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Ways to Contribute to the Future of Ethiopia

Remarks to the Ethiopian American Youth Initiative
Ethiopian Embassy
Washington, D.C.
2 January 2010

Remarks by David H. Shinn
Adjunct Professor, Elliott School of International Affairs
George Washington University

I want to thank Samuel Gebru and the Ethiopian American Youth Initiative for
inviting me to make brief remarks today. As we begin a new decade based on the
western or Gregorian calendar, it is a reminder that Ethiopia and its Julian calendar pose
important cultural differences with those of us who live in the United States. These
cultural differences and Ethiopia’s unique and lengthy history should be a source of pride
for Ethiopians, especially younger Ethiopians who may have been born in the United
States or somewhere else in the diaspora.
There is often a tendency by second generation Americans to emphasize almost
exclusively their Americanness and to reject their origins. Familial languages are often
lost and history of the homeland remains unlearned. This is unfortunate. Someday those
of you in this situation will regret that you have lost both the language and the history of
your country. It is hard to devote time to learning languages and history that seem so far
away. When the time comes that you can afford to visit Ethiopia, however, you will be
thankful that you retained the language skills and learned about the country’s history.
I would take this a step further. Once you have become comfortable with your
culture and history, you should not be hesitant about urging your teachers in American
primary and secondary schools to include it as part of study projects. You might be
surprised how easy it is to interest fellow students with no connection to Ethiopia to a
country like Ethiopia that is so different than the United States. If you have had the
opportunity to visit Ethiopia recently, you can make the study project especially
interesting by relating your own experiences and observations.
I have always been surprised at the relative lack of interest by most Ethiopians
concerning one of Ethiopia’s most exciting possibilities, that it may be the origin of
humankind. Incredible discoveries have been made in the Afar section of the Rift Valley
that include the Lucy skeleton and the much older (4.4 million years ago) Ardi skeleton.
Most of the early work in paleoanthropology in Ethiopia was done by foreigners. This
has changed and now a number of Ethiopian scientists are making critical contributions
to determining the origins of humankind.
They include Dr. Berhane Asfaw, a University of California Berkeley PhD, who
was director of the National Museum in Ethiopia and now is co-leader of the Middle
Awash research project. Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie, now Curator of Physical
Anthropology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, was the person who first
discovered some of the Ardi skeleton. Dr. Giday WoldeGabriel, a geologist at the Los
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Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, used volcanic layers to date the Ardi
skeleton to 4.4 million years ago. Another Ethiopian who has contributed to this field is
Dr. Zeray Alemseged, Director and Curator of the Department of Anthropology at the
California Academy of Sciences. The accomplishments of these Ethiopians and the
importance of their work deserve more attention outside the scientific community and,
particularly, in Ethiopia and among the Ethiopian diaspora.
There are other ways to add to your knowledge of Ethiopia’s heritage. When
attending a university, consider writing term papers on some aspect of Ethiopian history
or culture. You will learn more about your heritage while getting course credit at the
same time. As you progress in the educational system and enter the work force, there
may be ways to contribute more directly to your homeland. As a university student, you
might be able to arrange an internship in Ethiopia.
After you have learned certain skills, there are a number of organizations that seek
the assistance of Ethiopians in the diaspora to contribute to the development of Ethiopia.
Two of these organizations are the Ethiopian North American Health Professionals
Association and People to People. Both of them welcome skilled Ethiopians in the
diaspora who can volunteer time and skills.
A number of organizations collect and ship books to African countries, including
Ethiopia. You might want to collect books for and work with, for example, the Ethiopian
Community Development Council, Inc., based in Arlington, Virginia,
(www.ecdcinternational.org), the Canadian Organization for Development through
Education (CODE) based in Ottawa (www.codecan.org), Books for Africa based in St.
Paul, Minnesota, (www.booksforafrica.org), or International Book Bank based in
Baltimore (www.internationalbookbank.org).
As you progress in your careers and perhaps accumulate some capital, you might
consider investing in a business in Ethiopia or help friends and relatives who remain in
Ethiopia to do so.
The Ethiopian American Youth Initiative emphasizes all of the goals that I have
mentioned so far. It focuses on another—tolerance—that resonates in the US. Although
there are limits to how much Ethiopians in the diaspora can contribute to tolerance in
Ethiopia, any positive contribution they can make will help improve the situation in
Ethiopia.
When I speak of tolerance, I have in mind diversity of points of view and respect
for the ethnicity, religion and culture of others. In some respects, Ethiopia has had a
pretty good record on tolerating religious and ethnic differences and accepting minorities.
But the past record has been far from ideal. It is important that Ethiopian Orthodox,
Muslims, Christian evangelicals, Pentecostals, Catholics and followers of indigenous
religions live side-by-side and show respect for each other’s religion. Greater tolerance
needs to be shown toward certain marginalized ethnic groups and more emphasis needs
to be placed on development in those areas. Finally, there needs to be more receptivity to
a wider range of views.
Based on my many years of association with Ethiopia, I am struck by what
appears to an outsider to be a lack of compromise in Ethiopian culture. When I suggested
to an Ethiopian scholar that there must be no equivalent in Amharic for the English word
“compromise,” he corrected me and said the problem is that there are a number of
Amharic words that roughly translate as compromise. The problem is that each one of
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them is subject to interpretation. I will let the Amharic linguists resolve this issue, but I
believe that at least in highland Ethiopian society, the concept of compromise as I
understand it in the United States is sorely lacking.
Perhaps those of you who have grown up and lived with the American concept of
compromise could help plant the idea in Ethiopia as you are in contact with your friends
and relatives.
I have tried to suggest a few ways that you can make a positive contribution to
your homeland. I have studiously avoided a discussion of politics as it is neither my role
nor, as I understand it, the role of the Ethiopian American Youth Initiative to engage in
politics. Rather, the goal is simply to identify ways that you can learn more about your
country of origin and, in some small way, make it a better place to live than your parents
experienced.