Generous Irish help to raise hope as Ethiopia eyes a new dawn
Leo Varadkar saw for himself how the vast African nation is changing for the better - but major challenges remain
Ireland has been directing significant aid to Ethiopia for 25 years, with our involvement likely to increase under the upcoming state aid plan due to be published later this year.
Irish links run deep in the vast country, with several NGOs working in areas such as education, agriculture, sanitation provision and health education.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
The diplomatic ties also run deep, with six diplomats linked to the Irish embassy in the capital, Addis Ababa, led by ambassador Sonja Hyland.
But the country continues to struggle with many of the same problems that first triggered the flow of Irish taxpayers' money into it.
Ethiopia is battling climate change issues, migration and internal displacement of its citizens forced from their homes by local conflict and a conflux of education issues including a lack of schooling for girls.
Poverty remains rampant despite the fast-growing economy, and drought and food insecurity still blight some regions with crippling effect.
Leo Varadkar spent three days touring the country in a bid to get to grips with the challenges that it faces.
Some of the aid programmes in Addis Ababa highlight the complexities of improving life for people in Ethiopia. Tucked away beside a monastery, a Trocaire project looks to educate women in vocations such as embroidery and pottery. The women are equipped with health education and business training to help them pursue a small enterprise on their own.
However, in addition to training women - most of whom have never worked outside the home - the charity has learnt that it must bring the men along.
Female empowerment for the women who come to the centre to train is found not only in their new skills but also in their friendships. There are regular group sessions in which issues such as leadership are discussed in small rooms where the walls are adorned with images of female Ethiopian leaders such as Eleni Zaude Gabre-Madhin, who was among the founders of the Ethiopian stock exchange.
But the local culture also proves a stumbling block - as well as the men often resisting the idea that a woman should work outside the home, there are some myths that must be overcome. These include the idea that the holy water in the monastery will provide a more effective cure for HIV than medication.
Women who opt to train in pottery may also find themselves battling an old lore that people involved in pottery have an 'evil eye', leading to the marginalisation of those who practise the craft.
Across town a Goal ChildSpace project looks to bring hundreds of street children through a programme to help them re-socialise and learn how to become self-sufficient through entrepreneurship or to help them reunite with their families. There are 600,000 children living on the streets of Ethiopia in dangerous and damaging conditions, many attracted to the capital.
Both initiatives are funded in part by Irish State aid.
In addition to complex domestic problems, Ethiopia is battling a refugee crisis of its own, with almost one million refugees registered with the government, though the true number is not known.
The Irish delegation visited a camp in the northern region of Tigray on the final day of its trip. While most Ethiopian refugees have fled from South Sudan, the reopening of the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia has led to a surge of people flooding over.
Many hope to travel to Europe where they believe a better life awaits but for some the camp has been their home for a decade.
The Taoiseach spoke to several families, mostly women who had travelled with their children to the relative safety of the camp. One woman was hoping to go on to Luxembourg, while others who met the delegation were happy to find a home in the 'second country' of Ethiopia where they share the language with the people of the Tigray region. There are more than 12,000 people in the camp.
Despite the challenges facing Ethiopia, locals say they have more reason to hope at the moment after Abiy Ahmed was voted in as prime minister last year. A young and reforming politician, he has pledged to overhaul the economy and has brought peace by ending the border dispute with Eritrea. Many of his moves have been progressive, including selecting a gender-balanced cabinet and ending a state of emergency in the country. He has welcomed back exiled opposition leaders and appointed them to significant roles, and has also vowed to tackle corruption, with several high-profile people arrested.
The government has pledged to end the culture of surveillance embedded in the country which to date has run on the 'one to five' system where one household would be responsible for monitoring five others.
The Irish contingent noticed the difference; locals say they feel more freedom to discuss politics, even with their extended family. The prime minister has promised free and fair elections in 2020.
But his election has not come without concern - he is the country's first Oromo leader, shifting power from the Tigray region where it has resided for generations.
There is also the fear that his promises are so sweeping that failure to deliver on them may see the fragile peace in the country upset.
But for the moment Ethiopia looks to be on the cusp of radical change and the visit by the Taoiseach has reaffirmed Ireland's interest in it.
The relationship is changing; as well as direct state aid there is a need to bolster economic activity in the country and to ensure that Europe's relationship with Ethiopia is not lost to Chinese intervention.
At the close of his visit, Mr Varadkar declared the need for Europe to "get Africa right" in order to tackle the problems created by migration at the root. But he could have left in no doubt that there is no simple solution - and finding the political will in Europe may prove difficult.