A Moral Obligation

In the late 1970s Asfaha Hadera, from the Tigray region of Ethiopia, found himself walking to Sudan to escape the oppressive Marxist regime of Emperor Mengistu. In eastern Sudan, Asfaha found a refugee camp of Ethiopians who were also seeking asylum. Immediately he engaged in organizing the refugee community – transporting water, setting-up make-shift schools, self help programs and also providing spiritual guidance.

Through the International Rescue Committee Asfaha was eventually resettled to New York City in 1979 – after a brief six months in France. Though Asfaha enjoyed a relative life of ease and steady employment in France, he remembers it as, “a dark six months.” In France he was unable to work at what he felt was, and remains, his moral obligation – giving back to fellow refugees and disadvantaged persons.

Shortly after adopting to life in the Bronx, Asfaha began work as a photographer – providing passport photos, license photos and other such essential photos to resettled refugees. Recognizing a need for a more full-spectrum support system for refugees, Asfaha formed an advisory board, composed of dedicated friends, and founded The Committee to Aid Ethiopian Refugees. The year was 1981, and the headquarters of this humble organization was apartment 28, 2327 Andrews Avenue, the Bronx – also his home.

The goal then, as now, was to aid and assist fellow refugees as they transitioned into life in America. Specifically, that entailed providing refugees with referrals to health care, English classes, and Social Security registration among other services. The operations were funded from Asfaha’s meager salary: $86 USD/ week, and with help from many volunteers. As the organization grew, it required more and more of Asfaha’s attention and eventually his employer gave him an ultimatum: either focus more energy on your job, or quit. Refusing to turn his back on his responsibilities to the refugee community, Asfaha quit his job as a photographer.

Simultaneously, it became apparent that a real office was going to be necessary if operations were to continue to expand; the challenges were mounting. Even in apparently dire situations however, things have a way of working out for those striving, in earnest, for the betterment of their fellow man.

Asfaha described the search for rent free office space,

“One Sunday afternoon in June, 1982 I knocked on every door from the Bronx to the Upper West Side to Harlem, looking for office space. On 35th street, between Park and Madison, I happened upon the Community Church of New York. It was raining, so I walked in.”

Much to his pleasure, Asfaha enjoyed a wonderful sermon on social justice by minister Bruce Southworth. Following the sermon, he told minister Southworth he was working to assist refugees, but in desperate need of free office space. Astonishingly, the pastor told him of an available, rent free office just next to the church in building 28.

Around the same time, Asfaha also passed an aptitude test and was employed by the UN in the Department of Conference Services. This job provided more funds for The Committee to Aid Ethiopian Refugees’ operating budget. For the first time in a long time Asfaha was living a relatively comfortable life and feeling secure about the future of his budding organization. Eventually, however, Asfaha would also leave his job at the UN to focus full-time on the development of The Committeee to Aid Ethiopian Refugees. 

Today, some twenty six years later the organization operates under the name African Services Committee (ASC). While the name has changed, programs have been added and others expanded, the spirit and mission remain very much the same – focused on giving back and providing for refugees and disadvantaged persons. Along the way, in 1985, Kim Nichols joined ASC as a volunteer – today her and Asfaha are married and she is co-executive director of ASC in New York.

In New York, ASC continues to provide health, housing, legal and social services for resettled refugees. In 2003, ASC expanded operations into Ethiopia, with the goal of supporting the local community in the fight against AIDS. Services provided by ASC-Ethiopia include: HIV prevention outreach, condom distribution, HIV counseling and testing, diagnosis and referral to care, CD4 testing and monitoring patients for treatment, pediatric HIV/ AIDS case management, reproductive health and family planning, nutritional supplements, and training in HIV counseling and testing.

ASC brought the same time tested, grass roots approach – developed in the New York offices – to Ethiopia. The staff is entirely Ethiopian, and many of them are themselves HIV positive.  The operating budget varies from year-to-year, depending on funding, but the entire operation was begun with a $25,000 grant from American Jewish World Services.

