Niall O’Brien — A donor’s journey through Ethiopia

December 17, 2018
Written by Niall O'Brien

A long-time New York-based supporter of Concern, Niall O’Brien, will remember 2018 as the year he got to see Concern in action. In October, he joined our Sylvia Wong on a trip to Ethiopia — and it was an eye-opener. This is his account.

A long time coming

Niall O'Brien surrounded by smiling children in Ethiopia.

Concern Worldwide U.S. supporter Niall O’Brien surrounded by smiling children in Ethiopia.

Ten years ago, I was asked if I would consider a trip to the field to see the humanitarian work first hand. It didn’t take me long to state that there was really no need for me to go as I had seen a handful of videos at the Concern Winter Ball in New York and therefore had a great appreciation for the work being done. Of course, the reality was that I was probably sub-consciously too concerned with what I may see.

Ten years and ten more Winter Ball videos later, Dara and Sylvia from Concern’s development office broached the subject again. I was about to default to my standard answer, but this time fell short of making the same excuse, so I asked for some time to think about it.

A year later, I was on my way to Ethiopia for a week.

Touchdown, Hawassa

Yellow cans for carrying water in Ethiopia.

Yellow cans for carrying water.

We met Abram from Concern and took a short flight to Hawassa from Addis Ababa, capital of this ancient land. Within minutes of leaving the Hawassa airport, subsistence living and poverty was immediate. It was like arriving on a different planet. We could see generations of families on the back of donkey carts carrying distinctive yellow cans of water traveling for miles on never-ending windy, muddy roads. This appeared to be a daily chore of traveling hours to and from the water sources. This vision set the irrigation theme for the next few days.

Children in Ethiopia.The town of Hawassa had an electric atmosphere; donkeys, motorbikes, goats, people and tuk-tuks all jostling for space on the newly built roads. New building suggested substantial recent investment and a hopeful transition from old to new. However, water scarcity was always prevalent regardless of perceived class. Motorbikes, tuk-tuks and donkey passengers all had the yellow cans in hand. This was a leading indicator on how damaging drought can be to the region.

Leaving Hawassa and heading more into the rural areas, the roads were dotted with kids walking to schools. It was encouraging to hear that every kid now gets elementary education (but some do walk 5 miles each way to get there). The dropout rate for high school girls in particular remains an issue.

Resilience, graduation, and evidence

Concern trains the villagers in cash management to help their sick, feed livestock, trade at market and prevent the dreaded soil erosion and associated soil fertility issues. Erosion during the rainy season can wipe out a year’s crops in minutes if not properly dealt with.

We drove what seemed like an eternal 45-degree angle into a village in the mountains close to the town of Sodo where poverty and breathless landscape co-exist in equal measure. I wasn’t quite sure what we were doing there but soon was to learn all about the very inspirational Concern “REGRADE” project. REGRADE stands for Resilience (RE) + graduation program (GRAD) + evidence (E).

The project is designed to be a co-op-like venture within the villages for the communities to help themselves. Concern targets extremely poor villages generally with a 4-6 months hunger gap. These villagers would not be able to access funds aside from money lenders who eventually strip them of the vital livestock assets when they can’t make payments and therefore perpetuate the poverty life-cycles.

Villagers in Ethiopian gathering.Concern trains the villagers in cash management to help their sick, feed livestock, trade at market and prevent the dreaded soil erosion and associated soil fertility issues. Erosion during the rainy season can wipe out a year’s crops in minutes if not properly dealt with.

A dozen villagers and beneficiaries sat patiently waiting for us. The villages under the guidance of Concern establish co-op committees to oversee the funds segregated into a) savings, b) social security/emergency fund (grant, not loan), c) penalty for not paying loans and d) loan interest.

They hailed the project as an absolute success. They were all clambering to tell us how life-changing this has been. The cash management program has been used to grow and sell vegetables at local markets, improve the quality of local bananas (due to better soil) and trade livestock with other villages at the market.

They beamed with pride as the words “we may be poor, but we too can save money” resonated deeply. The sense of community purpose was very prevalent in their words and the excitement at passing these skills to the next generation brought smiles to everyone.

Worku Tutie Ethiopia 2018 Trip



Worku Tutie:

“We realize we can save even though we are poor, we have financial resources.”



Tekle Tesma Concern Worldwide Ethiopia 2018 Trip



Tekle Tesma:

“We are passing our knowledge to our children, for the next generation.”



Concern Worldwide Ethiopia 2018 TripNext stop was a land rehabilitation site. We walked along a mud track and suddenly some of the most amazing views opened up. We were looking down into a lush green valley speckled with different garden patches.

