Frontlines Online Edition
Child Survival & Ethiopia Edition
May/June 2012

Interview with Thomas Staal, USAID/Ethiopia Mission Director

This painted rock was spotted in a district where the residents participate in the Ethiopian Government’s Productive Safety Net This painted rock was spotted in a district where the residents participate in the Ethiopian Government’s Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP), which is supported by USAID. USAID
Thomas Staal, USAID’s mission director in Ethiopia, joined the Agency in 1988 as an emergency program officer in Sudan. Since then, he has worked in Kenya, the West Bank and Gaza, Iraq, and as mission director in Lebanon. In Washington, D.C., he has served as the deputy director of the Office of Food for Peace and as director of the Iraq Reconstruction Office. This fall, he will return to Iraq as mission director.

FRONTLINES: Just looking at the names of Ethiopia’s last two country strategies is pretty telling. “Breaking the Cycle of Famine” was from 2004-2010. The current one, from 2011-2015, is called, “Accelerating Transformation Toward Prosperity.” Can you just talk a little bit about that transformation?

Thomas Staal
Thomas Staal

TOM STAAL: Yes. I was very interested in coming to Ethiopia because I knew a lot about the former strategy. I spent five years in Khartoum and six years in Nairobi in a regional position where I came to Ethiopia quite a bit. And I was the deputy director of Food for Peace in Washington for a year when Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program was put together.

One of the things that excited me was that we have a very integrated approach here across the spectrum—from OFDA [USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance] to food aid to development—to really address famine in a way that gets people out of that cycle. They had made huge progress on the old strategy. I was very excited about coming here to develop the next strategy, and build on the former strategy.

The 2011 drought illustrated that the cycle of famine has been broken in Ethiopia. Even though the drought was as big as any in the last 20, 30 years, there was no famine. Now we need to continue that progress and transformation so that we’re really moving forward towards prosperity.

With programs like PSNP (Productive Safety Net Program) and others, we’ve made sure that people have some resilience so they can bounce back from shocks like drought. Now the next step is to actually build assets and move beyond—and that means transformation. Our strategy is designed to support and complement the Government of Ethiopia’s five-year strategy called the “Growth and Transformation Plan.”

FL: Is there a project or an accomplishment that you are most proud of?

Each year the Every ONE Race and the Great Ethiopian Run promote a half-marathon along the Rift Valley’s Lake Awassa. USAID spon
Each year the Every ONE Race and the Great Ethiopian Run promote a half-marathon along the Rift Valley’s Lake Awassa. USAID sponsored the race in 2011 to mark its 50th anniversary in Ethiopia and to promote the goal of the Every One Campaign and other USA
CREDIT: NENA TERRELL, USAID

STAAL: The Productive Safety Net Program is one. Our land certification program is another very exciting project. It was a pilot that we helped to initiate. Working within Ethiopia’s political-economic-social context, we found a way to provide a sense of ownership for people even if they can’t buy and sell the land. We felt it’s very critical for people to feel secure about their land, enough to invest in it. That has been a problem over the years: People rent their land from the government, but they never know when it could be taken away from them. So, through this program, we were able to work with the government to provide that sense of ownership. The program delineates the precise boundaries of the property, provides a certificate, which includes both the husband’s and wife’s names, and allows people to sublet the land.

Results have been profound: In the 18 pilot districts that implemented the land certificate program over the last three years, there’s been between an 11 to 40 percent increase in yield per acre. The security that comes from having the certificate results in people making improvements on their land such as terracing, water harvesting and irrigation. Thus, their land becomes more productive.

FL: You’ve also had some real successes in rural education in a program the government was also initially wary of.

STAAL: Yes: the ABECs [Alternative Basic Education Centers] is a program the government was very nervous about because they are not considered official schools. But they permitted us to pilot the program in 550 villages where there had never been a school. In over four years, the kids in those schools ended up getting better grades than the kids in the regular government schools.

So now the government has accepted it, endorsed it—they’ve taken on those first schools that we did and are now paying the teachers—actually turned them into teachers; before they weren’t even officially called teachers.

FL: Let’s turn to health care. It seems USAID has been crucial in helping the Ethiopian Government provide some level of basic health to the underserved throughout the country.

STAAL: Well, you do have to give a lot of credit to Health Minister Dr. Tedros Adhanom. He’s a dynamic guy, a real visionary, a real leader—he’s probably the top minister of health in all of Africa, and is internationally recognized.

So, when it comes to the health extension worker program, it’s been his vision and his determination to make it happen that has ignited so much success. But, of course, USAID has been very involved in the training, in the rollout, especially at the community level.

Up until about six years ago, the vast majority of Ethiopians—over 85 percent live in rural areas—most of those people had no access whatsoever to any health facility of any kind until this program started.

What is most important in rural areas is the basic, preventive health activities such as vaccinations, antenatal care, family planning, sanitation, nutrition, hygiene—helping people to understand the importance of washing your hands, using pit latrines and sleeping under your bed nets. The health extension workers are not doctors or nurses but they can address most of the basic health-care issues that really make a difference in the health of women and children.