At the time, it was not clear from where future funding would come. But, Asfaha trusted it would come and, slowly but surely, it has trickled in. Mainly, this is due to the effectiveness of outreach, support and awareness African Services Committee provides HIV/ AIDS patients in Ethiopia. From January, 2003 to July, 2008 ASC-Ethiopia, with a total staff of 47, has achieved the following: counseling and testing to 69,857 patients, awareness and public sensitization for testing – 110,763 patients, 1,307,395 condoms provided, reproductive health services to 2,760 patients, CD4 testing for 3,435 patients, provided 446 orphans with educational material for years 2004-07, tested 1,409 children for HIV – of which 22% were positive, and provided 4,775 patients with vitamins.

As with so many grass roots organizations, funding is one of the main obstacles preventing ASC from reaching more patients and setting up more clinics in the rural community. Some of ASC-Ethiopia’s generous supporters include: American Jewish World Service, HAT Foundation, Izumi Foundation, International Foundation, and New Field Foundation among others.

Disappointingly enough, ASC hasn’t received a penny from USAID, which claims to have ‘contributed more than $7 Billion to fight the [HIV/ AIDS] pandemic’ since 1986. Nor does ASC operate on a fraction of the budget of the Clinton Foundation – though not made public, it is reported the foundation raised over $124 million in 2007, which went to a complex gaggle of ‘Clinton Initiatives.’ To put things in perspective, the Clinton Foundation completed a $165 million presidential library in Little Rock in 2004; African Services Committee – Ethiopia’s headquarters is a small office at the top of a five story building, without an elevator.

Large, robust organizations, both public and private, have no doubt contributed greatly to the fight against HIV/AIDS – the Clinton Foundation claims 1.4 million people are ‘benefiting from medicines purchased under CHAI agreements,’ and USAID continues to support the fight against HIV/AIDS in over 120 countries. I wonder, however, if a great deal of that funding – rather than the comparatively small $200 million USAID set aside for faith-based and community organizations – would not be more effective in the hands of appropriately sized, grass roots organizations, operated by locals.

Effective grass roots organizations are not hard to find when you are on the ground – I’ve written about a few here on Lamp Post Reports – but one must be looking for them, as these organizations have no line item in their budgets for ‘advertising,’ ‘lobbyist,’ ‘investor relations/ communications,’ ‘brand development and awareness,’etc. People like Asfaha Hadera are giving back all over Ethiopia and beyond, and they deserve our attention, respect, and funding as they are frugal, effective stewards of the capital with which they have been entrusted.

As US citizens and tax payers, it is our moral obligation to request our tax dollars be channeled to effective organizations. As donors and philanthropist, we must shrewdly analyze the operations of the foundations we choose to support – if they are not effective stewards of the capital with which they have been entrusted, find an organization that is and redirect your donations. When refugees are dedicating their lives to serving fellow refugees and disadvantaged persons, the least the rest of us can do, as tax payers and donors, is to support their efforts as best we can.


Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


Extaordinary Rain and Mitigating Risks

November 11, 2008 was the third straight day of sunshine in Addis Ababa. Generally, that is not outstanding news for this time of year. Most years, the rainy season passes with the Meskel holiday – an Orthodox celebration of the finding of the true cross of Jesus Christ – in mid-September.  Unfortunately, that has not been the case this year. Older people are telling me they have never seen rain like this, at this time of the year, in their entire lives.

Initially, it appeared the rainy season was passing just as it normally does. About two weeks ago however, around Monday, October 27th, the rains began. Rather than raining for only a day or two, as sometimes happens in late October and November, it continued to rain, and rain. For a country that has been plagued by droughts, even as recently as last spring when the Belg rains failed to deliver, one would think this unexpected rain to be a blessing.

Quite to the contrary. The rain started just days before the scheduled teff and wheat harvest. Teff, a staple for many Ethoipians, especially the poor, is a fragile crop. These abnormal rains have greatly damaged what appeared to be an above average harvest in many regions. One of the local papers, Fortune, reports that farmers in Adea, Welenchiti, Sheran Biban Daba and Yerer Akaki – roughly 100 Km from Addis – will all suffer from these unseasonal rains. Farmers have been forced to sit idly by as they watch their livelihoods wash away with the run-off.

