Category Archives: Uncategorized

Banning Plastic Bags – The Case of Eritrea

After years of delays, a ban on plastic bags came into effect earlier this week in Kenya. The ban, considered one of the toughest in the world, means that anyone found selling, manufacturing or carrying them could face fines of up to $40,000 or prison sentences of up to four years. With the move, Kenya joins a number of other African countries to ban plastic bags including, amongst others, Rwanda, Mauritania, Tunisia, and Botswana.

 

 

In Eritrea, plastic bags were banned from the city of Asmara, the capital, in early 2002, following bans in other areas, including Keren and Dekemhare. Then in 2004, the Government of the State of Eritrea (GSE) enacted a national legal notice to ban plastic bags throughout the country. The ban, which came into effect nationally in January 2005, outlawed the import, production, sale, or distribution of plastic bags, and was characterized by stiff fines (importantly, these were mainly directed at producers and distributors).

 

 

Beyond the GSE’s enactment of a legal notice, various ministries and organizations have worked together to educate the public about the importance of protecting the environment and the significant damage caused by the bags. Early on, community administrators discussed how bags were being eaten by goats, cows, and sheep, causing hundreds to die, and thus helped increase support for the move among numerous rural communities and farmers. As well, national radio, television, and newspapers promote positive environmental habits, while young Eritreans are taught about the need to recycle.

 

 

Although plastic bags were once highly popular and ubiquitous in the country, Eritreans have generally responded positively. Additionally, local municipal/administrative police managed by each municipality occasionally check grocery stores or other businesses to ensure they are not using plastic bags. Today, Eritreans use cloth, nylon, or straw bags, which are frequently locally manufactured, and many of the problems associated with plastic bags – such as the blockage of drains and water pipes, spread of disease, deaths to farm animals and marine wildlife, pollution to the soil and general environment, and contribution to a bleak and disheartening visual landscape – have been dramatically reduced.

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Visiting Eritrea’s Book Fair

For the past week, Eritrea’s 16th annual Book Fair has been taking place in Asmara, the capital. Convening at the Expo Grounds, the event is a wonderful opportunity to meet local authors, purchase great books at a super price (many are available at highly discounted rates), support important local initiatives, and learn more about the country.

Here are some photos from my visit.

Dozens of stalls featuring many wonderful items. Great to see so many young faces.

Dozens of stalls featuring many wonderful items. Great to see so many young faces.

The RORA Digital Library has played an important role in improving access and quality of education.

A nation is “like an individual [person]; until it uses its own talent, takes pride in its own history, expresses its own culture, affirms its own selfhood, it can never fulfill itself.” — Malcolm X

“Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.” – Margaret Fuller.

I enjoyed this stall. A great collection of classic logos! Sabur Printing Services.

#Eritrea

An old newspaper – August 1939!

Some of my favorite stalls, offering materials for youth and students.

A young, low-income country located in the fractious Horn of Africa (HoA) region, Eritrea has prioritized education as a key pillar within its national policy and broader framework for development, socio-economic growth, and poverty alleviation.

There is little doubt that the country faces challenges in many areas, including education; at the same time, a lot of progress has been achieved in a short period, which should not be overlooked. Yet, as with most coverage of Eritrea in general, mainstream analyses and discussions of education (across all levels) are often cursory, lacking in context, or plagued with various shortcomings.

Eritrea’s efforts at improving access to and opportunities within education actually date back to the days of the country’s decades-long independence struggle. The independence movement, led by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), developed an elaborate system of educational programs and institutions to extend education to the children of fighters, orphans, refugees, and groups traditionally excluded from opportunities to learn, such as women, nomads, and rural populations.

However, even while the efforts to offer education during the struggle were commendable, at independence the country’s literacy rates (across all ages) were quite low, particularly for girls and women, and overall enrollment rates (within primary levels) hovered around 30 percent. Within that context, at independence, education was made compulsory, for both girls and boys, and the country also proceeded to build hundreds of schools in both rural and urban areas.

As well, initiatives were begun to offer education in the various languages used within the country, helping ensure access to all ethno-linguistic groups. Largely as a result of the country’s investment – government expenditure on education is between 8-10 percent of the national budget – and various other efforts, Eritrea’s primary enrollment rates are now approximately 90 percent, while both gender disparity and adult literacy have dramatically improved. Importantly, literacy rates for youth in Eritrea are considerably higher than those for adults, suggesting that the country’s efforts to strengthen the supply and quality of basic education programmes have largely been successful, and should be continued and augmented.

What a find! Authored by Woldeab Woldemariam, who is a key Eritrean historical figure and often described as “the father” of Eritrean independence.