FL: I know we have been seeing real progress in food security and health. But what are some of the challenges you’re facing?

STAAL: First, let me address a couple of non-political challenges. The country is still over 80 percent rural. Just getting out there and getting services to people is still a huge challenge. We’ve got this great health extension worker program, but that still doesn’t mean a woman having a difficult childbirth can get to a health-care facility.

Real capacity, both in the government and in civil society, is another challenge. There aren’t enough educated, trained people to do things. That’s true in many other countries, too. But here, where you still have literacy rates of less than 50 percent, and even lower among women, that’s a huge challenge. The government’s ability to just manage these massive programs is a major challenge.

And then basic income affects the government. Because people can’t pay much in taxes, the government doesn’t have much money. So for instance in the health sector, donors are providing over 40 percent of funding. A lot of great things are happening, but we can’t just turn it over to them and walk away.

The other two overarching challenges are, one, on the economic side, you still have a government whose policies are focused on government control of the economy. For example, seed distribution and fertilizer distribution is done, primarily, by the government; so is major transport.

So the whole economy is really managed quite tightly by the government, and we believe it needs to open up. The government is the only Internet provider, and less than 5 percent of the population has access to the Internet. There’s only one cell phone provider, and that’s the government. And cell phone coverage is limited, and particularly in rural areas. So the private sector doesn’t have an opening to take advantage like you see in Kenya, where mobile banking is taking off. Mobile banking assumes people have a cell phone.

We believe that the private sector could add a lot here in almost all aspects of the economy, but it has difficulty finding an opening.

The leadership of the country has a very well thought out reason for this. It’s an economic philosophy that argues, when you have such an undeveloped country, the government needs to play a strong and controlling role to bring people up out of that poverty. I think they also believe that if you open up the floodgates too quickly for market capitalism, it’s going to create chaos and inequality; you’re going to have oligarchs becoming millionaires and poor people not really benefiting. They feel they need to control that growth. There’s some validity there. So the question becomes, how do you slowly turn on the spigot? It’s not that easy. And that’s where we disagree with the government; we think the spigot could be wider open than they will currently allow.

FL: But still, growth has been impressive, right?

STAAL: It has, exactly. But it’s been mostly financed by the government itself. And that makes us worried about the foundations of growth. The growth over the last five years is there; the government says 11 percent, the IMF [International Monetary Fund] says 7 or 8 percent. Either way, it’s great. But what’s the foundation for that? Does it have clay feet? Could it all fall apart easily?

Right now, we’re concerned because inflation is very high. And that’s an indication that there’s a problem. Economists will say that inflation is a tax on the poor. When there’s 40 percent inflation, then poor people are not able to take advantage of economic growth because they’re having to pay more and more for basic necessities.

FL: And the political challenges?

STAAL: Again, it’s an issue of control. The government wants to be able to control political space very carefully. In order to gradually move themselves into a democratic, open political system, they believe you can’t just go from zero to a hundred miles an hour in one step. So the question becomes, how do you do that in a way that allows space to gradually open, but still in a controlled fashion?

We feel the government is going too slow, and if anything, has taken backward steps in the last few years after the 2005 election. Many thousand people were arrested and jailed, and they really cracked down on political parties. Since then, they’ve enacted several new laws which have tightened up political space within the society. There’s a new anti-terrorism law, a new media law, and a new charities and societies law that constrain civil society. So now, even reporting on terrorism can be equated with supporting terrorism. We agree that you need to crack down on terrorism, but it needs to be done right, in a way that doesn’t jeopardize basic human rights.

FL: Ethiopia is obviously a very strategic country for the United States. Can you talk a little bit about not only its influence in the region, but also about its relationship as an important U.S. ally?

STAAL: Obviously, if you look at the neighborhood—Somalia in the south, Eritrea in the north, Sudan and South Sudan in the west, Yemen right across the pond—it’s a pretty unstable neighborhood. Regardless, Ethiopia has been very stable. They’ve also been very cooperative with us on terrorism against groups like al-Shabab and al-Qaida, and on piracy.

And generally speaking, Ethiopia has supported our stance at various international fora in terms of the kinds of issues that the United States is concerned about, especially in Africa: climate change, the regime in Libya, genocide issues in Rwanda. They’re good partners in that sense, and, obviously, we don’t want to jeopardize that relationship. But we do have concerns about the human rights issues here. There have been arrests of journalists and opposition party members that we’ve raised concerns about.

FL: So you don’t want to hold progress hostage in some areas because of less progress achieved in others?

STAAL: Well, there are two issues. One is that our programs are focused on the needy people. And there we’re having a real impact. So, you don’t want to jeopardize all the good things you’re doing there. Secondly, it’s important also to note that our money does not go through the government directly. We’re working with NGOs and contractors. So although we’re very much lined up with government development policies and supportive of their programs, we can track our money very carefully.

Last updated: July 29, 2014