Ethiopia and SDG16+ — Reflections from a Pathfinders country visit


By Paula Sevilla Núñez, Pathfinders Program Assistant at the NYU Center on International Cooperation

In early November, a group of CIC-Pathfinders staff traveled to Ethiopia to meet with government and civil society representatives working to deliver SDG16+. During their time in the country, they were impressed by the ambition and determination of the plans they heard of and reflected on the many challenges ahead.

The CIC-Pathfinders team meeting with Ethiopia’s Minister of Labor and Social Affairs.

Known as the “cradle of humanity,” home to beautiful natural landscapes, a rich and storied history, and a talismanic example of an African country that successfully resisted European colonization, Ethiopia is not only a source of pride to its people, but also offers lessons on resilience to the rest of the world.

Our country visit took place as the world’s attention turned to Ethiopia’s achievements, after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea, his release of thousands of political prisoners, and his ambitious plans for democratic reform. On our visit, we hoped to learn more about the road Ethiopia had taken to promote peaceful, just, and inclusive societies.

There are several parallels between the situation in Ethiopia and the wave of protests taking place in countries like Lebanon, Chile, Iraq, and Ecuador, where grievances rooted in exclusion and inequality have led to demands for fairer societies. While protests calling for “justice and equality in the Ethiopian federal system,” had been ongoing since 2015, the government’s efforts to initiate political reforms to meet protestors’ demands only kicked into high gear when Prime Minister Ahmed took office. Prime Minister Ahmed understood and grasped the urgent need for reform. Underpinned by the Medemer (“addition” in Amharic) philosophy which seeks to foster a national unity and harmony, he began an ambitious program of reform which included extending political amnesty to exiled groups and freeing political prisoners, revoking draconian terrorism laws, increasing and opening up space for civil society organizations, and proposing a restructuring of the revenue-sharing formula of central government transfers.

The Ministries and governmental entities we met were keen to note the potential of the upcoming 10-year National Development Plan to lay out a more people-centered approach which placed human development, not just economic development, at its center. They hope a series of consultations with citizens to inform the plan will demonstrate a refreshing and meaningful departure from previous national plans which were marked by a pronounced top-down process. Initial goals place a focus on job-creation, with 3 million to be created in the first year and 20 million over the span of the national plan, as well as on extending social protection coverage to urban centers, and overcoming a legacy of grievance and conflict through the efforts of the newly created Peace and Reconciliation Commission. I found it extremely encouraging to see that their involvement in the Pathfinders initiative and support for the SDG16+ agenda, is driven by a firm conviction that preventing conflict requires both the dismantling of structural sources of exclusion and injustice and the involvement of citizens and communities if it is to be sustainable.

During conversations with our hosts I was struck by their humility. They recognized that even as they had much to be proud of, they faced limitations with respect to capacity and other daunting challenges. Achieving their vision for the country, they described, required great care and good decision-making to manage the mandates of the Peace and Reconciliation Commission with tact and sensitivity, ensure social protection programs that could graduate citizens from poverty, and navigate opening up of political and civic space, even as long suppressed grievances were bubbling to the surface.

Pathfinders’ Michael Higgins (left) and Paula Sevilla (right) spotting the SDGs at Ethiopia’s Planning and Development Commission

Following a week of interviews and site visits, the question for Ethiopia that spoke to me the most was: in the pursuit of a fairer society, how can the country successfully address the “accumulation of frustration” that had been building for years? How can it design a plan that is ambitious enough to satisfy citizens’ call for a fairer society, but realistic enough that it does not lead to further frustration and disenchantment? Achieving a delicate balance between promising meaningful reform, and managing citizens’ expectations and diverse demands could build political confidence in the Government’s effort to deliver meaningful change. Yet, this will require more than knowledge of what works in technical terms.

Visiting a site of the urban Productive and Safety Net Programs (PSNP) in the outskirts of Addis Ababa.

Reports and recommendations on Ethiopia’s social and economic development are not in short supply, but accompanying knowledge about the political paths to tread to ensure effective implementation are less abundant. My hope is that Ethiopia’s involvement with Pathfinders will enable the successful exchange of policies, ideas and stories of success that can point the way towards long-term sustainable change.

Back in New York, I urge our SDG16+ partners and the international community to support Ethiopia in addressing these internal challenges, not only out of a sense of solidarity, but also from the recognition that issues of violence, injustice, and political and socio-economic disparities are universal. Inequality and exclusion exists in every country, even if takes different shapes and forms in each. I believe the story of the Ethiopian government’s reforms can provide a lesson and set a precedent for many of countries currently facing political turmoil or upheaval. While the situation in Ethiopia remains fragile and in need of attention, what is happening in the country is nevertheless deeply encouraging and representative of the courage and determination for which Ethiopians have always been admired.