A remarkable image! Eritrean women, and women from the Global South in general, are often depicted in outdated, paternalistic, and grossly inaccurate ways. They are frequently portrayed as “inefficacious, poor, residing in hovels, having too many children, illiterate, ignorant, tradition-bound, victimized, and either dependent on a man for survival or impoverished because they lack one.” For me (and many others), however, Eritrean women are among the most powerful and admirable individuals one may come across. Eritrean women were key to turning Eritrea’s dreams of independence into reality, and today they are central pillars of households, communities, and the nation.


Some Notes on Eritrea’s Economy

According to the recently published Global Economic Prospects, a World Bank Group flagship report, the year 2016 was marked by stagnant global trade, subdued investment, and heightened policy uncertainty. For 2017, a subdued recovery is expected, with receding obstacles to activity in commodity exporters and solid domestic demand in commodity importers. Additionally, weak investment is weighing on medium-term prospects across many emerging markets and developing economies (EMDEs). Although fiscal stimulus in major economies, if implemented, may boost global growth above expectations, risks to growth forecasts remain tilted to the downside.

 

For Eritrea, GDP growth was slightly above 4% in 2016, outpacing the global average, as well as GDP growth in the advanced economies, developing economies, and Africa (see figure 1). As well, Eritrea’s projected growth for the next several years is expected to outpace global projections (see figure 2). Importantly, such economic growth can be central to poverty reduction and the realization of broader development goals. Moving forward, Eritrea can address several areas in order to sustain positive economic momentum and enhance overall development.

 

Manufacturing and skills development

 

An area Eritrea should prioritize is manufacturing and skills development. As Eritrea continues to grow and integrate into the broader regional and global economy, it is vital to raise and vary exports, moving away from low-value added and potentially unstable primary products. Manufacturing is essential to growth, and with rapid technical change and global economic integration, it is becoming important as a means of modernizing and diversifying the economic base.

 

Consequently, focusing on and investing in technical and vocational programs and human capital development are key since they can help build and refine the population’s skills and capabilities to compete within fiercely competitive markets. Notably, advanced skills are not just a requirement for “hi-tech” sectors; even supposedly “simple” areas such as apparel, footwear, and basic engineering products require a degree of skills to compete. Of further importance, a skilled, knowledgeable workforce dramatically improves the investment climate since trained, skilled workers create an attractive economic environment for investors.

 

Beyond their necessity for competing in regional or global markets, Eritrea should invest in technical and vocational skills programs and human capital development since they help in the fulfillment of a range of fundamental human rights, significantly contribute to social inclusion, can considerably raise productivity and earnings (particularly of the working poor), reduce unemployment, increase the efficiency of entrepreneurs, and play positive, influential roles in crime and poverty reduction (AfDB; BCG; World Bank 2014).

 

The importance of technical and vocational skills and human capital development is particularly apparent in relation to skills gaps. Skills gaps are prevalent across much of the developing world – such as in Eritrea – and they persist despite generally high unemployment rates. Potential workers, lacking the skills and training required by various industries, remain idle and unproductive. An insightful case is Sri Lanka; while the country has the most educated workforce in South Asia, with 87 percent of citizens completing secondary school, its workforce is not equipped with the right skills to be machine operators, technicians, sales associates, and managers (World Bank 2014). In this context, vocational and technical training programs can provide workers with the vital skills required by dynamic, evolving economies, and can ultimately help address problems of unemployment and lack of productivity (BCG).

 

Notably, skills acquired from or honed within technical and vocational programs are especially significant for youth. Young people frequently remain at the end of the job queue for the formal labor market because they lack adequate skills and experience (Boateng 2002). With little access to formal employment, youth may instead turn to the informal sector. While the informal sector can frequently offer certain tangible benefits, it can also be characterized by long, unpredictable hours and limited protections, returns, safety, or security. More problematically, youth unemployment can also potentially lead to emigration, or crime and other harmful or dangerous behaviors, such as sex work or illicit drug use.

 

Overall, vocational and technical programs and human capital development are critical elements in encouraging and accelerating development, inclusive growth, and poverty reduction through economic transformation and job creation (AfDB). Moving forward, Eritrea should continue to invest in vocational and technical programs, and seek to enhance their overall effectiveness and impact. Doing so will require firm political commitment, the ongoing participation and cooperation of local and international partners, sustainable financing (especially for infrastructure and equipment), and the foresight to ensure that expansion does not dilute the quality of training.

 

To augment impact, the potential for enterprise-based training should be explored, while technical and vocational programs should be carefully assessed, diversified, and matched with the skills required by the labor market, possibly with the active participation of employers (Kanyenze, Mhone and Spareboom 2000; World Bank 2014). An illustrative example is the system of productivity councils that was a fundamental component of the rapid growth and success of the East Asian economies. Specifically, the system involved the specific skills profile required by the private sector being fed directly into the curricula of the educational and technical sector.

 

Finally, the Eritrean government and relevant stakeholders can further develop awareness campaigns illustrating that technical and vocational programs are an important means of empowering individuals to fully develop their capabilities and tangibly improve their lives. Importantly, these campaigns will help garner greater attention and participation, while counteracting potential obstacles related to perceptions of the alleged low prestige of technical and vocational programs.

