The Value of Qaulity Education

Thomas Friedman, an op-ed columnist for the NY Times, in an April 21st column titled ‘Swimming Without a Suit’ commented on the negative economic impact of the United States failure to place an emphasis on retaining the worldwide lead in providin quality education to all citizens. The article can be found at: . 

As Friedman notes, according to the report, released by McKinsey & Co., ‘The Economic Impact of Achievement Gap in America’s Schools,’

If America had closed the international achievement gap between 1983 and 1998 and had raised its performance to the level of such nations as Finland and South Korea, United States G.D.P. in 2008 would have been between $1.3 trillion and $2.3 trillion higher. If we had closed the racial achievement gap and black and Latino student performance had caught up with that of white students by 1998, G.D.P. in 2008 would have been between $310 billion and $525 billion higher. If the gap between low-income students and the rest had been narrowed, G.D.P. in 2008 would have been $400 billion to $670 billion higher.

Imagine, then, what a focus on providing quality education could do for a country such as Ethiopia – with an annual GDP of only $62.19 billion, and a per capita GDP of $800 USD (from Global Edge – 

In a nation struggling to feed an ever increasing population, some would say a focus on education  is jumping a few too many rings of the development ladder. I beg to differ, especially when the school is providing two meals per day, a bath, a uniform and shoes, school supplies and a high quality education – like Initiative Ethiopia Internationl Children’s Association (aka, Kechene School) is doing. A comparatively small investment now will hopefully allow these children to one day realize their full potential. That is, to be values based leaders who contribute to the development – economic, social and environmental – of their native land. 


Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Sustainability in Education

The trend, these days, in funding developing world projects is to apply market based principles to development projects in the hopes of supporting underserved entrepreneurs and others to gain enough financial independence to pull themselves out of poverty. Sustainability, they call it. If you do not mention this word in a project proposal, grant application, or request for investment, you can hardly expect to receive funding or support.

With a background in economics and entrepreneurship I naturally favor market based solutions to environmental and social challenges, when applicable. However, there are times when ‘sustainability’ – as defined by financial independence – is not an option.

My involvement at Kechene School/ IEICA[i] over the past year has forced me to ask myself, time and again, ‘How can this school become self-sustaining?’ Unfortunately, I have failed to develop a groundbreaking new theory that proposes exactly how a school in an extremely poor community becomes sustainable.

Some schools in the developing world, that serve the middle or lower-middle class, are able to charge school fees. The fees allow these schools to, even if initially funded via donor support, eventually become self supporting entities with no dependence on donations, grants or further investment. The key to that model, however, is the fact that these schools serve the middle and lower middle class market. These children’s parents or guardians are not rich or even close to it. With the little income they do earn however, and the high value they place on their children’s education, they are able to pay their school fees.

Unfortunately, paying school fees is not an option for the children at Kechene School / IEICA. These kids all come from destitute families in the local neighborhood. The families struggle to feed, clothe and bathe their children, much less cover their school fees.

I have pondered, from time to time, the effectiveness of working with the children’s parents and family members to begin some sort of income generating activities. The thought being that, if the families begin to generate enough income themselves, they will eventually be able to pay their children’s school fees. As I thought through the challenges and opportunities therein, I realized that working on income-generating activities with family members is simply too much of an undertaking for the organization at this point in time.

The main focus of the school, as it should be, is caring for and educating its students in the hopes of providing them a sufficient foundation from which to begin to contribute to the development of their native land. In the future the school could possibly serve as a base from which to launch community engagement projects such as issuing micro-finance loans in conjunction with developing income generating activities, providing health and hygiene awareness and conducting classes on the utilization of drip irrigation for vegetable cultivation. All of these activities would foster a more sustainable community, one that could afford to pay its children’s school fees. For the foreseeable future, however, the prudent thing to do is to focus all available resources on the top priorities at IEICA – mainly, educating and caring for the students as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Sustainability is a lofty and only sometimes applicable and attainable goal. In the field of education amongst the underserved rural and urban poor of the developing world, sustainability may well be a goal only for the long-term horizon.


Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 

[i] There has been some local confusion over my referring to Initiative Ethiopia International Children’s Association (as it is officially registered) as ‘Kechene School’ due to similarly named projects in the area. Henceforth, I will be referring to Kechene School more frequently as ‘IEICA.’ 

The Horse Can’t Fight

I saw something today that I never thought I would see, or, at least, necessarily thought I wanted to see: blind men working in a wood shop. Just picture that for a moment. See what I’m talking about – on first thought that’s a dangerous setting. I know plenty of men with perfect eye sight that have nevertheless lost fingers in woodworking.

