|Yegna in concert in Bahir Dar/Courtesy of Girl Effect|
Should humanitarian aid be about food parcels and vaccination campaigns? Or could it be something more intangible and holistic?
Yegna, a project trying to reframe the place of girls in Ethiopian society - a country where discrimination and violence against girls and women are common - crystallized that debate in the UK.
Over the past few years, the - which was co-funded by the UK Department for International Development (DIFD) - calling it “the most wasteful, ludicrous and patronizing” aid project in Africa and “blood boiling waste of taxpayers' money.”
The articles caused widespread outcry from MPs and taxpayers. In January 2017, DIFD, which had previously given the program high marks and had planned to give it £11.8m between 2015 and 2018, cut all funding.
Although the right-wing media dubbed it Yegna is not just a girl group, but a brand that addresses issues such as early forced marriage, violence and barriers to education through a very popular radio drama, music and talkshows – all critical channels in a developing country with a strong musical and storytelling tradition.
The radio drama, also called Yegna, features the five band members representing characters with different backgrounds, facing and overcoming many of the challenges experienced by Ethiopian girls.
Take Mimi, for example. In the drama, she is a street kid who ran away from early marriage when she was 13 and had to sacrifice her education. She lives on the street and sells chewing gum and trinkets to passers-by.
“Mimi is my favorite character because she is most like me. She’s very strong and does not give up,” says Alemtsehay Berihun, a 17-year-old Yegna fan who lives with her aunt in Wonka, a village in the Amhara region.
In Amhara, where Berihun lives, and in Addis, the two regions where Yegna is distributed, one in every two people listen to Yegna, according to Girl Effect.
“In our school, I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t know Yegna. You would walk into a random house in our town and find a Yegna poster inside,” Berihun says.
The decision to cut funding disappointed , the charity behind Yegna, as well as other aid organizations, which are developing less traditional and more creative approaches to impact long-term changes. “We were surprised and disappointed,” says Gaya Butler, the Ethiopia country director for Girl Effect. “Girl Effect addresses the demand for aid rather than the supply of it. For example, many organizations are building schools, but they are not filled because lots of cultural norms are preventing girls from attending school. We tackle those social norms.”
And they were having an impact. For example, 84 per cent of girls listening to Yegna, report that it has helped them become more confident, while 76 per cent report it has inspired them to continue their education, according to a 2014 audience survey, conducted by an independent local research agency.
Boys have also been inspired: 95 percent of boys who regularly listen to Yegna agreed that they would speak to someone if they saw a young girl being forced to get married.
And Yegna has helped change parents’ attitudes, says Asnakech Kebede, 48, a mother of four girls and a primary school teacher. “It used to be culturally unacceptable for girls to stand up straight and speak up, but now parents see their value.”
For aid workers and activists, the fate of Yegna is a lesson not only in tactics, but also in the limitations of foreign funding — and how much anti-aid sentiment exists in many countries.
Here is the, explaining what Yegna is trying to achieve and how, and why I think it's a project well worth supporting, in spite of the smear campaign by the right-wing media. Let me know what you think.