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At the Center of the World in Ethiopia
At the Center of the World in Ethiopia
At the Center of the World in Ethiopia
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At the Center of the World in Ethiopia

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At the Center of the World in Ethiopia

by S. W. Omamo

As the world lurches seemingly non-stop from one major humanitarian crisis to another, and as development challenges grow in complexity and urgency, this first-person account of leadership at the humanitarian and development frontline could not be more relevant or timely. The setting is Ethiop
Release dateOct 17, 2022
At the Center of the World in Ethiopia
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  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    Neutral writer for both sides and heroic journey to defend the truth and the real wfp ajenda

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At the Center of the World in Ethiopia - Steven Were Omamo


At the Center of the World

This is a book about what I saw, what I felt, what I did as the Representative and Country Director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Ethiopia from 2018 to 2021. How I did what I did, why, and to what effect. What went well, what didn’t, and why. What I learned. What surprised me. What excited me. What disappointed me. And why.

I left WFP at the end of 2021, grateful for my 12-year contribution to an amazing organization that works to avert starvation in emergencies and tackle the root causes of hunger around the world. This is a book about a brief period in my career with WFP, and my interactions with many people inside and outside the organization during that time in Ethiopia. It is not a book about Ethiopia, the country. That would be well beyond my ambition. Nor is it a book about WFP, the agency. That would never be my desire. Rather, it is one about some of the potent issues that faced WFP and other humanitarian and development agencies in Ethiopia between 2018 and 2021, and how these issues were handled by me and others. It is a highly personal account. I hope it rings true for people who were there with me, or somewhere else but aware of what was happening.

*           *           *

I started in Ethiopia in July 2018. Yet sometimes I feel that my Ethiopia journey began in earnest only in March 2019. More precisely, at around 10:30 am on Sunday 10 March 2019.

It was a normal Sunday morning. I had woken early, exercised, and was readying for a day of reflection, family calls, and preparation for the week ahead. I was still glowing inside from a fantastic two-day retreat the previous week with my leadership team. Long-standing challenges had been surfaced and addressed. Opportunities for individual and collective growth had been identified. A new team motto had been coined: Let’s Lead Together, Now. Nine months into my term in Ethiopia, the future looked challenging but bright.

I checked my Twitter account. The app opened to a puzzling and alarming tweet about an Ethiopian Airlines plane that had crashed. My first thought was, Surely not here in Ethiopia. Surely not… But there it was. An Ethiopian Airlines plane had indeed gone down that morning near Bishoftu, 50 or so kilometers south of Addis Ababa.

At first, I took it that the flight had been heading to Addis from Nairobi. But soon I realized that it was an Addis-Nairobi flight – ET 302. My heart lurched. WFP Ethiopia colleagues took that flight a lot.

I called Joan, Head of Administration. She had not yet heard about the crash. Springing into action, she said she would check WFP’s travel tracking system for any WFP Ethiopia staff booked on the flight and call me back.

She called back. Yes, there was one WFP Ethiopia colleague on the flight – Preena (not her real name), a young logistician. She had joined WFP Ethiopia soon after me and been posted to Dilla in Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR) to help set up the logistics backbone of our fast-developing response to conflict displacement in the region. Preena was gone. I could not imagine it.

The travel tracking system was also showing that Fari, our Head of Human Resources, was on the flight. But Joan felt that this was not correct. As far as she knew, Fari had originally been booked on the 8:00 am ET 302 flight but had changed her booking to a later one that departed at 11:00 am. But according to the system, Fari was on the flight. It was beyond belief.

Any others? Probably. The system showed that several WFP staff based in other countries had been transiting through Addis that weekend, en route to a meeting in Nairobi. But we needed to confirm.

Preena? Fari? Many others? I could not yet fathom it. But with WFP staff members on that flight, I knew that there would be immediate attention and demands on the Country Office. We needed current information. I had to get to the airport. I called Pierre, Head of Aviation. We would meet there.

A ray of hope. Some of the tweets were claiming that there were survivors. In the coming hours, this turned out to be fake news. False hope. But at that moment, I clung to it desperately.

Before leaving for the airport, still in denial, and, in retrospect, rather irrationally, I sent Fari an email message. Was she OK? Unbelievably, she responded almost immediately! She was alive! My first thought was that she was among the survivors. I called her phone. She answered. She confirmed that the previous Friday evening, at Joan’s suggestion, she had indeed switched to the Ethiopian Airlines flight that left at 11:00 am. The change had not yet registered in the travel tracking system. Somehow the false but understandable news that she was on the doomed flight had already spread around the world. Her family back home had already begun to receive condolence messages. It was an emotional exchange.

En route to the airport I called Paul, Deputy Country Director. I told him what I knew. He, too, sensed that WFP Ethiopia would be at the heart of the corporate response. We needed to create a Crisis Management Team. He would start to organize that right away, aiming for a first meeting later that day.

Pierre was pulling into the airport as I arrived. The then Ethiopian Airlines main administration block had been converted into an Emergency Center. We entered the building and found our way to the makeshift information room. It was teeming with relatives and colleagues of ET 302 passengers and crew. Stress, frustration, fear, body odor filled the air. Everyone waiting for a formal statement from Ethiopian Airlines, yet dreading it, too.

To their great credit (and my deep admiration – indeed, I thanked them at the time), the Ethiopian Airlines staff assigned to the information room remained calm and cordial under the heavy pressure. They already knew the horrifying answers to our questions. But at that stage, all they were allowed to do was share the names on the flight manifest. Dutifully they said nothing more.

We confirmed that there were seven WFP staff on the plane – Preena plus six more. In the coming days, we would learn that one former colleague was also on board. Eight in the WFP family lost. It was too cruel.

At around 1:00 pm, a senior Ethiopian Airlines official emerged and made the dreaded and dreadful announcement. No survivors.

Pandemonium. Shouting. Screaming. Wailing. Collapsing. I will never forget it.

I conveyed the terrible message to the Deputy Executive Director and other WFP leaders at Headquarters in Rome. In a flash, the Deputy Executive Director visualized the tragic situation on the ground, warning that the worst was yet to come – the sensitivities, the endless fact checking, the verifications, the notifications, the obituaries, the repatriation of remains. The horror. The need for counseling. The need to get ready to absorb the devastating blow to the WFP family. He saw it all right away and began to lead the corporate response with grace, compassion, and humility. It was admirable and inspiring. I would try to do the same in Ethiopia.

News of the loss of WFP lives was spreading quickly and unpredictably. I got a call from the Ambassador from Preena’s home country. He was under instructions from his capital to confirm that Preena had been on the flight. I deflected his question, recognizing that protocol required that such information be shared only by Headquarters. Yet I knew that Headquarters had its hands full with other family notifications. Fearing that Preena’s family would learn of her death from a non-WFP source, I set protocol aside and took the decision to reach out to them myself.

I called Preena’s family home but learned that her parents had traveled. I was given another number. When I got through to them, they confirmed

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