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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Addis ABABA, ETHIOPIA -- When you tell people you are going to Africa, the first thing some people want to know is why on Earth you'd want to do such a thing. The television images of Ebola, poverty and famine have left their mark.
People you meet casually, such as in the departure lounge in the airport, immediately ask "Are you a missionary?" It's highly unlikely they'd ask that question of someone travelling to Europe or the U.S.
Perhaps it is a safe assumption, given my first observation. There is no denying the NGO-in-development industry is a major player in economies here, and quite possibly the largest single importer of hardy four-wheel-drive vehicles roaming the back roads of this continent.
But that presence wrongly feeds into our cultural perceptions, especially our deeply rooted view that Africa is needy, dependent and incapable of resolving its own problems. The television commercials designed to drum up donors don't help.
Another mistake we make is referring to Africa as though it is one country. Admittedly, even I had to do some research to find that at last count, it consists of 54 independent states. The ethnic groups number in the thousands.
It should be noted my impressions are based on visits to just three of those countries, so it hardly makes me an expert. But it does make me skeptical of those who subscribe to the view that the problems here are insurmountable. People here can still use a hand up, and it's within our capacity to offer it. But the days of African countries needing handouts are becoming history.
In fact, given the double-digit growth in many of these economies, we should be treating our support as an investment. As impossible as it sounds, some day the tables might be turned.
Take Ethiopia, for example, a country of nearly 88 million, 80 per cent of whom are farmers living off two acres of land or less.
The World Bank Group's latest poverty assessment, released in January, shows poverty in Ethiopia fell to 30 per cent in 2011 from 44 per cent in 2000. That's a drop of 33 per cent.
Growth in the agricultural sector was the main driver, underpinned by consistently high economic growth in the country's economy.
The report says that since 2005, agricultural growth was responsible for reducing poverty at a rate of four per cent annually. While that is a sign the government's strategy is working, it also got a little help from high food prices. And good weather ensured the increased use of fertilizer that is being promoted was translated into higher yields and higher incomes.
In 1990, one in five Ethiopian children never reached the age of five. That statistic has been chopped by two-thirds.
Granted, Ethiopia is considered a leader in Africa in these developments -- and it has a long way to go. But solid progress is being made at almost every level. It's average citizens who are heavy lifters, supported by sound government policy and donor programs.
I'll never forget experiencing the generosity of people who by our measures have very little to spare. It didn't prevent one of my Zambian hosts from presenting a parting gift as we prepared to leave his remote rural farmyard: a live, fluttering chicken that was making it very clear it was an unwilling sacrifice.
Or of standing on a steeply sloped hillside watching 350 men and women use hand tools to dig trenches and move rocks, protecting the eroded sections from further damage so trees and vegetation can return. They were participating in a cash-for-work scheme, receiving about a dollar a day -- to build community assets. The Canadian Foodgrains Bank and Mennonite Central Committee are backing the program through a local church NGO.
But that was hard work in a hot sun. Most Canadians would simply wilt.
That's how things get done at the ground level here: a little bit of planning, a measure of goodwill and a whole lot of sweat equity.

Manitoba Co-operator editor Laura Rance is on secondment to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, writing about agriculture and development. She can be reached at: laura@fbcpublishing.com.