This year marks the 30th anniversary of a Canadian high diplomacy and the hallmark of Canada's noted Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney's, and one of his best international legacies. In 1984, the world was being accustomed to what would soon become Ethiopia's signature to the world -- destitute famine victims in the millions before our TV images.
The young Prime Minister had just taken office mere months ago, when he came across images that were disturbing courtesy of CBC's Brian Stewart. History has it recorded that he immediately dispatched his UN secretary, Stephen Lewis, to awaken the world to what was happening. Stephen Lewis, a noted NDP politician then and a close friend of (then) Foreign Minister Joe Clark demanded that "a Herculean effort on the part of all member nations" was needed.
The world responded in kind and millions of lives were saved as countless died before our own eyes. Since then, Ethiopia has fascinated yet puzzled the world as it became the darling of charity organizations. These charity institutions, while making short term contributions, have hindered the long term growth of the country and changed its image forever.
In Canada, we see as charities beg on Ethiopia's behalf on our TV screens regularly with decade old disturbing images while their impact on the ground has been minimal in the long term. If charities really worked in Africa, why do we have thousands of them and why are statistics suggest that they are not having impacts? What is making Ethiopia move forward is not charity but local initiatives and the building of institutions on the ground. That is why I am excited to be introduced to a new documentary titled Sincerely, Ethiopia.
The documentary is in circulation in local theaters and universities across North America and Europe and is making a profound impression as it starts a lively discussion on change and perception of Ethiopia. It features activists at play partnering to solve a slew of issues on the ground in areas such as HIV/AIDS, homelessness and youth unemployment. With the aim of solving local African problems with local actors, the documentary is on to something great.
According to the producers, American citizens of Ethiopian ancestry, they are hoping to "introduce viewers to an honest and more thoughtful depiction of what Ethiopia is really like opening up wider discourse on Africa and our perceptions of it" and that they aim to "provide direction on how you can support and be engaged with existing programs and people in Ethiopia that are effectively making a difference".
That is a noble goal.
To the charity organizations that are as mainstream in Ethiopia as our corner stores in Canada, the documentary further explains how Ethiopia's vast shortcomings are long believed to be solved via conventional wisdom (charity handouts) and what was "missed in these stories is the beauty and strength of the local people and diaspora who have been tackling these issues daily and on the ground".
For instance, in one of the most memorable scenes of the documentary, its director Nate Arayainterviews a number of locals in a taxi minivan. The Texas native and youth activist have them reflect on happiness, lives lived and the problems of Ethiopia and how it can be solved. They have much to share and what they say are different and organic.
In another segment of the documentary featured are local activists such as Yohannes Gebregeorgis, an Ethiopian American, who moved to his birth country to open libraries in the villages of the country with the help of a donkey. The CNN featured activist operates an organization, Ethiopia Reads, that is educating young people and helping change the reality of Ethiopia literacy rate.
Then, there are also the youth leaders of "Change for Change" organizations working with street kids and helping them build a decent life in a country where social safety net is still non-existence. There is also the Entoto Project that works with HIV/AIDS victims, a disease that has had a crippling and deadly effect, and empowering them in the process.
In all of these, there were no Bono, Bill Gates nor Bob Geldof explaining what is working in Ethiopia but local citizens giving us a glimpse of their practical work on the ground as they help change the reality of the country. For its producer, Hellen Emeariel Kassa, a University of Denver graduate in International Studies and Economics, the "main goal is really to help facilitate really strong and relevant discussions on the perceptions of Africa and to give Africans a chance to really speak for themselves".
That is why anyone interested in international developments abroad, our Canadian International citizenry obligation, should watch this documentary. They will soon find out that something is changing in Ethiopia and humanity is not lost after all.