Haile Gebrselassie, shown celebrating after winning a gold medal in the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, rose from poverty in rural Ethiopia to become an international hero. (Photo by Darren England/AllSport.)
By Carol Clark
Haile Gebrselassie, the former Olympic long-distance runner, grew up poor in Ethiopia. He was one of ten children of a farmer, and developed his athleticism by running 20-miles, round-trip, from his rural home to school each day.
Now 41, Gebrselassie was a featured speaker at the 2020 Conference on Building Resilience for Food and Nutrition Security, held in Addis Ababa last month.
“We had just enough land,” Gebrselassie recalled of his subsistence childhood. The population of Ethiopia has since grown, the country is rapidly urbanizing, and the size of family farms are getting smaller. “On top of that, nowadays there are many other problems,” he said. “My province used to have very nice and cool weather, but the temperature has risen.”
Droughts and other extreme weather events are more frequent, and yet, Gebrselassie is returning to his roots, investing his earnings as an international sports star into an Ethiopian coffee plantation. “I’m doing the same thing I did before, that is farming,” he said in his address. “I’m planting coffee. It’s a better farm, a better way, a modern way.”
Anthropologist Peter Little and long-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie at the conference in Addis Ababa.
“His personal experience of not just getting through a life of poverty, but becoming a holder of 23 world records and two gold medals in the Olympics, is a powerful story of resilience,” says Peter Little, an Emory anthropologist who was also a plenary speaker at the conference.
Little, who has been researching pastoralist communities in the Horn of Africa for three decades, gave a talk about the resilience of these nomadic herders over millennia, and how they face unique challenges today due to climate change, conflict, and loss of land. Pastoralists have managed to weather these new shocks and develop new markets. “A billion dollars in live animals and animal products are exported each year from the Horn of Africa,” Little noted in his talk. He added that pastoralism may evolve into new forms, but it will continue to remain a viable enterprise.
The tri-annual development conference is sponsored by the International Food Policy Research Institute, which is based in Washington, D.C., and part of an agriculture research network funded by governments, private businesses, foundations and the World Bank. Heads of state, academics, and representatives of non-governmental agencies and major corporations were among the 800 invited guests at the event.
“A lot of different actors from the international community are interested in issues of poverty eradication. They are searching for new ideas and new ways of doing development work,” Little says. “The conversation is moving away from the focus on crises, to looking at how to build and promote resilience, especially in terms of drought and other natural shocks.”
Watch Peter Little's conference keynote in the video below:
The Horn of Africa “could be the poster child for the effects of climate change,” he says. The region suffered a major drought and famine in 2011, killing an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 people.
While many presentations at the conference considered the effects of that disaster, the discussions also reflected optimism for the future of the region and for the continent as a whole. “Africa is coming up as a major player in the 21st century, whether you believe it or not,” Little says. About 200 million to 300 million Africans are expected to enter the middle class during the next 10 to 15 years.
“Despite massive problems of poverty and conflict,” Little says, “a growing middle class is making things happen, and a lot of people are focusing on the enormous potential of Africa.”
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