It was with contempt that I came across the Daily Mail’s breakthrough story; Britain scraps £9million foreign aid for Ethiopia’s Spice Girls after Mail revealed ‘blood boiling’ waste of taxpayers’ money, dated January 6th 2017. I was merrily taking part in the traditional jeering of a cousins Ferenji/White fiancée when the article popped up on my notifications. I skimmed through the piece stopping after I made a somber deduction and just a moment before we broke bread. Today was Ethiopian Christmas, a most auspicious holiday in the Ethiopian calendar, and the international community greeted us with an article likening Ethiopia to a leach of the British taxpayer.
Growing up Ethiopian in the U.S, I know what defamation of a nation looks like. I have observed the layman implicitly devour commercial content and make evaluations that are impervious to edification. To be specific, this imagery is South Park’s iconic concoction of Starving Marvin; is multiple Hollywood romantic-comedy’s wherein Ethiopia is the favored adoption site; is Family Guy’s reference point for 3rd world poverty humor. These mass consumed products, mostly irreverent and at times impulsively compassionate, are a byproduct to the Ethiopian famine of the 1980’s and the subsequent humanitarian response. This humiliating image of Ethiopia has been donned on us – the 1st generation Ethiopian Americans. I have seen my Ethiopian American friends cope in two distinct forms: 1) Romanticize in the former glory of the Ethiopian Empire and make pointed references to the Queen of Sheba, Emperor Haile Selassie/Rastafari movement and other historically questionable figures. 2) Distance yourself- “I’m black”, if accosted with a direct “where is your family from” line of query mumble East Africa and keep the convo movin.
The abysmal tone and timing by which the United Kingdom’s International Development spokesperson announced the annulment of the Yegna Campaign is telling on a broader scale. Tory MP David Nuttall stated,
“Charity starts at home and while taxpayers understand money needs to be spent on international aid for famine and the neediest parts of the world, this a good example of where money was not being spent in this way.”
To add some context, development, refers to a diverse set of interventions and ideas aimed at producing political, cultural and social change and economic growth around the world. Here is the conundrum, the decision behind defunding the UK’s Yegna initiative was the Yegna campaigns sophisticated approach to increasing living standards. The complexity of the process of development and how one of the primary flaws is simple measurement of increase in yields or gross domestic product (GDP) as adequate assessments of development has been agreed upon by theorists, politicians and decision makers. Humanitarian assistance is not development, it is a short fix. The case against Yegna proves again the disparaging promise to the Global South.
Pop culture is a powerful tool; as evidenced in my subjective experience as an Ethiopian American, it has the capacity to destroy. Therein lies a bemusing defense to the “Ethiopian Spice Girls” which use pop culture to positively reinforce development goals. The group formally dubbed “Yegna” use engrossing plot lines and eloquently synthesized vocals to share strategies of female empowerment through diverse paths including academic rigor and civic participation. The initiative transcends from identity specific targeting by exposing the value of domestic work and contributions of historical Ethiopian heroines at an attempt to change the national psyche of all Ethiopians.
By breaking the news on the Eve of Ethiopia’s most sacred holiday, the government of the United Kingdom and news media community conceded their disregard for basic vetting and lack of cultural insight. If adding the harsh light of history, this callous disregard is due to the default belief that Africa’s sophisticated societies (calendar years) were given to Africa by Western Europeans- Africa’s depth did not exist before Europes tentacles.