Some farmers were lucky enough to have purchased insurance for their crops, through a new coverage being offered by Nyala Insurance S.C. While that is a wonderful development, I worry about the millions of farmers who live so close to the margin they can ill afford insurance. The farmers who labor long days in open fields not even their own – of the 10 hectares they farm they are lucky to own 1 hectare – praying for ‘average’ rain so they may reap the diminished yield their degraded soil produces. In an average year, they meet their family’s basic needs. In a good year, they send their kids to school. One does not like to consider the effects of a poor harvest.

To an extent, farming, and its effect on livelihoods everywhere, will always be in the hands of Mother Nature. We can never hope to, nor should we aspire to, control the wind, rain and sun. We can, however, take measures to mitigate risks by farming in an ecologically friendly manner that properly manages scarce soil and water resources. Farming in such a way as to increase yield, positively impact local ecosystems, and increase farmer’s earning potential.

As reported in the 2008 World Development Report: Agriculture for Development, issued by the World Bank, the Ethiopian Highlands suffer from heavily degraded topsoil. This is due, in large part, to deforestation and continued cultivation of hillsides, which leads to heavy topsoil erosion. As well, many farmers practice ancient cultivation techniques. Farmers must be educated in best practices in soil and water management, and then provided with the appropriate technology to implement this knowledge.

This should not be technology of the Western farming type – $300,000 combines with GPS systems – but appropriate, affordable technology that requires manual labor (readily available and willing in Ethiopia and much of the developing world), increases earning potential in a short period of time, and increases soil fertility while preserving local ecosystems for generations to come. Irrigation pumps, water catchment systems, improved plows and education in the most effective eco-agriculture techniques would have an enormous impact on the lives of rural Ethiopians.

Mother Nature is not predictable, never has been. In this time of increasingly varied weather patterns and global warming, the world would do well to invest heavily in equipping the rural, small holder farmer with the necessary tools and education to farm in an eco-effective manner that simultaneously increases his or her family’s standard of living. Rural farmers in Ethiopia should, by no measure, be as exposed to the whims of Mother Nature as they currently find themselves. Steps can, should and are being taken, even if slowly, to ensure that farmers are more educated in best practices and that they have the means by which to procure the necessary appropriate technology.

Hopefully one day, farmers and thus society throughout the developing world, will escape the risky predicament in which they now find themselves – entirely dependent upon Mother Nature, degraded soil and ever more scarce water resources. In our lifetime, worldwide food security and thus living standards, as well as the health of ecosystems and the environment will depend upon the empowerment of rural farmers and their ability to intensively cultivate and nourish their land in an ecologically friendly manner. 


Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Obama Victory – Reaction from Addis Ababa

The 44th president of the United States is Barack Obama – and he has a lot of promises to live up to. At least, that’s the take here in Addis. While Ethiopia’s neighbors to the south are justifiably celebrating, cajoling and basking in the sweet victory of an American president with a Kenyan father, the mood in Ethiopia is much more business like.

My circle of Ethiopian friends, who cannot be expected to accurately reflect the sentiment of an entire city, much less a country, certainly approve of America’s young leader, but also realize politics is as much talk as it is action. That’s not to say you don’t hear murmurs, excited undertones, on the mini-buses and in the streets of the news of America’s election of Obama for president – you do. Additionally, more Obama t-shirt clad fans can be seen throughout the city. The most enjoyable part, as an American abroad, is that random people shout ‘Obama!’ in your direction, while smiling and giving you what I call an Ethiopian salute – a raise of the eyebrows and simultaneous grin. Assuming, as they do, they know for whom I cast my vote.

For all of this excitement, there’s been nothing outstanding. People mention the election, but the conversation quickly moves to the next topic – how’s your day going? What’s up with this rain during the dry season? When pressed, folks I have talked with mention the fact that Obama has a lot of work ahead of him.

Concern number one, they say, is the bad economy. A bad economy in the developed world in-directly cuts funding for a lot of programs and investment in the developing world, sooner or later. A close second concern: the two wars the US now finds itself in. People here have seen what war does to a nation – both within and without. Prosperity without peace, Habtamu says, is hard to come by. But, he quickly adds, there’s no easy solution; a big test for Obama.

What has most impressed me is the calm, realistic demeanor by which Ethiopians accept the election. They hope the benefits will be many fold for the US, Ethiopia and the world, but simultaneously realize the enormous task that lies ahead of our 44th president. We all may do well to gain a bit of this realistic, but quietly optimistic perspective.