 

Fisheries

 

Eritrea’s coastline on the Red Sea is approximately 1200 kilometers, making it one of the longest in the world, with approximately 1000 kilometers more coming from its numerous islands on the Red Sea. Notably, the waters of the southern part of the Red Sea are highly productive and rich in biodiversity, with substantial populations of over 1000 species of fish. Commercially valuable fish include groupers, snappers, emperors, lizardfish, breams, jacks, trevallies, mackerels, tunas, sharks, sardines, and anchovies.

 

However, while the region, which includes hundreds of islands as well as the major ports of Massawa in central Eritrea and Assab in the south, has a potential yield of 80000 metric tons of fish per year, Eritrea’s annual total capture production remains quite low. Thus, not only can the fisheries sector play an important role for poverty reduction, employment, income generation, food security (e.g. through reducing the need to depend on food imports to fill gaps), and nutrition (e.g. fish products are an important source of animal protein and essential micronutrients for balanced nutrition and good health), it also holds the potential to be a significant export industry and thus contribute to overall development and growth.

 

It is imperative, however, that Eritrea develop this sector in environmentally-friendly, sustainable ways. Proper management can avoid pollution and destructive fishing practices, ultimately ensuring the continued productivity of coastal waters and future growth, food security and jobs for coastal communities.

 

Tourism

Globally, the tourism industry accounts for about 10% of global GDP and one out of every 11 jobs. Tourism is an important foreign exchange earner, and many countries encourage tourism to help promote development and economic growth. The conclusion that tourism benefits nations’ economies applies both to developed nations and developing countries, although the effect may be stronger for less-developed countries with a relatively simple economy – such as Eritrea (Sahli and Carey 2013).

For Eritrea, a country blessed with a warm, hospitable climate, rich cultural heritage, and great natural assets, the tourism sector holds enormous potential to reduce poverty and enhance economic growth. However, the country must remain committed to the continued development of basic infrastructure (e.g. roads and airport facilities). Furthermore, the experience of countries that have developed successful tourism sectors (e.g. the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN]) can offer important lessons for Eritrea, particularly in terms of improving connectivity, visa facilitation, and services. While tourism can promote growth and development, Eritrea must also make efforts to minimize or avoid potential adverse effects (e.g. on environment, cultural heritage, or local communities).

 

Figure 1

2016-gdp-growth

Source: World Bank 2017

Note: GDP Growth, Constant 2010 USD

Figure 2

economic-prospects

Source: World Bank 2017

Note: GDP Growth, Constant 2010 USD


Silomn’tye miti z’koney (Why isn’t it 100)?: A Story about Lessons

“Jennifer. Peter. Fatima…Thomas…Fikre.” One by one, Ms. Iliana, the elementary science teacher, called out our names. One by one, we slowly arose from our seats and nervously shuffled to her desk to collect our recently graded exams. Sloth-like, single file, and heads down, we must have appeared like prisoners on a boat inching our way toward the end of the plank.

Ms. Iliana was a challenging, demanding teacher, and fully dedicated to her craft. She was also a strict, no-nonsense disciplinarian. Like a drill sergeant. When she said class started at 8:00am, it meant to be in your desk, with books open and pens at the ready by 7:55am. If the clock read 4:05pm, and class was actually slated to end at 4:00pm, there was hardly a flicker of movement or an attempt to pack up. No chance. Class ended when Ms. Iliana said so. And it wasn’t enough to simply attend her class; we were expected to sit up straight. And to participate. Chewing gum? Passing paper notes? Whispering jokes behind her back while she wrote on the chalkboard? Fuhgeddaboudit. Unless, that is, you wanted to be assigned to some tedious task during lunch hour, kept after school in detention, or “drafted” into the school’s campus beautification program (i.e. picking up garbage around the playground). 

On top of this, Ms. Iliana was a difficult grader. Very, very difficult. In fact, rumour had it that no student had ever received a score above 90 percent on any of Ms. Iliana’s exams – and she had been the school’s science teacher for 16 years.
Thus, it was with a great sense of trepidation that I approached her desk to collect my exam. Thomas, one of the top students in our entire grade, slowly passed by me as he solemnly trudged back to his desk. He was beet-red and I could see his eyes welling up. Fatima and Peter, now slouched in their chairs with similarly disheartened faces, seemed to have hardly fared better. “This can’t be good,” I muttered quietly. 

Collecting myself, I extended my hands to receive my exam. My palms were moist and sweaty and my hands shook nervously as I grasped the paper. As I turned around to return to my chair, I made brief eye-contact with Ms. Iliana. She gave me the smallest of smirks before matter-of-factly stating, “Good.” 
Good? What was she talking about? I was totally confused. “Is she mocking me?” I wondered. “What type of schadenfreude was this? How could she smile and take pleasure at the misfortune of her students?”

