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Planting seeds for change in Ethiopia

Manuela Restrepo
January, 2020

In my work I often get to witness the power of simple actions, but my recent experience in Destiny Ethiopia, a project that was launched in Addis Ababa in December 2019, is one that will stay with me for a long time.

On December 3rd, a group of 50 prominent leaders from all across Ethiopian society stood onstage holding hands while reading a joint declaration in which they committed to working together to transform the future of Ethiopia. To many, the image of these leaders that day was just a group of people holding hands before their country and vowing to walk forward together. However, there is immense power behind the apparent simplicity of this gesture. That particular moment was very significant for many reasons. First of all, many of the people on the stage had been fierce opponents for most of their public lives. Secondly, it was the culmination of seven months of very hard work, of learning how to relate to “the other” in a different way and finding a way to create something positive. Finally, it was significant because this moment represented the planting of a seed that the leaders had been privately nurturing for many months. They now passed this on in the hope that it would become a blossoming tree for the future of their country.

A shift in the tone of the conversation – from wanting to convince others to wanting to understand others – allowed the group to become a team…

On my first trip to Addis Ababa, in May 2019, I felt a sense of hope in every conversation I had as the people I met explained how the journey we were about to embark on would have been unthinkable only a year before. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in April 2018 after many years of authoritarian governments and shocked the world with a number of actions, such as opening up a dialogue with Ethiopia’s neighbour, Eritrea, which led to the end of a longstanding war between the two states and contributed to Ahmed winning the Nobel Peace Prize. He also did something else that allowed a project such as Destiny Ethiopia to take place: He released thousands of political detainees, welcomed those living in exile back to their country, and appointed activists to serve in government institutions.

Dissent was no longer a punishable offence, and a group of nine concerned Ethiopian citizens who called themselves the Destiny Ethiopia Core Team, hosted by the Forum of Federations, decided to capitalize on this momentum to create something they had been dreaming about for years: a space in which a diverse and representative group of leaders could begin the transformation of their country. They wanted to create relationships, mutual understanding, and trust among the participants as a starting point, and they found in Reos Partners the way to get there.

My colleagues and I were invited to provide methodological support. We worked with the local team to put in place a Transformative Scenarios Process (TSP), just as we had done before in countries such as South Africa, Colombia, Mexico, and Thailand, amongst many others. We designed the process, taking into consideration the complexities of the context; we built local capacity to carry on the work for months and years to come; and we facilitated three workshops with a diverse group of about 50 of Ethiopia’s most influential leaders to provide a space for them to collectively create scenarios about the future of Ethiopia, as well as transform the way they interacted with one another. Not everybody was willing to join from day one, but the strength of those who participated and remained — and the richness of the conversations that ensued — created an environment in which people wanted to participate. By the end, even some of those who were hesitant at the beginning decided to join in.

Throughout these workshops, Destiny Ethiopia was a living example of the power of simplicity. During our time together, we did not aim to solve all of Ethiopia’s problems. Instead, we gave this group of leaders, representative of Ethiopia’s tremendous diversity, an opportunity to listen to one another and understand the multiple perspectives present in the room. They did not need to agree on everything; they simply needed to learn to see “the others” as human too, and to see that the reality and lived experiences of those people were just as valid as their own. This allowed them to have constructive conversations and to start looking ahead to collectively imagine what was possible for Ethiopia.

This change did not happen in a vacuum. We worked hard to create the conditions for these shifts to occur through meaningful conversations and by inviting the participants themselves to experience what a different way of collaborating can produce. A shift in the tone of the conversation — from wanting to convince others to wanting to understand others — allowed the group to become a team, a team that worked together to bring their different perspectives, knowledge, and experience to co-create the four scenarios of Destiny Ethiopia.

As professor Awol Allo, a member of the Scenario Team, put it in an article he wrote about the process: “For too long, debate on Ethiopia’s future has been dominated by antagonisms between those who perpetuate unrealistic fantasies of social harmony and those who exaggerate differences, preventing us from engaging with the other in a truly inclusive and dialogic conversation about Ethiopia’s future. The Destiny Ethiopia TSP process has shown us how a major national conversation can be had between people who disagree with one another when we embrace the messy realities of political life.” This process was not easy, but inviting a different type of conversation where it is okay to not agree with the other in order to move forward allowed things to change. By standing on the stage together, holding hands and vowing to work as a unit to bring Ethiopia to what the leaders called the Dawn Scenario, they proved it was possible to act differently.

Even complex issues can be stripped down to basic human behaviours. Empathy and connection will not solve all the world’s problems, but sometimes we need to take a first step. Destiny Ethiopia created a space to recognize difference as a source of strength rather than an obstacle to overcome. As a result, it was possible to listen and talk in a different way, and the unthinkable became possible. There is still much to be done, but the seed for this to happen has just been planted. 

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