The much publicized Diaspora Day was concluded on Sunday where some five thousand Ethiopians and Ethiopian origin members of the diaspora were thought to take part. Well, when one contemplates what the possible justification for this event might be, an immediate answer that might come to mind is government’s increasing drive to engage the diaspora; perhaps more than ever, writes Birhanu Fikade.

By Birhanu Fikade |

It was two years ago that the government officially designated the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) to oversee diaspora related matters in Ethiopia. This mandate was officially granted to the ministry after the first diaspora policy of the country came out in 2013. Those matters include annually hosting diaspora day celebrations. Thousands of people, who are members of the Ethiopian diaspora community, are invited to join on the celebration. But this year, it is unique in the sense that the diaspora day celebration was held for close to a week. Unless one tends to excuse MoFA–for it is the first time it hosted celebration of this caliber–the overall organization and coordination of the event leaves a lot to be desired. For starters, although the first event on Wednesday, which was held inside the colossal Millennium Hall, was planned to kick start around 2:00PM in the afternoon, there was little by way of official activities until 5:00PM. Well that level of inefficiency was evasive throughout the week to say the least.

A glimpse of the policy

Designating annual diaspora day is one of the components of the new diaspora policy the country has envisaged back in 2013. Formulating the policy itself for some was a remarkable step by the government. According to a report by the Diaspora Policy Institute in 2013, diaspora policies are best exercised when engagements are channeled in a two-way street; where all parties involved see clear rewards. It argues that the focus of the policies needs to be on promoting mutual benefits and working together. But a closer look at the Ethiopian diaspora policy document reveals that most of the contents resembles more of mission statements or are rather nested in more generalized statements. For instance, the policy document suggested how the government is looking keenly into engaging the diaspora in investment, trade and tourism activities. But it remains shy of stipulating how the diaspora will be received, on what conditions, in what circumstances and what services and supports the government extends for the diaspora investors; most of these issues are vague at best.

Two years after the policy has been enacted, many of the proposed activities and setups still remain to be concepts on paper. One good example here is the drafting of a proclamation which the policy proposes but still remains a work in progress. Furthermore, the policy also contains propositions like looking into ways of encouraging the flow of hard currency from the diaspora into the country but fall short of detail explanations. According to the policy document, the government will “craft and implement a mechanism for returnees to come home with their entire capital and property”. How that works, however, is yet to be figured out. On top of that, the policy also says that it will promote the inflow of foreign currency and for that it seeks to put into place a system of rewarding members of the diaspora who are sending money home via the legal channels. However, there is still no such working system.

Expect the unexpected

For many, who are members of the diaspora, it this expectation – the expectation that the government will go the extra mile to put in place a functioning system to attract diaspora investment that brought them home and possibly driving them to look into the opportunities in the economy. But this has not always been the reality. Seble Nebiyeloul, a medical professional, has returned home three years ago to set up Zinnia Aesthetics and Anti-aging clinic (a unique skin care clinic even rare in the US) and AvailaMed Business Technology Products, a firm which was looking to handle real time data and metric reports and the like mainly for the healthcare sector, precisely to capitalize on this promise.

For Seble, it is the existing system she wants to see functioning properly. She says that she cares less about special rewards or the various incentives instruments designed for the diaspora investor. In an interview with The Reporter during the diaspora day event at the Millennium Hall, she spoke out about how the bureaucratic red-tape, the misconducts of government officials and the corrupt behaviors  of some officials, disdainful customs clearance procedures and so many other obstacles is taunting diaspora investment in Ethiopia.

Nevertheless, Seble, who lived in the US for over thirty years, says that Ethiopia is rather attractive for potential diaspora investment. “There are ample investment sectors to embark on,” she said. However, she stressed on the severe information asymmetry regarding potential investment opportunities in the economy. Information and communication is big issue, Seble argues, and that she says are part of the reason why she is considering relocating one of her businesses to neighboring Kenya.

The idea of setting up a luxurious clinic which caters mainly for skin health and medical conditions relating to aging, according to Seble, was well received at first by the Food, Medicine and Health Care Administration and Control Authority (FMHACA). She has spent two years to receive the go ahead from the authority after a careful review of her proposal. She also said that she has invested some ten million birr for this project.

To her dismay, the authority has suspended the license only eight months after entering the market. Although the grounds for the cancellation are somewhat understandable, Seble is frustrated by the lack of flexibility from the side of the authority. According to her, it was about putting in place a specialized medical professional in skin and anti-aging care sector. “Although I needed one year to bring in licensed and qualified professionals form the US, the authority was not willing to be patient and moved to cancel the license,” Seble says. The clinic was finally closed after functioning for no longer than eight months.

Stories like Seble’s are exactly the kind of issues that needs to be looked into, according to commentators. It is the duty of the government to listen to and address the concerns of the diaspora community in a more fashionable way, commentators say. If the government is planning to tap into potential financial and technological resources that the diaspora community brings with it, it needs to come more than halfway, they argue. On top of that, the existing political polarization in the diaspora community would be more reason for the government to go the extra mile and draw in this community.