Like a seasoned poker pro keeping the faces of their cards hidden from competitors, I held my exam close to my chest as I glanced down to see my grade. I was taken aback. “Wow,” I said quietly before going over the exam several times to make sure the marks tallied up and to ensure I wasn’t hallucinating. It was like a shopper who had mistakenly been given too much change after paying the cashier. But there was no mistake! As I moved to sit back down, I broke into a wide smile, pumped my fist (like Jordan after sinking that buzzer beater against Utah in Game One of the 1997 NBA Finals), and whispered, “Yes!” I was elated. I received a 99 on my exam.
The rest of the school day seemed to pass by in a blur. I could hardly focus in any of my other classes, since all I could think about was how excited I was to show my mother my exam. Ms. Iliana was a strong believer in family involvement within education and she required that all students get their assignments, tests, and homework signed by their parents. Students usually dreaded the practice, but I was a firm supporter that day.

When I arrived home that evening my mother was still at work, and so my older sister prepared dinner for me and my two brothers. The macaroni and cheese was so delicious that I ate two heaping helpings, and the juice – you know, the frozen juice that only required you to add water – tasted extra sweet. Afterward, we went out for a quick game of footy in the neighborhood lot, before washing up and then heading to bed. 

That night, I could not fall asleep. I just lay there staring at the ceiling with the radio playing in the background. I was so excited about my exam and sharing it with my mother. Although I left the exam on the fridge for her to look over, I decided I would stay up to see her, no matter how late she arrived. A single mother of five, my mother worked three jobs and often came home very late at night after a long day or extremely early in the morning after the night shift.


Screeeech
. The front door opened as my mother made her way in. It was nearly midnight. Her keys jangled as she tossed them onto the table and I heard her distinct footsteps in the hall near the kitchen. Excitedly, I jumped out of bed and raced down the stairs. My mother was seated, still wearing her nursing uniform, scanning the large stack of mail. Bills. Bills. Ads. Ads. Bills. As I came into the kitchen, she looked up, surprised. “What are you still doing up?” she asked. 

“Hey, mama…we had an exam with Ms. Iliana. I need you to sign it,” I explained.

Furrowing her brow, she put down the envelopes in her hand. “Bring it over…and also pass my glasses from the purse.” 

She took the exam and then looked at me, before putting on her reading glasses. She slowly navigated her way through the exam, closely reading every question, poring over all of my answers, and analyzing Ms. Iliana’s comments. I simply stood there, wearing my black and yellow, Batman-embroidered pyjamas, with my arms crossed, and a wide grin stretching from ear to ear. 

After what seemed like an eternity, she turned over the last page and placed the exam on the table. She took a final glance at the exam before shifting her attention toward me. I just stood there, proud as a peacock and eager to soak up the seemingly imminent plaudits. What transpired, however, shocked me and is something that I will never forget.

“Silomn’tye miti z’koney (why is it not one hundred)?” My mother demanded, pointing at the 99 circled in red ink at the top of the front page. 

“Huh? I got 99,” I responded. “She must be confused,” I thought to myself.

“Yes, you did. And why is it not 100?” She repeated. 

“Mama! It was the highest grade in the class,” I pleaded, my voice rising slightly. 

“And why is it not 100?” She asked again, this time even more assertively.

I just stood there, perplexed and without an answer. After a brief pause, my mother grabbed her pen and signed the exam. Then she turned to me. 

“Excellent. I’m proud of you. But I want you to be the best you can be. I don’t care about the scores of the other students. Just yours. Never be satisfied in anything that you do. There is always room for improvement. Okay?”

I nodded in agreement. She then gave me a hug and walked me to my room. Although it would take some time to fully sink in, the lessons I learned that night have been amongst the most important of my life and they have served as important guiding principles in everything that I do.

Aim high, do not settle, and never be satisfied. Today is about being better than you were yesterday, and tomorrow is about being better than you were today. If it is bad, make it good. And if it is good, make it better.

Thanks, mama.


Alexander Isak to Borussia Dortmund: A Great Move

After being linked with a host of Europe’s top clubs, including Spanish giants Real Madrid, as well as Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, and Juventus, Swedish-Eritrean football prodigy Alexander Isak completed a €10m move to Borussia Dortmund from AIK Solna last week. The tall, wiry 17-year-old striker, dubbed the “new Zlatan Ibrahimovic”, had recently become the youngest goalscorer in the history of the Swedish national team after netting in a 6-0 win against Slovakia on 12 January 2017.

 

According to Michael Zorc, former Borussia Dortmund captain and current sporting director, “Alexander is a hugely-talented striker, who many top clubs in Europe wanted to sign. We are delighted that he has chosen Borussia Dortmund. Both BVB and the player himself are convinced that this transfer has great potential.”

