Linked with our presentation of Netsanet Mengistu – Ethiopia.
And linked with our presentation of PROGYNIST.
Interviews with Development Workers on Practice, Participation, and Career Issues
Ms. Netsanet Mingistu is the founder and Director of Progynist, an Ethiopian NGO, and Meklit, a local microfinance institution. Both organizations serve women and the poor.
Netsenet is a former Ethiopian government official, a member of numerous boards, African NGO forums and exchanges. Sensitized by more than a decade of support for the Ethiopian opposition, including, as with so many African colleagues, years of isolation and imprisonment, Netsenet describes her journey and the path that lead her to dedicate her efforts to furthering the cause of a just, more equal society for all.
Through both Progynist and Meklit, Netsanet works towards helping women to fulfill their responsibilities as well as to reap the benefits of full social, economic and political participation.
NEF: Ethiopia is a very large and diverse country. Most people are shocked to learn it now has more than 65,000,000 inhabitants and is rapidly increasing in population. By some projections, the population is expected to reach 140,000,000 in the first decades of this century. How do you locate yourself amidst this vast and varied assortment of people?
Well, first of all, I was born in Assosa in the Beni-Shangul region near the Ethiopian-Sudanese border, the oldest of eight children. My father was head of the local municipality and I spent my childhood amidst a multitude of various ethnic and tribal groups. Most people in the surrounding areas were tribal, primarily Berta and Gummuz, while the population of the town was more varied with many Sudanese merchant families. Sudanese customs and traditions were practiced alongside those of Ethiopia. Although I left Assosa at eleven, I feel comfortable with most people. I still enjoy opportunities to travel and interact with Sudanese and feel comfortable among them. The various tribal people fascinate me, they remind me of my childhood.
NEF: Is this all just a bit of childhood reminiscing or as it seems, the beginning of your story? How did all this affect your thoughts, your future plans?
When I was young I liked to read but there was little to read other than my father’s books that were often incompatible with my age. These books were mostly about agriculture, about changing unutilized and unproductive lands into fertile fields that would help to enrich the country. I read along with him and I decided I wanted to become a farmer, to till the vast lands that then lay idle and to make them green and productive. That was my first real dream.
The turning point for me however was not in Assosa but later at age 16 when I completed the 12th grade. Not fully realizing that the world was a bit different for young men and women, I applied to attend Ethiopia’s agricultural college. I was rejected because they didn’t have accommodation for girls, only boys. The school was located 550km southeast of Addis Ababa in Harar. I was devastated.
Upon completion of my elementary education I was accepted for entry into the local commercial high school. Although attendance at the school was considered at the time a privilege, my father said no. He didn’t want his daughter to be one of those “company girls.” Instead, he paid for me to attend an academic high school. It was expensive for our family standards but we both thought it would lead me eventually to my chosen path. It seemed I might yet have an opportunity to be a farmer, at least an agriculturalist. I was ambitious even at that age. My father was also ambitious for me. That ambition cost the family.
NEF: You’ve talked a lot about your father, what about your mother? How did she influence your upbringing?
My mother had a great role in my upbringing and in my schooling. She helped us with our lessons and in making our daily decisions. I must say she played a great role in my personal life, my father in my career.
NEF: The road to agriculture, did you ever make it?
Well, not exactly, or perhaps somewhat roundabout. I ended up eventually at Haile Selassie University, in the business college. It’s not so important how I got there; it wasn’t my first choice but it was the best I had. Americans ran the school. It was highly competitive and represented good career potential. I spent six years there.
My entry at the university coincided with the beginning of the Ethiopian student movement. The movement represented a challenge to the feudal system that existed in Ethiopia and to the system of land tenure that held such a devastating sway over the rural populace. The students were seeking social and economic justice for all, not simply for the privileged few. The movement helped me in my first year to see more clearly the injustices in my country; it helped to politicize my thoughts and behavior.
By my fourth year, the student movement had reached its peak. The monarchy began to respond with force. Many people were taken prisoner; others simply left the school. Many students were imprisoned; others fled the country. The regime panicked and the oppression continued. By the end of that year there was renewed rioting. Many university students were suspended, including myself. These were critical days for me. I married, had a child, and began my first real employment.
NEF: In agriculture?
No, during the suspension I found employment with a World Bank project as a secretary. But, for me, being part of the movement, contributing to the movement, had become my life. The movement rather than the schooling kept me going. In fact, my class (that of l973) was the last class to graduate from Haile Selassie University. After university, I found employment with the Ethiopian Ministry of Interior, Department of Municipalities. This too was a significant time for me.