Now before going into detail about the blind men working in a woodshop, or other activities I witnessed this morning, let me tell you a bit about how I ended-up in the woodshop with blind men. Tuesday, while in a meeting, I received a call from a man I will call Ato (Mr.) Berhan. When my phone rang, I saw the number was already stored, and therefore was more confident in taking the call even though I could not recall how I knew the name flashing on my phone’s screen. I answered anyway, hoping I would soon remember. Even as we talked, I continued to draw blanks on when or why I may have given my number to Ato Berhan– even now I cannot recall, but I’m glad I did.

Ato Berhan requested that I meet him later this week to discuss volunteer opportunities. We have already placed all of our summer volunteers with our current grassroot NGO partners, but because I had a little time this week, I decided to meet him late Wednesday afternoon. We arranged to meet at 5pm at a hotel I like to work from because it offers consistent power and internet. I was working on a newsletter when he showed-up a little early, but I was glad to see him (needing a break from the computer) and he seemed a genuine, good hearted man. Ato Berhan is older, but his English is superb.  He told me that was due mainly to a Peace Corps volunteer who taught him English over 40 years ago, and whom he remains in-touch with today.

I quickly learned he was passionate about empowering those with disabilities. Moreover, he had been imprisoned during the Derg regime for over 6 years for no apparent reason (I am not certain, but I’m guessing maybe he was political in his younger years – a hobby that does not pay in this country). When the Derg was overthrown by the current regime, his hopes soared, figuring he would be released. That was not to be the case, however, and he remained behind bars for another 5 ½ years before being released. You could tell what he was most disappointed about was that 12 years of his life had been wasted – of no use to the disabled, his family or his country.

Ato Berhan went on to tell me that he had initially begun his work with the leper community some 35-40 years ago at ALERT – a community and hospital for lepers. At first, he said, he was afraid but God gave him the strength to continue to learn and help the leper community. Eventually, he wrote one of the first books published in Amharic that details how to treat and care for lepers. Unfortunately, demand for the book was low – and it was impossible to convince the government’s Ministry of Health to purchase the book, even as many of the people suffering from leprosy continued to deteriorate and be neglected. People in Ethiopia were, and to an extent remain, afraid of leprosy and those who are burdened with this awful disease. Lepers are therefore ostracized by a large percentage of the population – which at times includes their own family members.

After hearing Ato Berhan’s story I told him that all I could offer, maybe, were some volunteers if any had extra time to spare this summer. He said that was great, and that he would love to show me some of the projects dear to his heart if I had the time. By this point, I had become intrigued, so we scheduled to meet first thing Thursday morning and visit a few of the projects he had referenced. The first was Hulegeb Blind and Disabled People Training and Rehab Association.

I picked Ato Berhan up on my motorcycle just after 8am and we made our way to Hulegeb. I quickly realized it was the blind association near my own home. I must admit, I was ashamed for never having visited it previously, as it is nearly next door to my house. I knew it was there, but just had never taken the time to see exactly what was going on. I could offer various excuses for not doing so, but the point is I should have.

As we made our way into the aging, slightly neglected, compound I did not know what to expect. I knew the association focused on income-generating activities, but I had not a clue what those activities were. The first shop we entered, to my astonishment, was a woodworking shop. I could hardly believe what I was seeing – blind men turning logs into brooms. There was a shop master to lead the men in their activities, but it was obvious that these men had been working at their trade so long that they scarcely needed assistance. They were splitting the logs, then further cutting them into oblong rectangular pieces, before passing them through a router that rounded the piece of lumber into a broom handle. In another area of the workshop, a man was operating a punch machine that drilled holes in the broom-head, which yet another man then inserted the bristles into.

I was impressed, though slightly in disbelief. The sad part was, however, that even though these men were overcoming enormous odds to master a sometimes hazardous trade, and thus become productive members of society, they were working with ancient machines. Many of these machines were in desperate need of a tune-up, and some were in outright disrepair. As I stood in the workshop I wished I knew more of mechanical engineering and could restore these antiques to their former glory, to the benefit of these master craftsmen.

Woodworking and broom making was not the only income generating activity underway at Hulegeb. Others were cleaning sheep’s wool, winding it into thread and hand weaving rugs and doormats. Still others were producing cement blocks and hollow blocks, but again, their press machines were ancient and not nearly as efficient as they could or should be. Moreover, all the raw material inputs required for making blocks – such as red ash and cement, have increased in price. Increased raw material costs are preventing Hulegeb from meeting demand. Ato Berhan kept repeating an old Ethiopian proverb that goes something like this, ‘The horse can take you to the fight, but it can’t fight.’ I was slowly discovering what he meant.  

