful to look at that it brought tears to my eyes. How could these two environments exist just inches away from each other?  

conversations at small shop

And it gets worse. One of the effects of the land and water scarcity is ethnic conflict, as the various tribes fight with each other for what little remains. The other effect is deforestation. Hence, one of the things many humanitarian organizations try to do in Africa is encourage indigenous groups and local governments to plant trees and invest in more environmentally sustainable social organization. The most famous example is Kenya’s greenbelt movement started by Wangari Maathai who won the Nobel peace prize in 2004. The Gudina Tumsa Foundation also does this, and plus it also works with the Karayu to promote a more residential economy by building permanent homes, constructing facilities for storing grain, and setting aside land for re-forestation. In addition, they teach the basics of microfinance, helping them start up local shops. Such microfinancing goes hand in hand with the empowerment of women, since it’s women who usually run the shops.

elementary school

girl, GTF staff, and me in front of dorm

Probably one of the most important projects that GTF did is build schools. Even if the Ethiopian government pays the peasants and pastoralists some money when it forces them off their land, the people have trouble adapting to their new circumstances because they lack education. The worst case scenarios are death from starvation or migration to city slums. GTF built the only schools and libraries in the area. In addition, since pastoralists tend to move around a lot, GTF also operates dormitories for the students — and this is especially beneficial for girls who otherwise might never get an education.  

after (not during) class at high school

There’s a lot more to say about the Karayu culture, the economics of their displacement, and the work of GTF, but you can read more about that elsewhere by following the hyperlinks I’ve included in this blog post. Now I want to return to the question about the ethics of aid.  

loving the algebra

There are a lot of problems with foreign aid to Africa, but I’ll focus on two. First, sometimes the donors think they know what’s best and build projects that aren’t locally sustainable or useful to the people there. They might build a water pump or a school, but then not train enough staff there to maintain it. This kind of aid tends to emphasize building things, so it employes American engineers and uses American products. Ironically, this kind of aid might be better for the donor’s economy than for the recipient’s economy. Years ago, I made some extra money editing documents for an aid organization, and the shocking discovery I made was that the donor government consciously and deliberately required that much of the funding return to the donor country by using its contractors, technology, and labor. The result is hundreds of defunct projects all over Africa. As Kelly Kraemer wisely argues in her article Solidarity in Action, “good intentions matter, but by themselves are not sufficient to determine whether or not a particular course of action is appropriate.” Instead, she argues, we must be conscious of our own position of privilege and acknowledge that that privileged position is supported by the same socio-economic structures that might oppress or disempower the very group of people we intend to help. This requires that we be willing to learn from the people we aim to help and take the time to gain their trust.  

shop for animal medicines

Second, the effects of foreign aid on local politics can be very strange. An organization might accidentally (or sometimes intentionally) promote the interests of one ethnicity or religion at the expense of another. Often the aid given is driven by ideological biases, so for instance work done by various Christian organizations to prevent the spread of HIV-AIDS is limited by the moral prejudices that religion. As Ron Pagnucco and David Cortright rightly argue in their essay Limits to Transnationalism, two of the difficult challenges to the solidarity of a transnational social movement (i.e., a coalition of people across national boundaries) are the ideological differences and the divergent commitments of their national governments. Likewise, although the intentions of the officers whom I met in Ethiopia from the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command were certainly noble and good, their work also is meant to promote America’s foreign policy and the interests of Wall Street, which may not always be in the best long-term interests of the people living there.  In addition, it’s easier for global organizations and multinational corporations to operate in countries with an authoritarian government. A real, functioning democracy might interrupt such aid projects or investments of capital, because voters and/or local governments might actually oppose them.  