 

While Borussia Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel revealed that he was not directly involved in the signing of Isak, he noted that the transfer gave “the club a long-term planning security” and made “100 percent sense for BVB.” After Isak’s impressive first training session on 25 January 2017, a training match in which he scored two goals, Tuchel described him as “a strong centre-forward who also plays a good passing game and gets goals,” before adding “it’s a joy he’s here.”

 

This move is highly positive for a number of reasons. In transferring from the Allsvenskan (Sweden’s top division) to the Bundesliga (Germany’s top division), Isak has moved up a level (or two) and shifts to a league with a totally different playing style. These factors will force him to expand and strengthen his skills and significantly broaden his understanding of the game. For example, while the Swedish game is largely based on a fast, direct approach, Germany’s is more dynamic, fluid and technically proficient, with a greater number of better overall players.

 

Importantly, in joining Borussia Dortmund, Isak is joining a club with a long track-record of producing and developing young players. Currently, the Westfalenstadion is home to some of the brightest young talents in the world, including Frenchman Ousmane Dembele (19 years old), Turkish Emre Mor (19), Germany’s Julian Weigl (21), Portugal’s Raphaël Guerreiro (23), and American Christian Pulisic (18). Additionally, in recent years, the club has also developed exciting talents such as Mario Götze, Marco Reus, Robert Lewandowski, Shinji Kagawa, Mats Hummels, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Ilkay Gundogan, amongst others. The Westfalenstadion should offer Isak the chance to accumulate vital experience and the space to grow and develop. At this stage of his career, Isak is still unproven at the highest level and he needs to gain more experience, playing time and the chance to further refine his game. These opportunities would likely have been unavailable at some of the other clubs with whom he had been linked.

 

For example, had Isak headed to Real Madrid, there would have been considerable questions raised about his potential playing time, with the Bernabeu already home to forwards Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Alvaro Morata, Lucas Vazquez, and Mariano. One only needs to look at Martin Odegaard, a young attacking-midfielder, as an illustrative case. Odegaard, who joined Madrid at the age of 16 in January 2015 after turning down some of Europe’s super clubs, has made only one substitute La Liga appearance and left the club to join Dutch club Heerenveen on an 18-month loan deal earlier this month. Although it is true that Odegaard has gained extensive experience through training with Madrid’s first-team, he has not been given the opportunity to fully develop in matches – a key necessity for young players.

 

At BVB, Isak will likely immediately compete for opportunities alongside or behind the club’s superstar striker, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, a task made significantly easier by the imminent departure from BVB of 30-year-old Colombian striker Adrian Ramos to China, via La Liga strugglers Granada. In the long term (potentially even as soon as this summer), Isak may even represent a replacement for Aubameyang, as the French-born Gabonese speedster has regularly been linked with a big-money move away from the Westfalenstadion.

 

Beyond playing time, Isak’s move to Germany is positive because at BVB he will be shielded from the unrelenting demands and suffocating pressures that characterize some of Europe’s largest clubs. For example, Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil has described the intensity of playing for Real Madrid as “unrelenting,” while the club’s fans have been known to disapprovingly whistle at and jeer their own players, including former club captain and World Cup winner Iker Casillas, Gareth Bale, Kaka, and most remarkably, Cristiano Ronaldo. Last year, Real Madrid’s all-time leading goalscorer was booed by his own fans after missing several chances, despite scoring one goal and making another in the club’s win over Roma in the Champions League, while in several recent matches, Ronaldo was booed by Madrid fans, despite being awarded the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best footballer only last month.  Obviously, such pressures and responses are hardly ideal for young players who will inevitably face challenges and dips in form.

 

For Isak, however, at Borussia the environment will likely be much different and much more conducive to his long term growth and development. The club’s overall approach and its vociferous fans have attracted great admiration from around the world. BVB’s Westfalenstadion holds 81,000 fans and is home to one of European football’s great sights, the “Gelbe Wand” (Yellow Wall), a sea of luminous shirts, scarves and flags. Speaking several years ago, Borussia defender Neven Subotic noted that, “nobody has the atmosphere that we have…to have 25,000 fans behind the South Wall is the biggest difference to any club in the world.” Remarkably, even after losses, BVB fans religiously flock to the mythical south stand to serenade their team in a reflection of the club’s slogan “echte liebe” or “true love”. Such an environment can only help Isak fulfill his tremendous potential.

 

Finally, Isak’s move to Borussia Dortmund will be well-received in Eritrea, his parents’ country of birth. In Eritrea, football is one of the most popular sports, alongside cycling and long-distance running. European football matches are regularly broadcast on television and throughout the country children can be found on pitches and streets engaged in intense matches. Although Manchester United, Arsenal, Real Madrid, and Barcelona shirts have traditionally been the most commonly seen across Eritrea, it will likely not be long until Isak’s number 14 Borussia Dortmund jersey becomes most popular.

isak

Photo: via http://www.dailymail.co.uk


Eritrea – Health and Health Care: Leave No One Behind

In 1946, the right to health was first articulated in the World Health Organization (WHO) Constitution, stating that, “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being.” Shortly thereafter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by UN General Assembly Resolution 217A (III) of 10 December 1948, outlined that everyone has the right to health, including health care. Importantly, beyond its ethical and rights dimensions, health is fundamental to human happiness and overall well-being, while it also makes an important contribution to economic growth and progress, since healthier populations live longer, are more productive, and tend to save more.