After leaving Hulegeb, inspired at the work being undertaken but troubled over the fact that it seemed closer to a shuttered old mill – ever present across my home state of North Carolina – than a promising start-up, I then visited a leper colony cooperative with Ato Berhan. Again, I was to experience the same sense of inspiration and despair. The leper association was created to provide the lepers with an income generating opportunity, dignity and community – rights so basic, and yet so far from everyday life for so many in Ethiopia, especially those with disabilities.

At the leper cooperative they were selling cereals to local residents who could then pay a few birr to have their teff, maize, pepper or whatever it may be, milled onsite. I had never visited a milling operation before, but it was interesting and the pepper aroma that pervaded was attractive – until both Ato Berhan and I inhaled the pepper dust a little too deeply and were coughing up a storm.

Outside there were areas for the public to pay to hand-wash their clothes or use the shower facilities. Because the cooperative had drilled their own well, they were able to sell the water to the public. Once again, but even to a greater degree, I had the feeling that good work was being done there, but that their ‘glory’ days were behind them. For example, a large workshop at the back of the lot had been shuttered and an enormous lock held the shop doors securely fastened. Ato Berhan explained that in this workshop there was a manual candle making machine that had been donated by the ‘Germans’ – whether this was the German government or simply a German organization, was unclear. What was clear, according to Ato Berhan, was that the operation had been shuttered due to unbearably high taxes. My initial thought was, why not simply pass those costs on to the customer? But, it was obvious the operation had been shuttered, and delving too deeply into the matter seemed beside the point.

That’s the long-winded story of how I came to witness, among other things, blind men who were master craftsmen in a woodworking shop. Inspired by these income generating projects? Of course I was – men and women with disabilities were learning and mastering trades that enable them to earn an honest living with a sense of dignity and respect.  What I cannot help but simultaneously see, however, is the enormous uncaptured potential. Both associations were doing great, necessary work against all odds. But what both need most – as Ato Berhan was attempting to point out through the proverb about the horse – is a champion for their cause who can capitalize on the opportunity to bring their services and products to a wider market, make use of all available resources, and inspire the association members to work ardently and creatively towards long-term goals and potential.


Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


This is not his actual name. As he has already spent a considerable portion of his life in prison, I did not want to cause further troubles for him.

In case you do not know, I work for Cherokee Gives Back and one of our main projects here in Ethiopia is to place volunteers – mainly US college students – with grassroot NGO partners. The volunteers live at Cherokee House and generally volunteer for a period of between 1 – 4 months

A Whirlwind…

Let me apologize, once again, for the delay in posting. It’s been over a month since my last post – unacceptable – I’ll try to do better this month. Below, I’ve listed a few highlights and thoughts from my experiences over the last month. While they may be a bit scattered, I hope you find some of them interesting.


Cherokee Exchange Program

Biniyam Assefa, Briana Harper and I spent nearly every waking moment in March attempting to select our final list of CEP candidates for the class of 2009/10. Cherokee Exchange Program works through the Ministry of Education in Ethiopia to identify government schools from which to select the top 11th grade students to participate in our year abroad exchange program. This year, the Ministry of Education directed us to work from government schools in Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa and Harar.

CEP students live with an American host family and study at an American high school, before spending the summer as a camp counselor at various YMCA camps throughout North Carolina. Upon completion of the year program, CEP students return to Ethiopia where they complete the 12th grade and take the National Exam – to determine which colleges in Ethiopia they are qualified to attend.

This year’s class will be our third CEP class, and we are anticipating placing between 10 and 20 students with American host families. The selection process has allowed me to know Ethiopia, and its young leaders, in a way I otherwise would not have had an opportunity to experience. I must say, after reading countless applications (we accepted over 450 applications from 14 schools) and conducting over 80 interviews I feel blessed to have had this experience.

Ethiopia, at times, can be an overwhelming place if you forget to focus on the people who are doing the small things. Many of the students who applied to CEP’s class of 2008/09 are doing the small things, and they certainly give me hope and confidence in Ethiopia’s future. For instance, scores of them participate in community and school based anti-HIV clubs that raise awareness. Others participate in environmental clubs that plant trees and host community clean-ups.

All the more impressive were the personal stories. One student lived with his aging grandmother (both his parents passed away some years ago), worked after school to earn a minimal income to support himself and his grandmother, and still managed to be among the top 20 students in his class. His belief in hard work and industriousness were impressive; he had that rare desire to improve his lot in life, and that of his family, against all odds.