Karayu woman (yes, she has beautiful local-style dreadlocks) dressed up for funeral with her son (wearing an Obama t-shirt)

I think the advantages of lesser-known organizations such as GTF compared to the more famous, global organizations is that GTF is local and has the trust of the local communities. In the past, the Karayu refused to work with most development and aid organizations because they didn’t trust them. But GTF was started in Oromia by Oromos, and some of its staff members are themselves Karayu from the Fentale district. To put it bluntly, organizations such as GTF are simply better than global organizations. However, at the same time GTF relies on its relationship to communities and organizations around the globe.  Most GFT projects are funded by donations from charities in Canada, United States, Japan, Germany, etc. And therein lies the paradox.

And this local-global paradox leads me to Gudina Tumsa’s theology. Gudina Tumsa, by the way, was assassinated by Ethiopia’s Derg regime in 1979, probably because as the Protestant Church’s leading minister, he argued that the role of the church was not to legitimate the ideology of the government but to engage in sincere, productive dialogue and critique. I don’t have time to summarize all of his theology, but I will focus on two main concepts that the GTF (started by two of his daughters) have put into effective practice.  

The first is the concept of “integral human development,” which basically argues that the church can not simply worry about the saving of souls and their afterlife. It must also work to better the everyday lives of all people. In this theory, things as different from each other as the environment, women’s empowerment, ethnic-cultural identity, education, religious ethics, spirituality, and the economics of global capitalism are all related. As I hope my blog post has indicated, GFT carefully and deliberately engages all of these aspects together. A local organization will, naturally, be able to do that better than a global organization because it has a more acute and a more holistic understanding of the people it serves.  

women building a house

The second concept is “interdependence.” Gudina Tumsa argued that the protestant church in Ethiopia should not be dependent on the European missionaries because the missionaries didn’t always understand the reality on the ground in Ethiopia. But at the same time, he did not believe in a complete independence because no church could survive the vicissitudes of power politics within a nation state unless it maintained a positive, transnational relationship with people around the world. His theology encouraged an international perspective that I think resembles the international perspective that the socialist postcolonial theorist Timothy Brennen argued for in his essay Cosmopolitanism and Internationalism. Brennen demystifies the cosmopolitan ideologies of universality that underpins claims to global solidarity. Such claims are often made by Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim leaders. Instead, the international perspective (formulated centuries ago in Immanuel Kant’s essay on world peace) recognizes the necessary role of independent nation states and the divergent political and economic needs of local communities. In an internationalist theology, rather than a globalist theology, the important and useful differences remain in clear view so that the church in Ethiopia is not problematically an expression of European ideologies instead of an expression of the people on whose behalf it advocates. Hence, Gudina Tumsa’s concept of “interdependence” recognizes not only the integrity and autonomy of local communities but also their relationship to the world community. 

neighborhood soccer goal (only about 200 yards from the sugar plantation)

One point of this blog post (if it isn’t clear already) has been to answer the challenge about the ethics of aid posed by Wainaina and Newsweek, and my answer has been to demonstrate why donating money to small organizations like GTF might be better than donating money to large, ideologically driven organizations. My reasoning behind this view is  based on GTF’s integrity, its roots in the local community, and its successful track record and long term goals. I suspect, however, that two challenges remain for GTF. First, GTF’s need to attract the interest of charitable organizations worldwide might lead them in directions that they might not actually want to go. This is always a problem as there are always many constituencies involved within Ethiopia who have divergent interests, and at the same time, local Ethiopian organizations such as GTF must appeal to the hearts and minds of foreign charities who may have little understanding of the reality of the situation. Second, it is also true that GTF has its own missionary agenda and its own prejudices. No organization is immune from them. And in the case of Fantale, although GTF is widely respected among the Karayu community, I think it will lose that respect if it too aggressively pushes its Christianity onto a community whose members mostly subscribe to Islam or Waqeffata. What GTF has done well is work with the communities by helping them achieve their own goals while at the same time fostering “critical engagement” and open dialogue that lead to positive social transformation.


July 25, 2010 - Posted by | global, international aid, Oromia


  1. Fascinating, Steve, as always. My mom’s been bringing up the whole local/global food supply a lot lately — I think I’m going to share this blog post with her.

