Georgis Kefale, M.D.
Even as several Diaspora groups were preparing the mechanism for establishing an accountable and transparent Diaspora Trust Fund Policy, the Government of Ethiopia has recently announced the establishment of a donations receiving bank in Ethiopia and the names of various international fund transfer agencies. This is a timely step, as it will correspond with the visit of Prime Minister Abiy to the United States. On the face of it, it can be applauded and can jump start the call of the Prime Minister for a One-Dollar-Per-Day pledge from the Diaspora community.
I would like to point out my reservations and concern about such a move, before putting in place legal frameworks and accountability issues. The euphoria to support the Prime Minister’s call and the rush to raise funds seems to have glossed over the huge legal and practical implications of such a move. Let me mention some of these concerns:
- The euphoria around Prime Minister Abiy: In a very short period of time, Dr. Abiy has proved to us that he says what he means and means what he says. We are truly blessed to have such a leader at such a critical time in Ethiopian politics. That he is a product of EPRDF says a lot about how far that organization has come to bring democracy and freedom to Ethiopia. His election is not only the result of the hard work of the progressive elements within EPRDF, the Lemma Group, but also the vast opposition struggle of the Ethiopian people at home and abroad. The rights that the Ethiopian people have been fighting for is not something given to them by Dr. Abiy, or any other leader, but their inalienable Rights. So, we have to be careful when we show such commitment just because we love Dr. Abiy. More specifically, no Diaspora funds should be raised without transparency and accountability. Dr. Abiy can disappear from the picture at anytime. Even if nothing happens to him politically, Father Time is a running clock to all of us. Once he is out of the picture, the next Prime Minister will be in charge of these funds and can do what he or she wants with it.
- The mechanism of transferring the funds:
As I have outlined in my previous comment, I have tried to explain the tremendous cost incurred to transfer these funds. It may look like a small change when looked at individual contributions. But when you are talking about millions of dollars, it adds up to a tremendous amount of money. Money that we cannot afford to throw away when millions of our country folk are struggling to make ends meet. Food, clean water, proper health, education and more.
There are a variety of ways to capitalize on the tremendous support for the Prime Minister. I would like to point out some of these ways to make the campaign successful.
- People who give their money must have a mechanism in place to guarantee that their donations are not out of their control and misplaced. The Diaspora donors should not place their trust on one individual even if it is Dr. Abiy. A Diaspora Trust Fund Board must be established by stakeholders who will have a say in how the funds are raised, transferred and used. This will become a permanent board that will be a controlling arm, no matter who the Prime Minister is. It will have a significant role in on-going fund raising efforts in the future.
- Instead of paying a large sum of money to these international transfer agencies, we can establish our own Diaspora Bank run by professionals and owned by the Diaspora members who will be able to buy shares in such a bank. There are several groups working on establishing such a bank.
- The role of the Ethiopian embassies in the Diaspora should be to work very closely with the Diaspora Trust Fund Board and facilitate the fund raising efforts. No funds should be sent to the identified bank in Ethiopia without the Diaspora control. The Ethiopian Embassy in Washington DC did a great disservice by not allowing entrance fees to attendees at the convention center in DC, California and Minneapolis. Collection of donations at these venues were also banned. An important data collection (name, phone number and email at a minimum) opportunity was also lost, because of embassy decisions. Although the expense for these conventions were covered by individual millionaires from Ethiopia and a beer company, Heineken, a great fund raising opportunity was lost. Such funds could have been used to establishing a Diaspora Trust Fund Board or even donated to the one activity that thousands of Ethiopians attend every year, namely the Ethiopian North American Football Federation. Such a faulty decision is going to fracture the good will of thousands of Diaspora Ethiopians who have responded to the Prime Ministers call and may even be sending their money to Ethiopia, even as we speak.
In the short run, one can set up a holding station (special bank acounnt) in the country of origin where individuals can send their money and the money is transferred in bulk rather than retail. This will help in negotiating with entities like Western Union to get lower Transfer Fees. The Diaspora Trust Fund can also establish a non-profit arm so that donations can be tax deductible.
The other issue that will be raised very soon is the dual citizenship issue and representation of the Diaspora in the Ethiopian Parliament and a ministerial level Directorate in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
I beg and plead with our Diaspora members to exert pressure on our Ethiopian Embassies abroad to start a dialogue on this issue before collecting money from well meaning Diaspora Ethiopians.
From my brief observation, it has become very clear to me that the same embassy officials who have turned a blind eye to the Diaspora struggle in the last few decades, have now turned around to speak the same language as Dr. Abiy and are preaching to us love and cooperation, while running the same secretive ethnic based politics behind the scenes. When are we going to wake up to and demand an all inclusive, transparent and democratic system to happen in our embassies? When are we going to see the hyena in a lions cloth? When is this euphoria for one individual cease and become a true fight for democracy and a genuine donation campaign? I am not willing to be sold to such a hype and drama that takes advantage of a young and charismatic leader set to do good.
I beg for your understanding and a push for serious dialogue about this important issue before we lose our pants.