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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Ethiopia: ‘Staying’ Power

We talk a lot about what it means to stay somewhere for the long haul. ‘Staying’ is probably one of our cardinal values as an organization of people devoted to helping the poorest of the poor.

Crisis is usually what attracts the attention of westerners to the poorest places in the world. When suddenly life, for whatever reason, becomes unbearable or utterly tenuous for significant numbers of people in one place. With attention comes donations, and so many organizations are most visible when they are taking part in aiding people in crisis.

Over the long term, the crisis is resolved or it simply becomes an embedded part of life for the poor (like a war that results in various tribes mistrusting one another for decades, leading to occasional violence and a general inability to cooperate). Over the long term, people no longer pay attention. This is when we do our best work with the poor.

Ethiopia is probably the best example of this. We started our work there in a time of famine, but we’ve stayed for decades. Over time, we’ve learned how to help the poor in the most efficient and effective way, through zeroing in on the lack of clean, abundant drinking water. The longer we stay, the better able we are to serve the poor well, to maximize on the finances that caring supporters entrust us with.

We marvel at the growing expertise of our Ethiopian staff. They took a decade to bring clean water to the entire district of Dereshe, which began with only 11% of families having disease-free water—and this was a tremendous accomplishment. But consider the fact that since Dereshe’s completion, they have been working Bonke district for only two years and by this year’s end, we project that 40% of the district will be finished. Ten years ago, we were approached to bring water to an area called Gewada. The project necessitates laying 17 kilometres of pipe, which is a mammoth engineering feat. We said we couldn’t do it then. Now, we are on track to ensure that the people of Gewada are all drinking safe, nearby water.

This is the power of ‘staying’—you get better at what you do. You stand a chance to really get somewhere in the fight against poverty.

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