Nursery plots were dotted at the base of the valley. These contain demo plots where locals are trained to grow, cook and eat their own vegetables. A din of bustling workers echoed in the background. Some of the nurseries are communal and some farmers have their plots. Some come to the nurseries to take seedlings home. Our Concern field staff explained the rotation to us. The project has been instrumental in educating beneficiaries to help themselves to help their own communities.

The next day we met at the local Concern office, were introduced to some of the staff, and caught a glimpse of the many well-deserved awards and recognition won by the team.
We visited a number of irrigation set-ups in the remote villages. What looked like a simple contraption: a number of taps in a cement block, was in fact a lifesaving successful engineering feat. The field engineers explained in great detail, the planning, the sourcing of water, channeling and pitching from springs in the mountains.

Yellow cans for carrying water in Concern Worldwide Ethiopia 2018 TripThe chatter and laughter at these irrigation stations was loud, indicating that daily water gathering doubled up as a social event. Committee members from the villages keep a careful watch at the stations. Different villages are allotted time slots.

They were lining up to tell us how happy they were with the station and how it saved them traveling 3 miles every day as they had done previously. In addition, the large number of crops now growing during the dry seasons is testament to the success of these projects.


Tom’s project

Irrigation Hub Water Collection Concern Worldwide Ethiopia 2018 Trip

A Concern irrigation hub nears completion.

We then went to another irrigation hub which was nearing completion. I found out that one of the supporters of this hub was a great Concern benefactor, recently deceased, who for many years was also a great supporter of the Winter Ball I attend annually in New York. His generosity and compassion is far and wide — and certainly won’t be forgotten in Ethiopia. The irrigation hub supplies water to the land with a life-line during the dry season.

Given the amount of work we saw the first two days, it felt like we had been there for a month! We obtained a great sense of the depth of the work done in the region. Amidst all the positivity, there was always the lurking issue of drought.

Many other communities still need help, and issues such as inter-village disputes could unravel some of the great work being done. This is where the Concern field staff are constantly monitoring and educating villagers to ensure programs stay on course.
We headed back to Addis to connect to Gambella the next day to see more of the same… or so I thought.


I don’t think any number of Concern Winter Ball videos, social media or advertisements really prepare you for your first trip to a nutritional center in a refugee camp. The Pugnado 1 camp is home to approximately 65,000 refugees from South Sudan, many of whom were farmers in their own homeland.

Once we walked through the airport doors in Gambella, the large army and UN presence suggested a different vibe to this region. This region is home to nearly half a million displaced refugees (mainly from South Sudan) due to ethnic conflict. Charities on the ground in this region balance their focus between the local (host) community and the refugees.

Pugnido Field Office Concern Worldwide Ethiopia 2018 TripAfter three hours of bumping along on a meandering mud road, a predominantly corrugated iron shanty town emerged.

As we were pulling into the Concern compound in the middle of the town, I did state to the driver that I could see immediately the need for Concern’s help here. He smiled politely and informed me that this is the local town (host community) and that the refugee camp was a few miles further out… Oh.


Hut Concern Worldwide Ethiopia 2018 TripI don’t think any number of Concern Winter Ball videos, social media or advertisements really prepare you for your first trip to a nutritional center in a refugee camp. The Pugnado 1 camp is home to approximately 65,000 refugees from South Sudan, many of whom were farmers in their own homeland.

I always understood the term ‘camp’ to be temporary and assumed that people would return at some point or settle fully elsewhere. This notion was quickly dismissed when we met people living in the camp for 25 years, people born and bred there. Although, still harboring thoughts to move home, they were very grateful to the aid they were receiving.


Field Office Notes Concern Worldwide Ethiopia 2018 TripWe visited two nutrition centers in different parts of the camp. These are a hive of activity. The proximity to the refugee camp has saved mothers bringing their malnourished children three miles for an appointment.

Kids are measured (upper arm) and weighed in baskets to determine their coefficient of nutrition. The most bustle is in these rooms as everyone awaits their turn (appointments are now weekly). All details are carefully recorded in paper appointment books. There are not any computerized systems or spreadsheets.

Women and Children Concern Worldwide Ethiopia 2018 TripConcern holds itself to very high and transparent standards. Performance indicators are displayed for both refugees and locals versus national averages on large sheets pinned to the walls. I couldn’t help myself eyeing down to the patient mortality rates. It was great to see zeros everywhere and I’m sure this was not the case before this center’s existence.

The highly trained Concern staff detailed the purpose of each room with us.

