Thursday, April 26, 2007

Reflection after 8 months

Eight months ago, I could never imagine being at this point: two months to go here in Ethiopia. I like to think that I’ve had a unique experience, unlike anyone else, but I’m afraid that I’ve experienced the generic Intern emotions and revelations. And then some, perhaps.

Usually, when sent overseas, a young intern either falls in love with the world of a development worker in the field, or gets completely disenchanted with the process and outcomes of development. I find myself in the middle of these two perceptions. I still thoroughly believe in development- its positive impact on local communities and its importance in ending poverty. But I see my place in it more clearly than when I left. The most rewarding moments of my placement have been when I collect case studies of CPAR’s beneficiaries, when I write about my observations here on my blog, and when I prepare articles for the CPAR website and newsletters. Perhaps my role in development in the future will be in promotions and communications, rather than in programming and implementation. In my ideal world, I’ll spend the next years of my life working to get more Canadians (and others) interested in the issues I’ve become familiar with here, and helping youth to become more involved in programs like the one I’ve done.

I’m afraid of going back to North America. I feel like as soon as I get off the plane I’ll be faced with someone who will complain about their difficult life (a job they don’t really like, credit card debt, general Western frustrations) and I will react- “You have nothing to complain about, compared to my homeless neighbours, my colleagues with HIV/AIDS, and terrible public transit!”. I feel like I’ll walk into a shopping mall, shiny and orderly, and get overwhelmed by just how much we have in Canada, compared to the people that live in corrugated iron boxes on stilts, that hold all their worldly possessions, just outside my house. It’s not that I’m trying to belittle the issues and stresses in Canada- everything is relative, certainly. It will be a shock, though, to arrive in a country where poverty is not the norm. Where I’ll be able to walk all day without a single person asking for money, or bread. Where no one will say “Hello Foreigner” when I walk down the street. Where I’ll be completely normal again, and not different from anyone else.

And I dread the utterly unanswerable question, “How was Africa?”

Making Money: boys sell fuz ball games on the side of the road for 10birr cents

Woman from the Gumuz ethinic group carrying firewood to sell in the local market

School children stop for a drink at a water point developed by CPAR

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Expatriates

Some of the more “hardcore” interns and development workers here in Addis make a point of rejecting the Expat community in favour of “making friends with the locals”. Their point is, of course, “if I wanted to spend time with Canadians, I would have just stayed in Canada”.

I, however, am not quite so strict in my associations. I have many friends falling into either category, the expat or the local.

But I want to focus, for a minute, about the expats here in Addis, particularly the ones about my own age. By going through the process of finding and securing an internship or overseas job, these youth seem to have been pre-selected for terrific friends. It is thrilling to be surrounded by a group of people who have traveled all over the world, have a keen interest in international issues, and, most exceptionally, are committed to global change. How often can you say that the majority of people that you know are concerned with environmental, social and political problems rampant throughout the world, and are actually taking steps to address these issues with all their heart?

With that, I raise my glass of tej (Ethiopian honey wine) to all the locals and the expats around the world whose chosen task in life is to improve the status quo. Cheers!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Human Traffic 2: Ethiopia's Baby Trade

The going rate for a baby in Ethiopia is $10,000USD, through legal channels. I’m not sure what a black market baby will run you. It’s sometimes hard for me to wrap my head around a baby with a price tag.

Pioneered by Angelina, this new wave of international adoption is in your face. Madonna is plastered all over CNN with her problems trying to adopt a Malawian baby. Spoof news magazine The Onion features a story with the headline “Angelina Jolie Coming for Your Baby” and the Jolie-Pitt family is steadily increasing its international brood. Here in Addis Ababa, a new flock of mostly American adopters takes over the Hilton and Sheraton hotels every 6 months, staying a week before exporting their new children back to the West.

Perhaps I sound overly harsh, and as an adoptee myself, I can’t be completely critical of the adoption industry. Certainly, there’s a crisis of orphans here in Africa, with the scourge of Aids leaving thousands of parentless children in terrible conditions with impoverished societies unable to care for them. And the population growth in many of these countries is causing huge developmental problems, such as environmental degradation, food insecurity and dilution of wealth, whereas in the West we need immigration to maintain our population levels. As well, adoption within the West is difficult for families who can’t have children of their own because of massive waiting lists and restrictive bureaucracy.

But it’s important to think about the overall impact of massive adoption from developing countries from a wider perspective. Take, for example, Ethiopia. One of the five poorest nations in the world, Ethiopia faces brain drain of its wealthy and educated, creating hubs of diaspora in places like Washington, D.C. or Edmonton, and undermining the country’s potential for growth. I see mass adoptions to the West in a similar light. By exporting a chunk of the future generation of Ethiopians, we are only addressing the symptoms of the problem and perhaps mining the youth that will carry Ethiopia out of poverty. I also question why the children have to be taken away to the West, when it is entirely possible to successfully sponsor a child (and its community) without taking it away from its society and culture.

I’m not advocating an end to international adoption, because it serves the urgent purpose of providing better lives for children that would otherwise have no opportunity, or worse, would simply rot in orphanages and contribute to the increasing incidence of HIV infection. I’m saying lets look at the long term and try to solve the problems that supply the babies put up for adoption. Lets invest in strategies to eradicate poverty and reduce the prevalence of orphans.

When I look at what $10,000 can do when put to good use here, I am amazed. CPAR would build a rainwater harvesting tank for a school in Ethiopia’s Dibate region that faces chronic water shortages. The direct impact of this investment would address the issue of school absences due to water-related illness and time spent collecting water, mostly by girls. By supporting health and education in this way, CPAR would be building the capacity of the community to lead more productive lives, reducing the factors that lead to HIV/AIDS and orphanhood. $10,000 could build five water tanks in five different communities, impacting approximately 1000 students directly, and many others indirectly.

I might adopt a child from Africa or Asia when I’m ready to be a mother. But if I do, I’ll make sure that I simultaneously contribute to addressing the development issues facing the country in the hopes that in the future, the country will be able to take care of its own young. And I’ll ensure that the child I’m adopting doesn’t have any other option, that its family hasn’t seen an opportunity in the demand for babies and sold its baby into adoption to make ends meet.

Until then, I will still get a little edgy when the doorman at the Hilton kindly leans over and asks me, “Where is your Ethiopian baby?”