In l974, the monarchy was overthrown. The Derg under Mengistu Haile Mariam came to power. People were hoping for better yet to replace the old elites, a new generation of Derg elites were moving into place. It was too early to talk about corruption, this came later as the Derg became stronger. People were being secretly accused of crimes. They could be accused, killed, and their assets confiscated for personal or political gain by Derg members and their supporters or simply by their own personal enemies.
It was at this time that the Derg began to define who was with them and who was against them. There were internal rivalries, struggles between groups, and almost continuous killings and executions.
NEF: And, where did you fit into all of this turmoil? Weren’t you afraid?
As the head of Organization and Management Services for Rural Projects Agency within the Ethiopian government, I traveled extensively throughout the country during this period. My work and travels gave me a chance to get closer to the people I had learned to think about while at university. Part of my job was to see that schools and health clinics were built and maintained. What was being done was little compared to the tremendous needs I saw. I was already politicized from my years with the movement; my work simply confirmed the arguments I had heard on campus.
The real struggle was, however, only about to begin. During this period I joined a political party opposing the Derg, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party. Later, in l976, I left my employment and went underground. The whole of Ethiopia was in turmoil, the killings and mass murders, it was like a fire raging. The choice was to sit back and watch or to go forward and risk. Sooner or later I would have been caught up in the fighting; I decided I had to fight back.
NEF: We hear a lot about social action, moving from social work and social development to social action, but in fact you’ve done the opposite and have gone from social action to social development. What was it like during this period?
From here on, I became a full time political party worker, working underground and against the Derg. This lasted for ten years including four years of hiding in the rural areas. It was rough yet in some ways exhilarating. In l980 I was finally arrested and spent the following six years in prison.
Again, it was ironic I stayed in Ethiopia. So many others fled the country and indeed my chance had come only a few days before my arrest. I just simply couldn’t go. I couldn’t imagine myself leaving the country and the movement that had been so much a part of my life. In fact, I consider myself lucky to have been taken to prison rather than having been killed. The policy of the dreaded Derg, “killing in the open” or “free elimination” of suspected members of the opposition, was not yet over.
NEF: And the dream it seems, somehow slipped further and further away…
Yes, it’s in many ways a bit ironic. If I had been able to pursue my original plans, if I had in fact become a farmer or an agriculturalist, I would have more than likely simply been blind to the hardships and realities of my own people. I would have perhaps been a part of the system and the social injustices I now found myself so opposed too. It’s ironic how life takes its turns on us.
NEF: When that was all over, when you were released from prison, what was it like? Any regrets?
In l986, when I came out of prison, it was like a new planet for me. The repression had changed people so much: the arbitrariness of the killings, the demoralization, and the fear. There was no life at all. Those who from the beginning were so-called cowards, those who had thought they could keep away from politics, felt vindicated. They were the new moralists. These people and “the new generation” seemed to have little awareness of what my generation had so vocally affirmed as “the people.” Social justice and equality were no longer even issues.
NEF: For a person of such commitment, it must have been terribly disappointing. Where did you then turn for inspiration?
I chose to preserve myself, to turn in on myself, not to go out of my cage. I felt I had nothing to say, no one to talk to and nothing to talk about. I was staying at home with my immediate family. I felt out of place everywhere. The Derg was still in power and I was denied the right to travel abroad. I disliked almost everything about the life. The streets reminded me of my dead friends and our struggle together. Most of my friends were either dead or had fled the country. It was like another kind of prison.
NEF: How/when did the isolation begin to break down?
Slowly I started building a new community within my larger family and a few immediate friends outside. When the Derg was overthrown in l991 I was asked to join the new government as a Vice Minister for Foreign Trade. I hoped this would help me to reintegrate myself into society and to find a new way forward. Unfortunately, that was not to happen. I eventually left the new government, not knowing exactly what to do with my life at that point.
NEF: Does anything in particular stand out from this period as having contributed to your current ideas and aspirations?
Well, when I left the government, I left because of the values I uphold. I wanted to keep those values alive. I was impatiently looking for something I could do but I didn’t know how to do it alone.
Then it crossed my mind, maybe I could establish an NGO of some sort. Over the years, I had worked for two such organizations and I realized how people could be reached more effectively through NGOs. For me, this was a better option than continuing in politics. I wasn’t, however, quite ready. I first opened a consulting office. It was only later it occurred to me to organize something else. The money came, but I still felt empty. I wanted something of my own to nurture.
I was encouraged in this by my friend, an Italian women and ex-Parliamentarian of the European Union, Carla Barbarella. She’s also president of an Italian NGO. I had met Carla through a mutual friend, an Italian scholar and specialist on African History, Professor Sandro Truilzi. Our minds met. She encouraged me. I was a bit scared; not sure I could make it.
NEF: So this was the beginning of Progynist?
