Going back to give back: Young diasporans and Ethiopian development

April 21, 2017

A version of this piece was first published on the International Migration Institute blog on April 7, 2017, and can be accessed here.


In 2009, I travelled to Ethiopia with a group of nine other young people of Ethiopian descent from across North America. We were part of a loose collective of interdisciplinary artists and community activists that came together through a series of ad hoc online exchanges over the course of several years. The idea was simple and very exciting – what if we all came together in Ethiopia and participated in the large cultural festival that was scheduled to take place in the south of the country? It would be an opportunity for cultural exchange, creative collaboration, and transnational community building. The initial group on the email chain was quite large, however eventually ten of us committed to making the trip and started our respective fundraising campaigns to finance our travel expenses.

As our departure date approached, we received word that the festival in Ethiopia had been cancelled under the orders of the Ethiopian Government. The political climate in Ethiopia was very tense at the time due to upcoming elections, and any sort of large gathering was looked upon with suspicion as a legacy of the protests that followed the highly contested 2005 elections. After a series of thoughtful discussions, we decided we would still make the trip to southern Ethiopia and find other ways to make the experience meaningful and impactful. We met up in Addis Ababa, and spent some time connecting with local artists and community organisers in the city. While there were domestic flights available to our final destination in the south of the country, we decided that we wanted to see and experience the countryside, opting instead to take what was then a twelve-hour drive. It was a beautiful and enjoyable ride, which we spent sharing stories, getting to know each other, and meeting locals along the way. As one of the photographers in the group, I also spent much of my time taking pictures from the window and documenting the trip as we went.

Over the next week, we travelled through the region, meeting with local community organisers, and learning as much as we could about the people and cultures of the south. As we reflected on our experiences, we began to ask ourselves whether we should make more of an effort to give back as much as we were receiving from the communities we were visiting. After some discussion and consultation, we decided to pool our money to buy uniforms and school supplies for children in an under-resourced school in one of the towns. We travelled to the school to meet the students and presented the donation to the principal. The gifts were very much appreciated, and it felt good to have the ability to contribute despite, as young people, our own limited financial resources.

Uncertain obligations and commitments

Later that day, a debate emerged amongst our group about whether we should try to support the school on an ongoing basis after we returned to our respective hometowns across North America. A few people felt we had a moral obligation to do so, however there was strong resistance to the idea of making a commitment we might/would not be able to sustain, and some of the group questioned whether we were best placed to engage in such efforts at all, given how far removed we were from the community. Most of us were either born or primarily raised in North America, and we had a genuine interest in fostering a deeper relationship with Ethiopia as the country of our parents’ origin. However, what lingered for me from this discussion was a collective uncertainty about the terms and conditions of this relationship, and whether it was acceptable to explore and encounter the country without also giving something back.

Many of the questions that emerged in our discussion are ones that I returned to in my doctoral studies many years later. My research involved speaking with young people of Ethiopian descent born and/or raised in Canada and the US who have actively engaged in initiatives (based either in North America or in Ethiopia) which are intended to contribute towards the social, political, and/or economic development of Ethiopia. These included fundraising events, establishing local NGOs, volunteer missions, and taking professional positions within the Ethiopian development sector, among other activities. In my analysis, I examine the motivations driving their engagement in development, the nature of the development activities themselves, and the myriad ways in which these individuals were subsequently affected by these experiences.

Impact of family vacations and prior trips

Like our group on the trip to southern Ethiopia, many of my respondents were somewhere along a personal journey exploring their ancestral connection to Ethiopia, and physical trips to Ethiopia were an important part of this process. Family vacations to Ethiopia as a child and other travels to the country were important as drivers of their future engagement in Ethiopian development. These trips helped give shape to what may have felt like an abstract or distant country to my respondents up until that point. They also facilitated interpersonal interactions and relationships with people living there, which exposed them to the social, political, and economic issues of the country through a subjective, three-dimensional lens.

While these trips often involved pleasurable activities such as family gatherings, sightseeing, and trips to resorts, they were also punctuated by jarring encounters with child poverty, inequality, and evidence of poor governance. These made lasting impressions on my respondents, often shaping their imaginations of and future engagements with the country. They were forced to confront the hard realities that so many people in Ethiopia face, and to do so in relation to their own positions of relative comfort, safety, and privilege – particularly hard to reconcile given their close ancestral connection to these people.

Engagement in development activities

As people born and/or raised abroad, these early trips helped to substantiate what were my respondents’ generally loose or tenuous connections to Ethiopia – and often this ‘substance’ included a sense of obligation or desire to help the country develop. While some of my respondents engaged in Ethiopian development activities that were based in North America, more than half of them were either based in Ethiopia when we spoke or had travelled there at some point to participate in a development initiative. Physically being in Ethiopia served a number of purposes: my respondents felt they could do more meaningful work there; they were often in positions of power and influence that they would not have access to in North America; and their physical presence provided the opportunity to further their exploration of the country and their connection to it.

However, working or volunteering in Ethiopia also presented a number of unexpected challenges. Many of my respondents were led by optimistic visions about their ability to have a direct impact and truly ‘help’ those in need. These visions often became clouded after some time, as many became disillusioned with the development industry, realised their own limitations and gaps in knowledge, or felt deflated by the multitude and gravity of social and political issues in the country. Furthermore, my respondents’ identification with Ethiopia and sense of belonging was often complicated rather than clarified after being immersed in the culture and having regular interactions with local people. It was hard to ignore the many ways in which their North American upbringing made them markedly different from the people they hoped to feel a deeper sense of kinship with, and the place they had hoped to call home.

Diaspora and the homeland

The nature of diaspora communities is that individuals can identify with a ‘homeland’ without ever having to physically travel there. Such is the case with ‘classic’ diaspora communities such as the Jewish and Armenian diasporas, as well as among many other migrant descendants whose social worlds are shaped by a place they may know only through narrative and imagination. However, none can discount the incredible importance of physical travel to the homeland in constructing, sharpening, and reconfiguring diasporic identities and social practices.

These travel experiences can be particularly complex when it involves moving between countries with stark differences in living conditions, and there are added layers of complexity when those travelling are people born and/or raised abroad like my respondents. For many young diasporans travelling to countries like Ethiopia, trying to ‘give back’ is often an essential part of a broader itinerary of cultural and self-discovery. However, whether or not they feel their efforts to give back and culturally connect have been effective is another, more complex matter altogether.



Dr. Alpha Abebe completed her doctorate in International Development at the University of Oxford in 2016. Her research examined the ways in which people of Ethiopian descent born and/or raised in Canada and the U.S. construct a diasporic identity and engage with Ethiopian development initiatives through a mutually constitutive process. She has spent several years as an international and community development practitioner, with a focus on youth engagement and education. Alpha is also a photographer and makes use of natural light and lines to bring life to the subjects in her work, whether they be people, landscapes or mundane objects. Her art, advocacy, and academic work are all informed and strengthened by each other. 

Academia.edu Profile: https://oxford.academia.edu/AlphaAbebe

Personal Website: http://www.alphaabebe.com


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