 

A variety of factors influence health status and a country’s general ability to provide quality health services for its people. In addition to ministries of health, other government departments, donor organizations, civil society groups, and both communities and individuals themselves are important actors. For example, investments in roads help improve access to health services, inflation targets can constrain health spending, and civil service reform can aid in creating opportunities (or limits) to hiring more health workers.

 

Although a low-income, developing country and despite its being located in a challenging, politically unstable region, Eritrea has remained committed to expanding health and health care, and sought to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages. Notably, the country has developed coherent, integrated approaches, emphasized equity and inclusion, and utilized cost-effective, pragmatic approaches, involving broad participation and multisectoral collaboration and action. In fact, according to a recent WHO report, upon a number of key health-related measures, Eritrea’s figures are distinguished as amongst the best, both within the region and comparatively across the continent.

 

In regard to malaria, Eritrea has categorized the infectious disease as an issue of utmost national concern. Significantly, approximately 70% of the population live in endemic, high-risk areas, with the Gash Barka region bearing greater than 60% of the burden. Of note, the most common malaria parasites found in the country are Plasmodium vivax and Plasmodium falciparum. The former leads to severe disease and death, while the latter is the deadliest species of all malaria parasites infecting humans.

 

To control malaria, Eritrea has employed an assortment of strategies, including the promotion of national campaigns and community based-programs. Many programs have focused on providing extensive awareness and information, organizing focus groups, using preventative interventions, and encouraging the use of medical check-ups and medication. As well, control strategies have incorporated early treatment, indoor spraying, a focus on drainage and larviciding, mass distribution of insecticide-treated nets (ITNs), and a variety of source reduction efforts.

 

As a result of its multifaceted control measures, nearly 70% of children below age 5 now sleep under ITNs and over 60% of people own at least two ITNs. Consequently, national malaria incidence and deaths have declined dramatically, leading to Eritrea’s malaria intervention being described as “the biggest breakthrough in malaria mortality prevention in history.” According to the WHO, in 2013, Eritrea’s malaria incidence (per 1000 population at risk) was 17.4. By comparison, Djibouti’s incidence was 25, Ethiopia’s was 117.8, Kenya’s 266.3, Somalia’s 78.8, South Sudan’s 153.8, Sudan’s 37.7, Africa’s was 268.6, and the global average incidence was 98.6 (see Figure 1).

 

Another area of improvement for Eritrea has been in combating tuberculosis (TB), an airborne infectious disease which, alongside HIV/AIDS, is the most important cause of adult mortality in the world. According to the WHO, approximately 9 million people per year are infected with TB, with the large majority of these cases located within the world’s poorest, least developed countries. TB is caused by bacteria called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The bacteria usually attack the lungs, but they can also damage other parts of the body. TB spreads through the air when a person with TB of the lungs or throat coughs, sneezes, or talks.

 

In Eritrea, TB has long been a significant public health issue – representing a major cause of morbidity and mortality – and an influential factor in severe economic loss and the exacerbation of poverty. However, since 1996, Eritrea’s Ministry of Health and the Tuberculosis Control Unit have focused on implementing a multisectoral approach that integrates holistic care, support, and treatment programs – all free of charge. Importantly, prevention has also been a priority, particularly in order to reduce overall health and medical costs. For example, TB sensitization and education programs have regularly been conducted in schools, public venues, and rural communities, while television programs, newspapers, posters, and brochures have raised general awareness. Consequently, Eritrea has made impressive progress in reducing the incidence of TB, with figures that stand out positively in comparison with its neighbours and global averages. Specifically, according to the WHO, Eritrea’s TB incidence (per 100,000 population) for 2014 was 78. By comparison, Djibouti’s incidence was 619, Ethiopia’s 207, Kenya’s 246, Somalia’s 274, South Sudan’s 146, Sudan’s 94, Africa’s 281, and the global average 133 (see Figure 2).

 

Finally, Eritrea has also made important progress in reducing both neonatal and under-5 mortality. Regarding the former, the first 28 days of life – the neonatal period – represent the most vulnerable time for a child’s survival. Notably, the proportion of child deaths which occur in the neonatal period has increased globally over the last 25 years. In terms of child mortality, the majority of deaths are preventable.  Some of the deaths occur from illnesses like measles, malaria or tetanus, while others result indirectly from marginalization, conflict and HIV/AIDS.  Globally, malnutrition and the lack of safe water and sanitation contribute to approximately half of deaths.

