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January 1, 2016

New Year’s Day has always been important to me. It‘s a moment to look back and reflect, take stock and then envision what could be in the year ahead.

Although our world seems to bounce from crisis to crisis, I am lucky enough to work with ActionAid, and looking back at 2015, I have seen some amazing transformational change. I remember our Nepal responseseeing resilience in action in Bangladesh, and I remember my trip to Ethiopia, where I got the opportunity to witness the closure of an ActionAid regional office, and hear from the villagers what they were able to accomplish with ActionAid over the last 13 years.

When I visited it was the Ethiopian New Year. The Ethiopian calendar calculates that we are celebrating 2008 and I spent all week feeling 7 years younger!

But there’s so much more that makes Ethiopia such a fascinating country to visit. The delicious food, the wonderful smells of coffee and spices, the fact that you are equally likely to get hit by a car as a cow in many of the bustling streets in downtown Addis Ababa, are just a few of the reasons why I love coming to this city!

When I first travelled to Addis in 2002, there were only two or three hotels and the African Union building. There were no ATMs, credit cards or banks. On previous trips I had seen the onset of the banking industry, complete with ATMs and increasing ability to pay for things on credit. But my last trip was 5 years ago and countless buildings had sprung up. And there’s a clear Ethiopian middle class now enjoying bars, restaurants and shopping malls.

All of the growth is amazing to see, but I was disappointed (although not surprised) to find that it has been unequal

In fact, like in most of the rest of the world, there has been growing inequality in Ethiopia where a tiny minority holds the vast majority of the wealth and power in the country. The small middle class is far richer than the majority of the population that lives in poverty. The indigenous people that live in the countryside are the most excluded of all.

As the current government is very wary of human rights work, ActionAid Ethiopia’s approach has to be different. In fact, doing overt human rights work can land you in jail, as some former ActionAid Ethiopia staff have found out. But while there is great caution not to endanger staff, partners or the poor themselves, ActionAid Ethiopia has been able to carry out phenomenal programs across this beautiful country.

Creating long lasting change

The communities I met with have been working with ActionAid for 13 years. Two months after my visit, ActionAid would close its office and move to another part of the country. I was there to see how far the community had come in achieving the priorities they set out more than a decade ago in regards to farming, savings and credit cooperatives, access and control over land and water resources, and women’s rights.

ActionAid makes a commitment to communities to stand with them and support their processes to claim their rights, but ultimately we desire to ensure that communities are self-sustaining and able to thrive on their own

This community insisted that like parents, ActionAid could leave them but they were sure that the ActionAid Ethiopia staff would never be too far away. They said time and again, that ActionAid could watch them and celebrate their successes over the years – even if across the mountain!

And success there has been! There is a beautiful school, built with help from ActionAid, now improved, expanded and remodeled as result of collaborative work between parents and teachers and the local government.

In order to help ensure that girls do not drop out and for them to feel safe in school, they have their own toilet and their own library. They have created – with ActionAid’s help – 4 girls clubs that are linked with the local women’s groups and some of the female teachers. Part of the commitment to quality education in this school included training some teachers in child psychology and incorporating those teachers into the leadership of the school.

The success of the school warmed my heart, but the story that I think I will carry with me throughout my career is one of how women’s economic empowerment helped to reduce violence against women and fundamentally transform relationships between men and women in the villages.

Ethiopia is a very patriarchal country. Power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of men. A decade ago, when women in the villages were setting out goals of raising some income for themselves and addressing violence against women, they had little or no resources that they could call their own. The women decided, with ActionAid’s help, to begin a savings and loan cooperative credit union. They wrote women’s leadership into their charter and the inaugural members began by saving 25 cents a week.

When I heard this story, the bank had grown to have millions of Birr, or hundreds of thousands of US dollars. With the small loans women were able to start their own businesses. One started a restaurant, others invested in agriculture. One woman defied all gender norms and began breeding livestock and advising men and women on animal husbandry.

Empowered, the women began to address the challenge of accessing clean and safe water – a service that is meant to be provided by the government. Several women leaders negotiated with the government to collectively run the water system in their area improving access.

Economic empowerment also emboldened the women to challenge violence, and claim their right to decide when and how many children to have. I heard testimony of a woman who could afford to leave an abusive husband and take him to court. Another woman described how the women worked together to address child abuse, protecting their girl children.

But the most amazing change was a cultural shift that was happening in these villages

One man shared how angry he remembers feeling when his wife started saving with the cooperative. He thought – we need every small coin, and what good is saving so little every week? He confessed to his anger being abusive. But he explained how he began to see that his wife was making wise choices with her small loans – better choices then his, he admitted.

And seeing her success he began to share decision making power. He concluded by saying, “Look at my wife! She is so beautiful! Now she is my partner! We decide everything together. We are going now, after this meeting, to sign together for our new venture. We are partners.” Other women in the room were nodding, affirming his story and saying that in many of their homes they are experiencing a new relationship with their husbands.