In 1997, I established Progynist as an Ethiopian NGO. I thought through Progynist that I could help Ethiopian Women to take their full place in society, politics, and economic development. We had a long way to go and we’ve done it cautiously. I wanted something that would last; not simply a temporary solution or a springboard to something else. Progynist is now more than four years old and I’m really proud of what we, staff, the board members, and myself, have built together. There is a tremendous dedication within the organization to the people we serve and to the values we represent.
Meklit, our microfinance institution, later evolved from the microcredit activities of Progynist. This was in response to changing government legislation regarding microcredit operations by NGOs. The two institutions work hand-in-hand to achieve our objectives of helping women and the poor. Although younger, I don’t see any less dedication within Meklit than within Progynist. We both have a long way to go.
NEF: You’ve had a varied and productive life so far. You’ve positioned yourself and those around you to further your objectives and help create a better future for the people in your country. What kind of advice do you have for others involved in similar pursuits?
Development work in this part of the world is challenging, I might say, full of challenges. It requires the utmost alertness every minute of the day. You need to know your environment as perfectly as you can – you have to be able to feel it, analyze it, use your senses to manipulate it, and position yourself to make the best out of every situation.
NEF: For such an idealist, that seems like a very practical statement. Can you say more about this, particularly what you mean by “manipulate.” This is a word so often used, and more often than not used negatively, to criticize those who work in this field. I’d like to hear more from you on this issue.
I learned early that the world is not such a simple place. Nothing is so clear. For the best interest of those we’re working for, we have to be able to understand and deal with those around us, it’s essential for the best interest of the work. There’s nothing you can do in isolation. The social and political environment is very important.
“Manipulation,” as I’m using the word here, might best be termed “handling the situation in one’s favor.” We have to be able to gain the trust of those in politics as well as the people around us to be productive. This should not, however, be done by compromising basic principles. That’s why I said it’s full of challenges. Here, we’re talking about interactions with many different levels, different groups, and a wide variety of individuals. It’s a dynamic interaction, not a technical process. Everything is related to the social and political environment in which it occurs. Everything affects and is affected by everything else. For our purpose, we are simply at the center. We have to be able to move out from the center.
Another critical issue is what are we providing for people. As a development worker, we need to know how to handle this question. Our public relations have to be powerful and our personal approach to the various actors is critical. These issues interrelate.
Here, most NGO leaders fail. They too often feel too assured that because they are coming to “help people” who could possibly be against them, who could object? They believe they should be accepted and respected for this, not challenged. That’s too often the mentality. But, in our country and others where NGO work is new, we have to build the confidence of people at all levels and across the board. This is an issue of being “up-front,” of being honest. That’s why I said first that all your senses must be awake. You have to be aware. You have to know where the center is and how to move beyond it.
NEF: And in the end, what about “honesty”?
Honesty is more than just relevant; it’s the core of our being. What we have to look at however is the end result. You have to examine your thinking in full. Your thinking must be honest but ironically what you sometimes say may not be close to that. There are strategies and tactics to be considered if we want to achieve our objectives. The art of diplomacy must be employed; speaking and reading between the lines. Such diplomacy is not evil but a mutual instrument designed to keep us on safer ground and lead us, perhaps at last, to a mutually desired and positive ending. Ambiguity is often part of the process.
NEF: And what about the future? Where do you see yourself going? What about Progynist and Meklit – their future? Give us a hint on what the future holds.
So far we have been close to the achievement of our objectives. We find this very gratifying. Therefore, the future is bright for both organizations.
We have already started a rural program in the southern region. The program is based on our experiences from the urban program. The infrastructure in the rural areas is extremely weak and accessibility to villages is difficult. Here, you find a big financial challenge as the logistics attached to rural development are extensive and expensive. One can imagine what this means to a local NGO born slightly over 4 years ago. However, we have a strong conviction that we can overcome these challenges. We count on our Boards, our staff, our people, and the networks we are in.
Again, building on this first experience in a rural setting, both Progynist and Meklit would like to continue similar programs in the Amhara region, the most food insecure region in the country.
NEF: Many thanks for sharing your experience and your thoughts on development. We can only wish both you and your associates the best of luck and a brighter future for Ethiopia and its citizens.
Microfinanza.com writes: Ethiopia – ” Institutional evaluation of Meklit, a local microfinance institution, and impact analysis of the microcredit activities within the support program financed by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affaires (General Direction for Development Cooperation) and run by Alisei, an Italian NGO.
” Assessment of the Ethiopian microfinance industry for the formulation of the second phase of “Arsi & Bale Rural Development Project” of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affaires.
” Assessment of the first phase of the “Arsi & Bale Rural Development Project” of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affaires (GDDC): review of patterns of expenditures, analysis of the sustainability of the infrastructures (roads and water supply) realized in the first phase and evaluation of the impact of the project on regional and national budget. Formulation of the second phase. (See on this site).