 

In Eritrea, reducing neonatal and under-5 deaths has involved practical, low-cost interventions delivered in an integrated, effective and continuous way. Measures utilized include, amongst others, expanding antenatal care, offering obstetric care, deliveries involving skilled birth attendants (e.g. who can resuscitate newborns at birth), ensuring good neonatal care (involving  immediate attention to breathing and warmth, hygienic cord and skin care), early initiation of exclusive breastfeeding, providing insecticide-treated bed nets to prevent transmission of malaria, providing antiretrovirals for women with HIV, maintaining safe delivery and feeding practices, and the provision of vaccines, antibiotics, and micronutrient supplementation. Largely as a result of these measures, Eritrea has made tremendous strides in reducing neonatal and under-5 mortality. According to the WHO, in 2015, Eritrea’s neonatal and under-5 mortality rates (per 1000 births) were 18.4 and 46.5. In contrast, Djibouti’s measures were 33.4 and 65.3, respectively, while Ethiopia’s were 27.7 and 59.2, Kenya’s were 22.2 and 49.4, Somalia’s 39.7 and 136.8, South Sudan’s 39.3 and 92.6, Sudan’s were 29.8 and 70.1, and Africa’s were 28 and 81.3 (see Figures 3 and 4).

 

In its brief existence as an independent country, Eritrea has experienced significant progress within health and health care. This has involved the fulfillment and protection of fundamental rights and serves to provide an important platform for socio-economic growth and development. Moving forward, the country should remain committed to improving the health and development of its greatest asset – its citizens.

 

Figure 1: Malaria Incidence (per 1000 population at risk)

malaria

 

Figure 2: TB Incidence (per 100,000 population)

tb

 

Figure 3: 2015 Neonatal Mortality Rate (per 1000 births)

neonatal

 

Figure 4: 2015 Under-5 Mortality Rate (per 1000 births)

under5


Eritrea: Some Clarifications

In Tancred, Benjamin Disraeli tells us how “[t]he East is a career.” Eritreans may be forgiven for thinking that likewise, for many mainstream analysts and experts, “Eritrea is a career.” Earlier this year a story on polygamy being mandatory in Eritrea was widely circulated across international media, and this week, an outdated, fictitious report about a North Korean ambassador commenting about Eritrea received considerable attention on social media. Although the stories were hoaxes and satirical, littered with innumerable fabrications and falsehoods – quite easily revealed by simple, perfunctory background research – their broad dissemination and attention poignantly encapsulate how coverage of, journalistic practice toward, and understanding about Eritrea are so problematic. The latest example of this trend is the article, “How the World Forgot ‘Africa’s North Korea’ Eritrea, and What This Means for Migration,” featured in the New Statesman, a British magazine (published 9 September). Not only is the article overly simplistic and lacking in context, it is strewn with inaccuracies and errors, and heavily tinged with paternalistic overtones.

 

Lacking originality, the author frames Eritrea alongside North Korea. In recent years, it has become quite common to see Eritrea, a young, low-income, developing country located within the volatile, politically-fractious Horn of Africa region, derogatorily described as secretive, the “North Korea of Africa,” or even the “hermit kingdom.” While such statements suggest Eritrea remains detached from the global community, closer analysis (of a number of objective measures) reveals that they are clichéd, cursory, and incorrect. In fact, one seasoned Western ambassador based in Asmara quipped, “those who compare Eritrea with North Korea have not been to North Korea and certainly do not know Eritrea,” while, last year, Norway’s Minister of Justice, reflecting upon his working visit to Eritrea, noted that descriptions of Eritrea (e.g. as the “North Korea of Africa”) were highly inaccurate.

 

Describing Eritrea, the author also utilizes phrases such as “self-isolation” and “a country that tries to seal itself off from the world,” suggesting that it has somehow chosen to isolate itself. This is, yet again, grossly inaccurate. The truth is that the international community, largely led by the United States, has pursued a policy of isolation toward Eritrea. Specifically, the country has been the target of an externally-driven strategy to isolate it, particularly through attempts at scuppering foreign agreements and economic deals. According to a leaked US embassy cable in Addis Ababa sent by Chargé d’Affaires Vicki Huddleston (dated 1 November 2005), the strategy of the US-backed Ethiopian proxy was to, “isolate Eritrea and wait for it to implode economically.” Moreover, a cable sent by Chargé d’Affaires Roger Meece (30 November 2009) reveals that the “USG [US Government] has worked to undercut support for Eritrea,” while another cable (2 November 2009) mentions that the German government’s rescinding of a credit guarantee to banks for a commercial loan of $US146m to Eritrea’s Bisha mining project was the result of “caving in to…American pressure.”

