Tag Archives: economy

The Next Phase

10 Aug

For those of you who have been following my adventures, I recently moved to Washington, DC to start a new job!

My new neighborhood

 I am the lead international communications and marketing associate for NCBA CLUSA International. A little bit of background on who they are and what I do:

The NCBA part stands for the National Co-operative Business Association and is the domestic trade association for co-op businesses. We host conferences, advocate for the co-op business model on capital hill, and connect co-op businesses across industries. Some businesses you may have heard of, but may not know are co-ops are REI, Florida’s Natural, Cabot Farms, and Ace Hardware. We also represent groups like food co-ops, rural electrical co-ops, and credit unions (1 in 3 Americans is a member of co-op). To be a co-operative business you must adhere to seven cooperative principles:

  1. Voluntary and Open Membership
  2. Democratic Member Control
  3. Member Economic (Members contribute equally to and democratically control the capital of their co-operative).
  4. Autonomy and Independence (if they enter into agreements with other organizations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources they maintain democratic control and co-operative autonomy).
  5. Education, Training, and Information (so that members will be good decision makers, and so the general public will better understand co-operatives).
  6. Cooperation among Co-operatives (strengthening the co-operative movement by working together).
  7. Concern for Community (work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members).

The CLUSA part stands for the Co-operative League of the USA and is the name most commonly seen on our international work. Part of my job is to unify the two sides for a cohesive NCBA CLUSA brand that works domestically and internationally. On the international side, we truly believe in a community based approach, that works to strengthen groups and service providers to improve livelihoods through market-based approaches (as opposed to humanitarian aid, which comes only in a crisis). That’s a lot of jargon. Basically it means we work to strengthen groups and businesses on the ground through connecting them to outside markets, or making them more efficient, or improving nutrition.

Because of this cooperative foundation, a large chunk of our work is strengthening farmers co-ops, training in conservation agriculture, and nutrition led agriculture (innovations and strategies that work with assessing each community’s individual needs). These help to build resilience in communities. Food security gaps and climate change cause small shocks to be devastating, but increasing nutrient outputs (like planting yams or carrots in communities with Vitamin A deficiencies), or strategically farming with better irrigation techniques make those shocks (like drought or flooding) easier to resist. Because co-ops are community based, development solutions are community based. We work with mother’s groups and women’s savings and credit institutions. We’ve done work with youth and governance, because politically involved youth form community organizations. We work with coffee growers and co-ops and then link them with purchasers in the US (a co-op to co-op trade model that keeps prices fair). We train and support groups all along the agriculture value chain. We are one of the first organizations to start work in Cuba, which is starting to grow its economy by broadening the space for co-operatives.

Personally, my job is the tell these stories. To be able to share the best practices of innovative development in the field. I am helping to redesign what’s presented on our website (coming soon!), opening communication flows with the field teams, and promoting our leaders and techniques as innovators and best practices in the industry. Eventually I will be able to travel out to our projects (overseeing a current portfolio of 17 countries and 21 projects – as of August – projects open and close all the time as they finish their cycles).

My joy is telling stories, and these are the best stories to tell. The stories of overcoming challenges, of seeing opportunity and making the most, of going from barely making it to sharing wealth with others. These stories are why we in the international development industry do the work we do. Every one of the numbers is a story, and it’s my job to make that real and accessible to all of you back here.

So that’s my new job. I moved across the country, and back from Africa to start this next phase. I’m looking forward to a whole lot of new experiences, and meeting some interesting and inspiring people.

From grad school to Peace Corps and now NCBA CLUSA, I’m still telling these stories. But now, I have a lot more potential projects to cover and a wider platform. I will continue to update this blog with more of the personal side (with lots of travel photos!), and you can always see the work I’m doing here.


The Skin Tax

19 Jun
Birr in denominations

Birr in denominations

Discrimination or an example of a perfect market economy? The “skin tax,” as one Ethiopian coworker called it, is rampant in Gondar. Every day assumptions are made about me based on the colour of my skin. Usually- I’m rich, I’m a tourist, I’m a doctor, I’m a teacher, I don’t speak Amharic, I’m loose, I’m here to give out money, I think I’m superior, I’m rude, I tip well, I don’t tip at all, I’m Israeli, I’m Italian, I’m definitely not German, I’m short term, I’m a foreigner, I have a watch… and it’s ok to charge me extra.