In his exclusive interview with The Reporter, Yohannes Assefa, director of Diaspora Business Forum, said that it is the political divide which overwhelms the minds and hearts of most of the diaspora community in the US. Yohannes is one of the elite diaspora members who have a serious attachment with his home country for past decade or so. Yohannes is highly engaged in business and investment undertakings in Ethiopia. He said it is unfortunate and inevitable for his non-partisan, non-political organization to be affected by propagators of both the oppositions and the ruling party.

“We don’t get involved with politics either way. We care about Ethiopia and its business and investment relationships with the US. We want to be a positive influencer and contributors to Ethiopia’s development. Unfortunately, some people take this as a political action saying that we are supporting the government,” Yohannes said.

“There are some people in the diaspora who don’t understand our work and oppose what we do. But we disagree with them. Here in Ethiopia there are people who don’t understand our work. For some people the diaspora community is part of the opposition and we disagree with them as well. People being silent don’t mean they don’t love their country. There is a difference between politics and country. But the negative perception gets in a way both in the US and here”.

Hence, for the government engaging and attracting the diaspora in such circumstances appears to be a more rigorous job to do.  It is actually high time for the government to venture on diaspora capital in many ways by providing the required services, by vowing to avoid bureaucratic hurdles.

While opening the diaspora day on Wednesday, President Mulatu Teshome (PhD) said that the diaspora’s involvement in investment over the last decade is not something that is taken lightly. He said that the Ethiopian diaspora has a few hundred projects to its name over the past decades accounting for a total investment capital of one billion dollars. “That is not enough,” the president said. It is simply not enough since a lot is expected from the diaspora, he added. As per Yohannes’ estimates, lately the level of diaspora investment in Ethiopia has surpassed some three billion dollars. This of course is on top of the three billion dollars remittance that is contributing to the country’s balance of payment, he argues. Yohannes keenly says that the USD six billion total contribution from the diaspora community is not something that goes unnoticed. The government also acknowledged on the event the USD 30 million the diaspora contributed towards the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), so far.

With regard to the experience of other countries, perhaps countries like India and the Philippines are few countries to consider. According to the Foreign Minister, Tedros Adhanom (PhD), India has some 25 million diaspora spread across the world and amasses over 70 billion dollars annually from this section of the society. Compared to that, Ethiopia has an estimated two million diaspora population across the globe. Literatures in the discipline indicate that African countries like South Africa and Nigeria are the major recipients of big sums in form of diaspora remittance. Tanzania as well is making efforts to attract more diaspora investments and remittances, as Tedros outlined. These countries have articulated the necessary legal infrastructure and enabling environment for the diaspora and looks to be ripe to tap into the 50 billion dollars of savings the African diaspora is predicted to accumulate every year worldwide. Africa currently receives some 40 billion dollars of diaspora money via remittances, investments and trade and the like. But Ethiopia has got a long way ahead to tap the best out of the potentials of the diaspora. Both Yohannes and his fellow members of the diaspora community argue that there are potential investors and entrepreneurs out there who are still contemplating to take part in the country’s economic development.

Defying the pessimism

Against all odds, certain pertinent diaspora businesses and individuals are on the spotlight in this country though. To begin with, people like Zemedeneh Nigatu come to mind. He is one of the earliest returnees and prefers not to be perceived no more as diaspora. In that regard, Zemedeneh has contributed a lot. Running Ernst & Young Ethiopia as a managing partner, Zemedeneh is known for consulting giant companies to come and invest in Ethiopia. Diageo is one specific UK firm which recently came via the facilitation of Zemedeneh to join the Ethiopian beer market acquiring the state-run Meta Abo Brewery. He has been instrumental for several local and international companies to operate here.

Captain Solomon Gizaw, founder of Abyssinia Flight Services and Commercial Pilots Training School, Capitan Abera Lemi, founder of National Airways, Addis Alemayehu, founder of 251 Communications Company, Tadios Belete, founder of Kuriftu Resort and Spa, Asrat Legesse (MD), founder of Adulala Resort and Spa, Munir Duri, CEO of Kifiya Financial Technologies and Daniel Gizaw, CEO of dVentus Technology PLC are few individuals who have stepped up and made the system work for the diaspora businesses here. To add more, Tamrat Bekele and Akeza Teame (MD) are the two diaspora pioneers recognized by the Ethiopian Diaspora Business Forum this year for their roles in the healthcare business. Tamrat Bekele co-founded the International Clinical laboratories, a subsidiary of MedPharm Holdings Africa, which he has founded in 2003 in the US. Akeza Teame (MD), a practicing medical doctor, co-founded Saint Yared General Hospital and the American Medical Center.

Even though there is a need for extreme improvements, Yohannes and fellow diaspora members are bullish in pursuing the opportunities this country can offer; as they say with great opportunities comes great challenges.

Source: The Reporter
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