A top African aid official says children should be the center of development efforts on the continent. Muluemebet Hunegnaw is the deputy Africa director of the Save the Children international humanitarian organization. She’s currently a fellow at one of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions, Yale University in the United States. She says she’s using her time there to convince as many people as possible that large-scale progress in Africa is impossible without a sustained focus on the continent’s children. Hunegnaw, an Ethiopian by birth, concentrates in particular on HIV/AIDS in Africa and helping the international community address the pandemic that’s created millions of orphans all over the continent. In the first part of a series on African fellows at Yale, Darren Taylor reports on the efforts of Muluemebet Hunegnaw to improve the lives of her fellow Africans.
“I am one of the luckiest children in Ethiopia to have achieved what I have achieved today,” says Hunegnaw, who’s affectionately called “Mulu” by friends and colleagues in the African aid world.
The woman who controls an annual budget of more that one hundred million dollars and works tirelessly to improve the lives of millions of children in 11 African countries repeatedly describes herself as “fortunate” that she grew up in a provincial town in Ethiopia as part of a “large, middle-income” family that was able to provide for her basic needs and schooling.
As a child, Hunegnaw dreamed of being doctor or a teacher, but as she grew older, she says she simply “started dreaming of higher education.”
“I was lucky to be in a family where all of the children went to school, and being the seventh child among a family of ten children – looking at my siblings going for higher education – I wanted what they had. I had to live up to them. They motivated me,” she tells VOA.
After “driving” herself to achieve top marks at school, she studied at Addis Ababa University and then pursued a degree in development economics in England, at the University of East Anglia.
But Hunegnaw says she never expected to become a “fully-fledged” aid worker.
“I knew that I would be working on development projects – but not necessarily humanitarian work. But I definitely wanted to work on development, coming from a developing nation. That is what I wanted to do when I was in college, when I did economics for my first degree.”
She graduated, and a career in government in Ethiopia beckoned.
“I worked on development projects that connected me to poor communities…. But I never dreamed I would reach the level that I am now. And I am so lucky that what I’m doing now is such rewarding work,” Hunegnaw says.
For the past six years, she’s helped lead Save the Children, an international non-profit children’s humanitarian and development organization.
“What keeps me going every day is the realization that every day 28,000 children in Africa die from preventable causes…. So what drives me is to bring positive change to the lives of children,” Hunegnaw explains.
She’s responsible for the overall program direction of Save the Children in 11 African countries, supervising projects in basic education, health, food security, economic opportunities, humanitarian assistance and child protection.
“Children are our future; children are our future leaders. Saving children is saving a generation. So our focus on the children is to make sure that the future mothers and the future leaders are safe and protected (so they can) take over our world.”
Hunegnaw’s not daunted by what she describes as the “numerous challenges” confronting the African child – challenges she maintains represent a grave threat to the continent’s future.
“The obvious challenge which is facing African children now is HIV/AIDS. We have millions of children who are orphaned by HIV/AIDS, who need protection and who need basic services, basic health and education. Of course, the other challenge is conflict…. It’s exposing children (to) abuse and risk. Emergencies as a result of the conflict and as a result of other natural and other human, man-made disasters are also putting children at risk.”
But it’s clearly Africa’s HIV/AIDS tragedy that occupies much of Hunegnaw’s time.
“We’ve been doing a lot of work in terms of preventing continuous infections,” she says, before adding: “But I think the amount of money that goes into the sector – although it has been increasing over the last few years – has not been sufficient. More resources are needed to support programs that are aimed at curbing the epidemic, as well as also looking at the whole interrelationship between HIV/AIDS and poverty. Because I believe that in Africa, poverty really exacerbates the HIV/AIDS situation.”
She wants the aid sector to develop a “holistic approach” towards combating the pandemic on the continent.
“The children who are on the streets are constantly exposed to the risk of HIV/AIDS. They become involved in sex work; they need money to survive. So I think it’s important in Africa that when we look at HIV/AIDS we also look at it holistically: what causes HIV/AIDS and what exacerbates it.”
Hunegnaw’s convinced that the roots of the disease are to be found in poverty.
“We should be providing economic opportunities to poor families, to protect them from engaging in (risky) behavior, as well as (providing) access to treatment and care services. As much as the care and services are increasing now, only a very few amongst infected populations have access to the care and treatment that the technology is providing today,” she laments.
But Africa is not a “hopeless” continent, despite its problems, Hunegnaw stresses.
“The hope can come from within. We have to have accountable governments, [which] will make themselves accountable to their own people by establishing efficient systems that will provide services to their citizens. I think the hope can also come from the international community by making resources available to support these countries.”
Hunegnaw says the Millennium Development Goals for Africa won’t be achieved unless wealthier nations “keep their promises” and provide sufficient resources to the continent.
“But at the same time, African governments have the responsibility to make sure that they are using the right systems to manage these programs to support people to emerge from this vicious cycle of poverty.”
Before becoming deputy area director for Save the Children in Africa, Hunegnaw directed the organization’s programs in South Sudan, starting work there shortly after the ending of a decades-long war between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the Khartoum government.
“At this time, Southern Sudan had virtually no infrastructure. There were no schools, no hospitals; no health services whatsoever.”
Hunegnaw says even though millions of dollars have been poured into the devastated region, the need is so great that the funds have “hardly made a dent.”
“So in some of the areas which were made accessible after the peace agreement, it was starting from scratch. So my challenge was to start up a program in an area that was isolated for almost 30 years from the rest of the world. We’ve tried to establish basic services to the communities, to children and mothers, and to the community at large.”
Hunegnaw describes her experience in Southern Sudan as “one of the greatest” of her life.
“It was very challenging but very rewarding when people were able to get health services for the first time in their lives. For the first time they were safeguarded from preventable diseases, like Malaria, and children could get immunized, and also for children to get access to education for the first time. All these challenges are so big that we are still struggling to increase the impact we are having in Sudan, but I think we are on the right track,” she says.
And earlier this year Hunegnaw was selected as a Yale University Fellow, as part of the institution’s attempt to encourage visionary leadership around the world. The Ethiopian aid worker is now part of an exclusive group of emerging international leaders, now 106-strong, that Yale says forms the basis of a worldwide network of up-and-coming decision-makers in various fields – including economics, aid, business, politics and law.
Hunegnaw says the Yale program aims to create a “pool” of leading opinion-makers and experts in their fields, for them to be in constant contact with one another, for them to “bounce” ideas off of one another, in an effort to enhance African development.
“It’s a privilege to be recognized and to be selected for this kind of prestigious program. I was really honored…to be part of an excellent team of people who came from different countries, different backgrounds. In addition to what I would have learned by the end of this program, the network that I will create with these people, as well as with the other people in the university, is going to be a continuous resource for my work and my personal life,” she says.
But when considering Africa’s future, Hunegnaw sighs.
“I would like to see Africa free from hunger, an Africa free from conflict; an Africa free from HIV/AIDS. I mean that’s my dream, but it’s a very big dream. But I think it’s possible if all of us can play our share, and if the international community also plays a partnership that will bring Africa out of this cycle.”
On a personal level, Hunegnaw hopes to become a stronger leader through her work at Yale and someone who “never stops learning” and thereby contributing to better lives for her fellow Africans.