    Comment by Megan G. | July 25, 2010 | Reply

  2. Truly excellent, moving blogpost. The nuance of your argument reflects is in stark contrast with the misrepresentation of other theories on ethics of foreign aid in Africa, which has been a very hot topic over the past few years among the international aid community. as Dambisa Moyo’s book _Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa_ has caused a firestorm of criticism among aid groups who believe that Moyo’s call for cutting off aid to Africa is harmful. The author is a former banker who worked with Goldman Sachs who is a proponent of free trade and enterprise, so she seems to be about free market solutions. Well, actually, all I know about her book is what I’ve read second-hand, like these two review from GB’s the Guardian and the Independent, respectively:

    And now for something completely different: here is a music video by a Karrayuu singer, Ibrahim Roobaa, which I blatantly stole from our friend’s Facebook profile. It’s called “Bareedduu Karrayu” or, “Beautiful Karayyu” in Afaan Oromo. Check out the rifle and the hair-doing scenes:

    Comment by Maya | July 25, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks, Maya, and thanks for the references and the YouTube. Since I’m assuming that you mostly disagree with Moyo’s book, but acknowledge many of her points to be true, I’m curious what YOU might guess you might think of the book (if you had the time to read it)?

      And I love this YouTube clip (which looks like it was produced in Adama, the largest city close to the Fentale district, about two hours away by car) — especially the hair. What it reminds me is that (once again) my representation of Ethiopians was problematic. As I said in Diary #5, I should be more careful about representaion — this video reminds me that the Karayu don’t just heard cattle and practice ancient local forms of democracy and religion — they also do things like fight back with modern weapons and make politically-charged pop music videos and fall in love. And just as I referenced Edward Said in diary #5, I will do so again here. He challenges Karl Marx’s statement about how disenfranchised and disorganized peasants are not able to represent themselves, so they must be represented. And here of course, we see that they can represent themselves.

      Comment by steventhomas | July 28, 2010 | Reply

  3. I came across your website looking for pictures of Metehara, our youngest daughter’s birthplace. We adopted her into our family 1.5 years ago and I am currently working on putting together a “Lifebook” for her with as much of her history as we can piece together. We know for a fact that her past is directly linked to the sugar factory in Metehara. I appreciated reading your blog and I am being so bold as to ask if you would be able to email me photos of the town of Metehara / sugar factory/ fields that we could include into her story? We hope to return to Ethiopia in a few years and visit there ourselves, but did not have the opportunity to go there during our adoption trip.
    Thank you for your kind consideration. It would mean so very much to us.

    Comment by Tracy Crewson | March 4, 2011 | Reply

  4. I’ve been reading your blog post about the Karrayyu and it is interesting, largely accurate and informative. You may also like to check out another NGO that has been started recently by Karrayyu community members called Labata Fantalle:

    Despite the sterling efforts by GTF, mainly in provision of education, many of the needs and wants of the Karrayyu community are still not being met, particularly in light of the rapid changes taking place in the area. You might want to look into these ‘developments’, although I am sure reading your blog that you are almost certainly already aware of them… it seems the Karrayyu pastoralists will not be pastoralists for much longer. I also think your comment about missionary agendas was very pertinent and could have been expanded on, rather than being mentioned at the end of the post. Shouldn’t these agendas also be put under scrutiny, even if they are Oromos working to develop fellow Oromos?

    You may also like to know that the video you see above was made with the full consent and direction of young Karrayyu singer/songwriters who are eager to represent their people and their culture to others, rather than having to witness others do it for them, often in a way that is either damaging or inaccurate. Members of the Karrayyu community, like any one else, are perfectly capable of both defending themselves and representing themselves if given half a chance, unfortunately their opportunities to do so are severely limited but hopefully this is starting to change. It will be interesting to see what happens as Karrayyu community members start to lead their own development.

    Comment by Kuulani | June 9, 2011 | Reply

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