 

Even within this context, however, Eritrea has sought to establish beneficial partnerships and develop productive ties with a range of countries, organizations, and institutions. It is quite telling that on the same day the New Statesman published its article, the European Union (EU) and the State of Eritrea announced a new contract worth €18.7 million for the supply and installation of drip irrigation systems in Eritrea, while the signing of a bilateral Cooperation Protocol between Germany and Eritrea was also announced after a week of meetings in Germany involving Members of Parliament and a Senior Eritrean Government delegation. Notably, these announcements by Eritrea are only the latest in a growing series of significant agreements and partnerships with a range of countries and institutions, including – but not limited to – Finland, Cuba, China, Turkey, Japan, Russia, the UN and UNDP, GAVI, the African Development Bank (AfDB), and the European Development Fund (EDF).

 

It is likely that the author’s insinuations about Eritrea’s supposed isolationism are rooted in a lack of understanding about Eritrea’s “unconventional” approach to development and external aid. Specifically, Eritrea turns down aid when it does not fit the country’s needs or its capacity to use effectively. Eritrea does not reject external support – it actively welcomes it, but only when it complements the country’s own efforts. The Government has long encouraged  aid that addresses specific needs which cannot be met internally, which is designed to minimize continued external support, and which complements and strengthens (instead of replacing) Eritrea’s own institutional capacity to implement projects. This approach is rooted in a strong desire to avoid crippling dependence and to foster a clear sense of responsibility for the country’s future among all citizens.

 

Unfortunately, this approach is often misunderstood or even dismissed. However, the country’s determination to rely upon itself and promote independence should be encouraged, and external organizations and potential partners should be committed to working with it on that basis. In fact, according to Christine Umutoni, the UN-Eritrea Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Eritrea, which made considerable progress on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, “has a lot to share that could help formulate, shape and implement the post-2015 development outlook for the good of humanity.”

 

Importantly, the author’s hints about a famine are in stark contrast to observations by Eritrean ministries and international organizations. For example, consider the words of the head of an international NGO working in Eritrea: “at this time, East Africa is suffering massive hunger brought about by drought and El Nino. In the seven recent field visits our teams have made to five different regions of Eritrea and our work with communities and government, we have not observed acute levels of malnutrition. This is testament to the policy of storing and providing subsidised food. This perspective is shared by our development partners such as EU.”

 

The author also makes several other glaring errors. For example, the author refers to Eritrea’s economy as “decaying,” when in fact, according to several sources (including the IMF, World Bank, AfDB, and others), the economy has actually been growing. Additionally, in contrast to the author’s claims regarding Eritrea’s policies regarding national service and Sawa, students actually enter the program for their final year of secondary study and upon reaching 18 years of age. It is also important to note that since some students in Eritrea may start school late or even repeat grades, many entering Sawa may be in their late teens by their final year of study. Furthermore, since the author devotes considerable attention to national service, it would have been useful to note important ongoing efforts at reform (e.g. changes to pay-scales).

 

As well, the author’s comments regarding youth marriage lack understanding. Youth and child marriage in Eritrea were rooted in the country’s historical, cultural traditions. Viewed as a sacred societal institution, marriage was seen an integral component of society. Although specific rules and customs of marriage (e.g. dowry, familial arrangements, etc.) differed slightly amongst various ethno-linguistic groups, an underlying common feature was that girls were married at an early age. However, Eritrea has taken important steps (dating back to the independence struggle) to eliminate youth and child marriage. It has enacted laws and established strong enforcement mechanisms, including stiff penalties for physical and sexual abuse of children, as well as pornography. Encouragingly, there are many indications of an important reduction in child and youth marriages.

 

Ultimately, the author’s lackadaisical approach to these basic, simple details arouses doubt about his understanding of broader, more complex topics. Additionally, the author’s revisions to his errors in translation, after suggestions from Eritrean readers, raises the question of why such an approach to validity and clarification was not extended to other parts of the article prior to publication.

 

In addition to the above, the article is particularly troubling because in referring to Eritrea as a “child,” the author reveals a residual attitude from the bygone colonial era. Not only does it reflect paternalism and perpetuate hegemonic ideas of foreign superiority, such racist assumptions and ideologies were fundamental to the practice of colonialism. In the battle for the spaces of Africa, the so-called “dark continent,” European powers not only employed force, but also an array of theories and rhetoric to justify their plunder. Colonialism donned the dignified cloaks of la mission civilisatrice, civilizing the benighted heathens, and the white man’s burden. Africa was “the land of childhood,” and Africans were seen as inherently and naturally less than Europeans. Consequently, colonialism was characterized not by brute force or plunder, but the pursuit of a noble ideal.

 

Overall, in pointing out the many and considerable flaws of the article, the attempt is not to suggest that Eritrea is free of problems. The country is confronted by a myriad of significant issues and considerable challenges. However, it is critical to recognize that properly understanding the country (which can potentially help address many issues) requires a more grounded, objective, contextual approach and less resort to simplified, clichéd perspectives and cursory discussions.


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