Laura De Giorgis recently spent time in Ethiopia working with local communities on sustainable development projects. Here is her take on the vital importance of youth-led development.
The billboards tower over donkey carts and clusters of goats grazing by the road, drawing the attention of commuters dazing off after a long day’s work. A warm smile worn by an attractive and fashionable woman serves as the template for many contraception advertisements in Ethiopia. Standing boldly at busy intersections, Ethiopia’s efforts to encourage family planning is visible on many of the bustling country’s streets.
Yet on those donkey carts and herding those clusters of goats are a group of five or six siblings caring for each other while taking menial jobs to help cover the costs of such large families. With a population of 99.4 million in 2015, Ethiopia’s population growth rate of 2.88% ranks 9th fastest in the world. Furthermore, Ethiopia has a disproportionately large youth-population with more than 60% of the population under the age of 24. With more than a majority of the population being so young, there are unduly pressures on economic and social networks. Like many developing countries, Ethiopia lies at an intersection. On one side, stands the dominating billboard symbolizing a more stable (and less fertile) Ethiopia, while on the other side the country still feels burdened by a fast-growing population.
Why not shift the discourse of the large societal and economic burden and view the youth-population as untapped potential instead of a drain? Why not enlist the 20.5 million people between the ages of 15 and 24 to ensure that Ethiopia takes the route towards inclusive growth and a balanced population? Bursting with determination and innovation, this young demographic holds the key to Ethiopia’s growth and development. It doesn’t take long for a visitor such as myself to meet entrepreneurial youth seeking to become successful for the sake of their communities.
It was conversations with two young Ethiopians friends of mine that first made me aware of this great potential. While developing a training and employment program in the rural Sidama region in partnership with local nonprofit Common River, I met Tinsae Tareku and Getahun Wajebo. Tinsae, a former English teacher, works as Common River’s Program Director, while Getahun studies French at Addis Ababa University and works as a tour guide and translator on the side. Tinsae and Getahun are instrumental to Common River’s efforts and hold a lot of responsibility, both formally and informally, within the community. Both have had the education and opportunities to have much more lucrative careers in Addis Ababa or perhaps even abroad, but have instead chosen to dedicate time and money to promoting positive change within their local communities. Both support their families, as well as neighbors’ children and distant relatives. Tinsae works overtime at Common River and then spends his Saturdays volunteering with another local nonprofit as a mentor to young children. Getahun has brought both a neighbor and a sister to Addis Ababa to complete high school, while spending his first trip outside of Ethiopia at a Ugandan nonprofit.
Given the statistics listed above regarding the demographic imbalance, Ethiopia has a very dismal future. But when looking at the future as an equation of given circumstances and opportunities, why not highlight the many young individuals who have taken it upon themselves to be leaders in positive change? Because of this very valuable asset that I witness within my Ethiopian friends, I see a future Ethiopia marked by economic growth and political stability. When I pestered my friends Tinsae and Getahun a bit about their vision for Ethiopia, they both highlighted the importance of job opportunities and education. Given their respective background, Tinsae speaks highly of increasing quality education for both children and women in rural areas, while Getahun is acutely aware of the importance of governmental promotion of job for young professionals.
Now, my friends come from very simple rural upbringings. They weren’t born with silver spoons in their mouths and have both had to work incredibly hard. They don’t hold government positions nor have they studied engineering or medicine. But, the look of respect and awe they receive from young members of the Common River community is worth a thousand words. Tinsae and Getahun are role models for our students, not because they have high-paying jobs, but because they give selflessly to support Common River’s various education, health and livelihood initiatives. They spend tireless hours translating for American medical teams and pitch in when the basketball court needs to be resurfaced. They share the community’s joys on birthdays and holidays, and carry the burden when death or illness hits. Rather than utilize their opportunities to escape the rural poverty, they have stayed behind to pull those around them up. It is this compassion, coupled with hard work and professionalism, which will make Tinsae, Getahun and their peers the drivers of positive change across Ethiopia for generations to come.