This has been a historic week for the United States of America. The American people, much to the joy of the broader world, have voted for a change of direction in Washington and in politics. Let us now work together – calmly, realistically but always optimistically – to help President Obama put a little of that talk into action. 


Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The Generosity of the Ethiopian People

Getting around Addis can be quite a hassle. Public transportation is provided by hundreds of ‘mini-buses’ that are actually secondhand Toyota vans from Europe. While it’s cheap, it’s certainly not the most efficient method. All summer I’ve been scheming and brainstorming different methods of transportation. Unfortunately, the tax on cars is something like 240%, meaning a twenty year old Land Cruiser runs you about $20,000 USD. Not exactly within my budget. Donkeys are readily available and cheap, about $60-80 USD, but they are a little undersized. Bicycles are expensive, approximately $120 USD, and you are limited to the city, unless you are Lance Armstrong. Bajas, three wheeled golf-cart like taxis, are one of my favorite means of transport, but they are too expensive unless you plan to use it as a taxi, roughly $4,000-5,000 USD.

That left one option: a motorcycle. My top two choices, Yamaha or Suzuki (also the most popular models in Addis) where both too expensive. You can always count on the Chinese for an affordable option though, and that’s exactly what I went with: a Loncin 125. I know, it’s a small engine; give me a break, it’s all I can afford.

The other day I was humming along, on my way to the gym when the bike started sputtering and then ran out of gas. Luckily, I was going downhill, so I coasted to the bottom where I knew a gas station to be. I pushed the bike into the station only to find it was a diesel station.

Time to push it back up the hill, to a Shell station about a half-mile away. Ethiopians are some of the most willing people when it comes to helping a commuter in distress; two guys immediately helped me push it up the hill. This was not because I was a ‘ferenge’ (foreigner). I have, on numerous occasions, witnessed people help push broken down cars and buses.

After reaching the Shell station I gave the guys a few birr for their help and then asked for a fill-up. ‘Sorry, petrol yellem (out of gas).’ A gas station out of gas, fantastic I thought; time to walk home and leave the bike. I parked my bike in the corner of the lot and started walking but was immediately called to the gas station café by an Ethiopian who was having a beer with his buddies. His English was near perfect and, to my surprise he asked me if I would like to borrow his car and jerry-can to fetch some gas. I was about to accept, and then decided I did not want to take the risk of a fender bender in someone else’s care.

Tsefay, my new friend’s name, was as polite as he could be. Rather than simply wishing me well when I declined, he asked the gas attendant to suck a liter out of his car and put it in my bike. Wow, what I guy I’m thinking. He then asks, ‘What’ll you take?’

‘Giorgis, of course,’ I said as I ordered the local beer. While we enjoyed our beer, along with a host of his friends, he told me he learned a lot from US soldiers stationed in Ethiopia when he was kid. The two main takeaways being spoken English and beer drinking. At least you are still doing both well, I thought to myself. I also learned that he had had a bike for over twenty years, and knew what it was like to be stranded. As we talked, one of his friends slipped out and told the attendant to transfer 3 liters of gas, rather than the initially ordered one liter.

When I saw what was going on, I worried Tsefay would get mad and take it out on me. I immediately offered to pay the difference, but he laughed it off and said he’d get his friends back. I finished my beer and told them I had to be on my way. Before leaving I bought them all a round and thanked them for their generosity. As I jumped on my bike however, I had a hard time getting it started. Tsefay came out, visibly concerned that the beer had affected my judgment.

“Are you OK with the beer?”

“Yes, I’m fine with the beer, I have experience.”

“Doesn’t look like it, are you sure the beer is OK with you?”

“Yes! I just need to get this bike started. The bike’s not OK with me.”

Eventually, we got it started, but Tsefay would not let me leave without promising to call him when I arrived at my destination. I was afraid he may not even let me go, he was so worried. I called him upon reaching the gym. He was thrilled and relieved that I had reached my destination safely.

 I’m from the South, as the southeastern part of the US is referred to, and we like to pride ourselves on hospitality. I am not sure, however, that even in the South a perfect stranger would receive the type of generosity and hospitality that Tsefay showed me. The Ethiopian people are truly some of the most generous, hospitable people I have met.


Addis Ababa, Ethiopia