Another, one of the most impressive young people I have met in my life, grew up in a rural village in northern Ethiopia. It was so rural that school was not even an option for her. Her mother, therefore, sent her to live with her aunt’s family in Addis, where she would have an opportunity at education. And seize the opportunity she did. Her confidence and passion is inspiring, and her English perfect. Private schools here in Addis held a ‘Model United Nations’ forum earlier this year – she was the first and only government school student to participate.

From what I was told by teachers who were present, she absolutely stood out in her diplomatic representation of Bangladesh (if my memory serves me correctly, that is the country she was expected to represent). They say the entire audience stood to applaud her performance – after interviewing her, I do not doubt that for a second. She even took the initiative to bring a model of this program back to her school, where she got other students involved and provided them an opportunity to participate in an activity dear to her heart.

In the closing minutes of our interview, I asked her what she wanted for her future. Without hesitating, she declared that wanted to participate in Ethiopian politics – especially she desired the opportunity to be a diplomat of Ethiopia. This is a rare career choice among Ethiopian students – most want to be doctors, engineers and the like. She is not afraid of the unknown or unpopular however, and I cannot wait to see the work she will do for her country – there could not be a better representative.

*Names of the CEP students were not provided because the final list of students placed with host families, and thus who will participate in the CEP Class of 2009/10, has yet to be released.

For further information on Cherokee Exchange Program, please visit


Soap – from Goats, Now Available in Ethiopia

I believe I have mentioned Salem’s Design in a previous post entitled, ‘Salem, Quite the Entrepreneur’. Well, she continues to add products to her already impressive lines – concentrated mainly around traditionally woven scarves and blankets as well as jewelry made from beads native to Ethiopia and other African countries. Last month, with help from Angela Correll and another member of the Correll family, Greg Correll, she produced her first batch of goat milk soap.

Goats are no rare commodity in Ethiopia – and it’s inspiring to see that now there will hopefully be a demand for something besides their meat and hides. Moreover, this project will create jobs in a country that is in dire need of them. The Correll’s learned the process of converting goat milk into soap after experimenting with goats on their farm in Kentucky – Plainview Farm. Now, they sell the soap at Kentucky Soaps and Such, based in Stafford, Kentucy. Also, the soap can be found online at

If you are in Ethiopia, Salem’s Design store is located just past Edna Mall. Take a left at Genet Kitfo (just opposite of the FedEx building), the store is marked by a large green gate with a yellow ‘S’ and will be on the left side of the street. Salem can be reached at or


Mozambique – A Brief Geographical and Environmental Comparison to Ethiopia

Just last week I was fortunate enough to slip off to Mozambique for a week vacation to visit a friend volunteering in the Peace Corps. It was quite an enjoyable trip, and interesting to compare and contrast Mozambique to Ethiopia. That’s a hard thing to do in only a week’s time; however, I cannot help but comment on the environmental and geographical differences.

Mozambique, as I’m sure many of you are aware, does not share the mountainous terrain of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is considered the ‘ceiling of Africa,’ as hardly any other country on the continent has comparable highlands. Though the mountains are beautiful, provide an escape from lowland diseases, such as malaria, and heat, they are now nearly completely deforested. The deforestation of the Ethiopian highlands, and country in general (in the 1970s forest covered nearly 27% of the landscape, today that figure hovers below 4%), leads to rapid soil degradation and erosion – which leads to further deforestation as farmers search for arable land.

As we bumped along in a chappa (what Mozambicans call mini-buses) from Maputo east towards Chibuto, I could not help but notice there were actually forests in the distance, and older growth trees dotted the landscape here and there! Moreover, we traveled through extensive wetlands and the general landscape was green and lush – quite a contrast to Ethiopia. Of note however, Mozambique does suffer from extensive flooding at times– the green landscape and wetlands do not come without a cost.

Other things I noticed, that likely contribute to a more sustainable environment in Mozambique as compared to Ethiopia, is that the country did not seem to be busting at the seams in terms of human and livestock population. No matter if you are in Addis Ababa or on some rural road, you can hardly drive in Ethiopia without constantly dodging people and livestock. This out-of-control population growth (both among humans and livestock) further contributes to the degradation of an already depleted natural environment – what family planning would do for Ethiopia! On the ride from Maputo to Chibuto we passed a large herd of cattle or two (they were noticeably larger and healthier than those found in Ethiopia – due to available grazing lands), but it did not compare to the human and livestock traffic you experience in any part of Ethiopia.

Some pictures have been posted from the Mozambique trip on the Lamp Post Photos link at the right – you can compare and contrast the natural landscapes for yourself.


I believe that’s a wrap for March 2009. I hope you all have an enjoyable Easter with family and friends. I, for one, will be missing the sunrise service over Lake Tillery.


Addis Ababa, Ethiopia