Leadership and Dagu in Ethiopia

The new PM Dr Abiy Ahmed, the first Oromo to lead Ethiopia, talked about leadership a few days ago. His Chief of Staff reported these words on Twitter: ‘Leadership is not about welding authority. It is about mobilizing talent, capacity and creativity of all to foster collective action.’ What a relief that he doesn’t believe the kind of nonsense taught on most MBAs – where apparently leaders need to create visions, be decisive and crush resistance to change (in the crudest versions).

Clearly he understands that building relationships is more important than feeding the fantasies about leaders being in control and able to achieve anything on their own. Perhaps his PhD in peace, with its focus on social connections in conflict, has prepared him for leadership far better than a conventional business school? One consequence appears to be that he realises that who he includes in speeches is hugely significant.

Last week I visited Ethiopia with colleagues from SOAS on behalf of the Global Research Network on Parliaments and People and key elements of his speeches were relayed to us. Two stand out. At the beginning of a recent speech he thanked his mother and then his wife. Apparently no Ethiopian leader has acknowledged their family, and specifically the women in their family, in this way ever before. Women scholars told us that they felt a slight edging towards the idea that they are part of political world, a world they have been excluded from until recently. And by mentioning family, he found common ground with everyone across the nation.

At the end of a speech he thanked god – not his specific Protestant one (his mother is Christian, his father Muslim), but god in general so that Protestants, Orthodox, and Muslims could identify. Apparently no PM since Haile Selassie has acknowledged the importance of god’s role in peace. So this deeply religious society has had to pretend that god was irrelevant to politics. But how could believers see a future of reconciliation without god playing any part when it is god who is the important source of morality for them

So rather than just calling for unity as an ideal abstracted from people’s everyday experience, through in these various thank yous he recognised what is important to his fellow Ethiopians – family and god – and spoke to all.

In the mobilising he has also been travelling across the country and meeting with a huge range of groups in society, including the opposition. This gives him the opportunity to follow the rules of Dagu, found among Afar pastoralists in North-Eastern Ethiopia, where crucial information is  always exchanged because often people's survival depends on it. If someone were to be uncooperative, then there would be serious consequences: ‘Failure to pass on relevant information is not only an offence to the conversation partner, but a harm to the community. To this end, misuse of dagu is subject to punishment within customary law (Mada’a)...’

When politicians and citizens interact we could all benefit from following such rules for communication on both sides. After all the interests of indivdiuals are entangled with whatever multiple communities they belong to, so to foster collective action means receiving and passing on information that keeps the interests of the collective in mind. The risk of failing to lead by listening, and revealing ‘relevant information’, is a breakdown in relationships. Perhaps Dagu should be included within the MBA curriculum?


The potential of dagu communication. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265143838_The_potential_of_dagu_communication_in_north-eastern_Ethiopia [accessed May 25 2018].

Racism and abuse in international aid: with a sense of history

I came across terrible stories of child abuse when I worked in a child protection NGO in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Violence against girls, boys and women in homes, the street, communities and workplaces constitutes an epidemic – in every country, cutting across class and geography. They seem to get little attention in the twitter wars generated by the Oxfam scandal. Among the abusers were development workers themselves. A retired American told me that if  she had a picture of the abusive men she came across who joined street children charities in the 1990s in order to abuse children, she could fill a wall. The most upsetting were the stories I heard about children being abused and raped during emergencies, for example in the Asian Tsunami of 2004. Mary Beard is right to draw attention to the breakdown of values during disasters, because people can get away with crime more easily in the chaos.

Some misunderstood her as meaning values associated with Europe. Bearing in mind that her current TV series is all about questioning such assumptions of superiority, it seemed to me that she was saying something quite different. I thought she was asking how and why such a terrible moral breakdown could happen, asking the question with a sense of history. This matters because it helps us to work out how to prevent abuse. And, it might discourage people from condemning all those working in aid, as if tainted by the proxmity of crime. I read her tweet as taking sides against those who want to use the Oxfam scandal as an excuse to close down international aid completely.

People who work in the dark world of challenging abuse do face terrible dilemmas. Whether aid workers in someone else’s country, or social workers in their own, it does endlessly test their judgement. I have faced my fair share of such decisions. When a whistleblower alleged financial corruption in a partner NGO in Asia, I could either break off the partnership – ensuring the reputation of my own organisation would not suffer and we’d look good in the eyes of donors, but putting several hundred children on the streets where at least a few would be bound to return to being sexual exploited and others would probably die – or try and pressurise the partner organisation to fix the problems. I chose the latter and did not report them to the police. I just couldn’t live the possibility of being responsible for child deaths and exploitation.
When Pauline Latham (MP) was questioning Oxfam representatives in the the House of Commons yesterday she asked how it could happen that staff could exploit women, adding that they are supposed to be ‘good people’. Why should ‘aid workers’ be good to be working in aid-receiving countries? In my experience they are no different from any other group claiming to do service for the public – MPs, teachers, social workers – influenced by a mix of positive and negative imperatives, with a small number acting in ways that I’d see as at extreme ends of the moral continium. But the aid world they work in is racist, still strongly shaped by postcolonialism, and those that fail to see it then reproduce it through their collusion.
Furthermore aid workers from the UK come from a country where racism persists and got a shot in the arm from Brexit. It is hardly surprising, then, that it is not just the public but people who work in development who descend into the ‘white saviour’ mentality that Afua Hirsch writes about eloquently in the Guardian 
today. She repeats the misrepresentation of Mary Beard as saying that former empires are short of ‘civilised values’. Beard was writing about a disaster in the sense of earthquake, not that Haiti is perennially a disaster zone. Those committed to challenging racism need all the allies we can get so it is unwise to alienate those who abhor racism, misogyny and associated hate-filled mindsets.
We need allies because ‘international development’ needs more than better safeguarding processes; it requires a transformation into a world of co-operation, not assistance, between those interested in deepening justice, peace and democracy in every country (included our own). This will require huge changes in thinking, funding, and the way partnerships are created – let’s invest more, but differently. Surely this is where our energy should go?
For those interested in anti-racist and decolonizing agenda in international development here is some stuff:



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