20 August 2018

Ethiopia: The Diaspora Can Make a Difference

There are estimates that the number of people of Ethiopian origin and nationals with the citizenship but living abroad are about three million. This is a huge number. These people have been away from their native land since the early sixties and even before. The records show that the first Ethiopians emigrated to Europe and the US for study. Then they somehow found a new home there by getting married to the locals or securing better employment opportunities.

Then upon the advent of the oppressive regime of the military in the 1970s, hundreds of thousands left Ethiopia en masse fearing persecution due to their ideological and political stance. The Derg was notoriously merciless with rivals or presumed enemies and its response was annihilation by execution often summarily and arbitrarily. The so called Reign of Red Terror is recorded as one of the darkest chapters of the history of modern Ethiopia. It was a response to what the government then labeled White Terror referring to the planned execution of some of its ranks and files by Ethiopian youths grouped in a party called the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party, EPRP. Hate was the common denominator of those days and killing was the only solution fancied.

And it was applied systematically. God only knows how many thousands of educated youths the country lost during those tragic days.

The animosity between the military junta which felt severely threatened by the force and organisation of the educated youth, the civil, political and educated class with the military junta was irreconcilable as both parties preferred force rather than negotiation. The government had the conviction that if it wiped out all the youths of the day, it would replace it with a future generation of 'better disciplined youths' carved in its image by adopting what many say was the experience or advice of Revolutionary Cuba. Some observers say Ethiopia's loss of all that generation of better educated youths has left its scar even to the current days as the impact is tremendous.

During the same period, the country also lost the best of its educated military officers all because they disagreed with the blind policies of the military junta, who were in substance a bunch of little educated junior officers very jealous of their authority and ready to take revenge over all of their superiors! Hence fleeing from such an oppressive regime was but the only choice that the generation of Ethiopians had to resort to.

In certain provincial towns the atrocities were such that the youths preferred to walk to the nearest border taking all the risks to be faced instead of being massacred by the local strongmen with the apparent blessing of the top leadership in Addis Ababa.

Among those who safely managed to leave the country by any means possible there were thousands of others who perished along the way of hunger, thirst and diseases besides the persecution of enemies, traffickers, animals who preyed on them and even common bandits who would rob them of everything they had and would then kill them.

It is a part of the Ethiopians of those days that managed to survive those horrific days and overcame the challenges of the journey from hell that finally ended up in some refugee camps in Kenya, Djibouti, Sudan or elsewhere and finally made it to Europe, the US, Canada and elsewhere. Each one of them may have a tale to tell and I am sure they are part of the recent history of this country. Some have written books narrating their unbelievable stories which have become bestsellers; others are heard stating that they will one day put their story in black and white. One can say, the story of the Ethiopian diaspora is really fascinating and sad.

After the Derg vanished the EPRDF government which took its place made and unmade whatever happened in the country since 1991. Even during these years, thousands of Ethiopians have found similar destiny albeit in less intensity and number. Migration continued for economic reasons besides political factors. Thousands more migrated through the famous DV Lottery Program while families who had earlier traveled and settled abroad benefited from 'family reunion schemes' and joined the rest of their family.

All these numbers piled up to eventually constitute what we now call the large Ethiopian Diaspora. And it is a really massive force not only in number but also in quality. Considering that some statistics show that there are more doctors in one big US city such as Chicago than in the totality of the East African country, one can imagine what kind of loss Ethiopia has suffered from the loss of its best qualified children. Unfortunately, this has been more of a characteristic of many African and in general third world countries who regularly lose their better educated people to the US and Europe in what was aptly called 'the brain drain'.

The phenomenon of the Diaspora is of course not unique to Ethiopia. There are several countries in the world that have very large and strong Diaspora in mainly Europe and the States. Among them one can cite the Nigerian Diaspora, the Indian Diaspora, the Vietnamese Diaspora and the Philippines Diaspora. All these are very large Diaspora groups that contribute a lot to the survival of millions in their native land with their enormous regular remittance.

Economists' studies have found out that the remittance that these people send to their land of origin has constituted a good part of the economy of those countries. Billions of dollars are sent annually to these countries and their contribution has become a vital part of their macroeconomic picture. There are reports that for instance the Eritrean Diaspora sends massive dollars to the country that are considered to be its economy's backbone.

The same can be said of Ethiopia because there are sizeable numbers of nationals who send foreign currency to the country from various continents. In fact, there are few countries in the world where one does not find an Ethiopian community.

The recent visit of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia to the United States and particularly to three cities where there are sizeable Ethiopian communities- Washington D.C., Los Angeles and Minnesota, has been described as highly successful and important in terms of not only strengthening the image of a consensus among nationals of every origin as a whole, but also in terms of the future prospects of the involvement of the Diaspora in the country's socio-economic and political destiny.

It is clear that the Diaspora would have a lot to contribute to their native land if they were convinced that the government they once fled was free and democratic and that appeared to be the mission of the prime minister.

Doubtless, the Diaspora have the potential of being a huge political and economic force. The suggestion of the premier forming a Diaspora Trust Fund to finance basic development projects has been embraced by an enthusiastic Diaspora community in the US. But it is also a force to be reckoned with socially because it can use its know how back home and help furnish the ill equipped and mediocrely run higher learning institutions..

There are reports that the current academic standards of our universities and colleges are so poor that they need deep reform if not 'revolutionary'. They are said to lack full academic freedom and research is not so enthusiastically relevant or productive.

One of the policies of the government for which it has been showered with the praise of the UN, other international organizations was its reported expansion in the education and health sectors. But many have their reservations when it comes to the quality and standards of these establishments.

Apart the political rhetoric, there is also recognition that a lot needs to improve in quality. The standard of teachers must be reviewed; the standard of the institutions' facilities must be reviewed, and the quality and relevance of the curriculum as well must be reassessed to be commensurate with the current socio-economic reality of the country. It can no more be carbon copy of what applied in the Western world or bow to certain political ideology or creed.

Seeing how things had been proceeding lately, the government had no choice but to admit the limits and face the challenge head on. Currently, a kind of committee of experts has been formed to study the issue thoroughly and come up with their findings and recommendations because the problem is deep rooted and alarming. Hence this is one area where the Diaspora can be key.

In the end one could easily observe the gaps in the administration of the country and the policies that have been adopted failing continuously and needing always revision with all the losses in resources and time.

In this respect the Diaspora can fill a lot of gaps and help raise the standard of education with better academic freedom and more economic clout along with their experience and knowledge.

There are thousands of Ethiopians engaged in US and European educational institutions in various capacities. And the transfer of knowledge and technology could be among the choices to be seriously pursued in order to make a difference in the lives of ordinary citizens left behind at home in the presence of so much bounty in the world at large.


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