The Dilemma and Difficulty of Being an Aid Worker in Ethiopia (or elsewhere)

You may or may not have noticed, but in Ethiopia a generation is protesting towards the ruling party EPRDF, having been in power since in 1991. These days, Ethiopia is mostly in the news for its booming economy, but in the past weeks, dozens if not hundreds of protesters have been killed in protests in many parts of the nation.

I follow the events in Ethiopia closely. This country was my home for two years. My baby spent most of his utero time there. Our cats are Ethiopian. When I see Ethiopia on the news, I don’t think of a distant country somewhere far away, I think about the local shops and streets and the smell of buna in a town called Bahir Dar. That is where I worked for a development aid project which first introduced me and my husband to this country in the horn of Africa.

A lot has been said about development aid. For example, there are widespread disparities between the salaries of external, often white consultants and locals. Many projects could use better planning. Development aid has at times been labeled neocolonialism and not without justification.

But this is not my point.

I still believe in development aid as a form of cooperation and dialogue.

My point is that at the core of development aid there seems to exists a vacuum, an untouchable topic called politics, which often results in complete silence about inequality and oppression happening right in front of its eyes. This was the case during my time in Ethiopia and I guess it is increasingly so now. We are afraid of politics and thus remain silent about everything.

Due to this unwritten rule of complete avoidance of political involvement combined with our outsiderness and seasonal type of activity (most of us leave after a while), we often choose not to choose sides.

Yet isn’t passiveness and neutrality in situations of oppression also one way of choosing sides? Isn’t it an active decision to look away?

Most aid workers are good people with good intentions. Yet they are not trained or encouraged (at least I wasn’t) to talk about the moral aspect of their work.

What are we supposed to do when we encounter human rights violations? Are we supposed to look away because we are outsiders? These questions often remain unanswered in bigger projects (smaller NGOs might have a different stand).

So, for example in Ethiopia, I could watch a demonstration unfold into a calamity of peaceful protesters being killed by security forces, and then pretend nothing happened, because it was not a) my job b) my place to comment on it. Don’t think about it, I told myself. Do not get involved, it will bring you peace of mind.

Yet, in these times of global inequality, can we afford simply having personal peace of mind?

All I know is that right now, in Ethiopia, there is a large number of educated and uneducated youth protesting for the lack of opportunities and freedoms they are experiencing in a country which has continuously been praised by international media and its strategic ally U.S. as a booming economy.

By writing this I am sharing something that concerned me gravely as an aid worker. I wish I had gotten more training on this topic. I would still like the possibility to work in this field someday, but was too afraid to speak out about those human right violations two years ago. And now similar horrible events are again unfolding in Ethiopia.

Realizing and acknowledging the sovereignty of all states along with an understanding about the complexity of social issues does not mean political action, let alone discussion, is out of the question.

In the end it really boils down to this: We can always say we are only one person, not able to change much. But what if that mantra is repeated by all of us? Maybe we can do more. Maybe we should do more.

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