Some of those assumptions are true, some are very not. And every volunteer gets different assumptions based on their gender, ethnic background, accent, language ability, and where in Ethiopia they live.

For me, I live in a tourist town. Gondar is well-known for its “ferenji waga” or “foreigner’s price.” Restaurants have two menus, hotels have two rates, and historical sites have multiple admission prices. The reality is that if I were a tourist those price differences wouldn’t matter all that much. While sometimes there is as much as a 300% increase on a menu, the difference between a 75 cent meal for a local and $3 meal for a tourist is still cheap for the traveler.

The only time you will see the Amharic Pepsi cheaper! I think they forgot to update the menu

The only time you will see the Amharic Pepsi cheaper! I think they forgot to update the menu

The problem is, I’m not a tourist, or an NGO worker, or a doctor. I don’t get a salary in USD, I get a stipend… in birr. About the equivalent of a middle class Ethiopian. I’m certainly not struggling, but getting overcharged over and over again takes a toll on my budget.

Community integration is incredibly hard to measure. How close are you really to your community? You many never know. Especially in a city, I break my communities into pieces. Souk owners I frequent know me, check. I have coffee or tea with Ethiopian friends around the city, check. I am getting more and more work, which is hopefully a sign of trust, check. But the clearest indicator so far of community integration has been when I get charged “habesha waga” or “local price” at a restaurant.

It’s not just a sign of my language skills. I usually have to explicitly ask for the local price, assert that I live here, and that I’m a volunteer. But owners I know and who have seen me around for a significant time are getting more lenient. Now I only have to ask once.

What bothers me isn’t the existence of the price racketeering, it’s the assumption that I fall into that bracket. The idea of different rates isn’t a bad thing necessarily. In fact a completely free economy dictates price based on worth for the consumer. For a tourist, who is used to $20 meals at home, a $5 meal here for the same food is a deal, even if it is twice as expensive as its local worth.  But what makes me grit my teeth is that this price rating is based on skin colour. Tourists from other cities like Addis Ababa are charged local prices, and people born in other countries who live long term in the rural countryside are charged the tourist rate.

The other frequent occurrence is people trying to overcharge me at the market, yet for some reason that does not bother me at all. Yes, I get annoyed when I know the real price (I just bought eggs here last week!), but I’m not going to fault people for trying to eek a few extra birr out of me if they can get away with it. Haggling is part of the culture, and while it is exhausting, it isn’t annoying. What gets under my grill is the standardized price gauging, the institutionalized, printed, pre-determined unfairness. If I could sit down at a restaurant, talk in Amharic and get a local price while the tourist gets charged extra- fine! In fact, great! But when I come in, sit down, talk in Amharic, ask the waitress about her day and her work and still get handed the “English menu” with the higher prices simply because I don’t look Ethiopian is frustrating. And when I say don’t look Ethiopian, I don’t mean “white.” I mean dark black, Asian, Hispanic, and white. If you don’t look like you were born 15 feet from that restaurant you will not be treated like you live 15 feet from that restaurant… even if you do.

Ethiopia is an incredibly diverse country. There are 87 languages, 100s of tribes, and at least three fairly prominent religions. But for how diverse it is on paper, Ethiopia is also incredibly homogenous. Homogenous if only because people do not or cannot travel. Culture develops at the village level and may be very different from the next village over, or the next region over, but there isn’t much mixing except in cities, making diversity still very strange for most people here.

While I get assumptions in Gondar, if I go more rural, I get bewilderment. I met a woman the other day who was working as a cleaner in a hole in the wall restaurant who had never seen a ferenji before. Granted, she had just come in from the rural village last week, and not many tourists frequent that particular area, but even in Gondar, there are still pockets of isolation.

So the skin tax is both an example of institutionalized discrimination, the effect of a capitalistic economy (ya they’ll pay it, because they can afford it), and the subject of gripe for many volunteers. But we can ask, we can live, and maybe every once and while we get charged the habesha waga. And when that happens, you feel great for a week!