The centers focus on:

  • Infant/toddler nutrition and wellbeing (constantly monitoring progress
  • Education for new mothers (including feeding)
  • Supplying food such as Plumpy’Nut  (an innovation pioneered by Concern) and oat-based formula.
  • A special treatment facility houses women whose babies were born prematurely.
Niall O'Brien (right) stands with Peter, a refugee working as a translator in the camp.

Niall O’Brien (right) stands with Peter, a refugee working as a translator in the camp.

There is also a complaint office… glad to report that this was empty!

Some of the refugees take jobs at the centers to assist the Concern staff and encourage their community to visit the center to reap the benefits. We met Peter, a refugee, who works as a translator (with near perfect English, taught in the refugee camp.) He has been in the camp for more than 20 years and would still like to go home where he was a maize farmer, but is resigned to the fact that may never happen.

Backyard Gardens

Concern Worldwide U.S. Community Engagement and Program Manager, Sylvia Wong (right), with Kuony, a gardener who has lived 25 years in the camp.

Concern Worldwide U.S. Community Engagement and Program Manager, Sylvia Wong (right), with Kuony, a gardener who has lived 25 years in the camp.

The purpose of these is to educate and train refugees how to grow and maintain vegetables to encourage them to use such skill in patches next to their own one room homes. Various crop sowing and rotation techniques are taught by the staff. Some refugees take on small roles for a stipend to keep the communal backyard gardens in shape. Here we met Kuony Reat Lam. He informs us that he is the gardener (also 25 years in the camp). He described the different crops, the rotation, and the need for pesticide in great detail.

Curious kids wandered after us. They were always laughing, smiling, and wondering who the ‘Faranje’ (foreigners) were. They found looking at pictures of themselves hilarious. Although I couldn’t help wondering where they would be in ten years, it was refreshing to see the huge positive strides in medical facilities, nutrition, and education to afford the next generation a possible exit from the camps.

The big city

Addis Ababa, the capital and largest city of Ethiopia, lies right in the heart of the country and is home to nearly 3 million people. We began our first day day there with a presentation on the highly successful job creation program in Addis.

The program combines local vocational training with public and private partnership investment in education. The focus skills are gypsum work, plumbing, barbering, leather work, auto painting, metal work, and bamboo.

Zerihun Meshesha stands by his cabinet creations. Concern Worldwide Ethiopia 2018 Trip

Zerihun Meshesha stands by his cabinet creations.

Zerihun Meshesha — Cabinet maker
Having graduated from the program only a few years ago, he now has his own staff, workshop and a steady business as well as a 1 year old child! The program tapped into skills he didn’t realize he had and added the business acumen needed.

As we were ending the meeting at his workshop, he pulled out a piece of paper with a sketch on it. It was a detailed design of a very clever mobile recycling unit that he is working on. He has seen the need based on the plastic bottles strewn all over the market place.

The program is not only helping people with new skills but also tapping into an entrepreneurial confidence.

Wionsht Archrt, bamboo maker and business owner. Concern Worldwide Ethiopia 2018 Trip

Wionsht Archrt (left), bamboo maker and business owner.

Wionsht Archrt — Bamboo maker
She set up her own business as soon as she graduated. She re-invested some early sales success to travel to China to hone her skills further. She has a bustling business and her own stand (next to established multi-national companies) at international fairs.

The program’s targeting of women is injecting the local workforce with a number of creative and highly motivated entrants who never had any opportunities. When I asked Wonsht what she was doing before the program. She looked puzzled by the question … “nothing, no work — people like me don’t get opportunities like this usually.”


Back to the Big Apple

It would be an understatement on various levels to say that the trip was amazing. I will never forget the people I met, the stories and the overarching positivity in the face of adversity. The sense of gratitude to Concern from the communities was overwhelming. I come away feeling fortunate that I have had a chance to experience firsthand a snippet of the great work and progress in the field conducted by the Concern staff. I am also too aware that there are even worse emergency situations in existence and that there is a need for continued support.

I would like to thank Alessandro, the country director, for arranging such a great week and spending a lot of his own personal time with us. Also, the field staff in Gambella and Hawassa/Sodo, who spend many months away from their own families to pursue this vocation. Then there are our field drivers (I will never figure out how they drive some of those roads!) and of course our drivers in Addis. The team from the urban program impressed us greatly — thanks to them. And finally, thanks to Sylvia for enduring my stories for a week!

Thank you Concern for all the work you do!

Niall O'Brien (center) with his wife Pauline Donohoe (right) and Noelle Keane (left) at Concern's annual Seeds of Hope Award Dinner.

Niall O’Brien (center) with his wife Pauline Donohoe (right) and Noelle Keane (left) at Concern’s annual Seeds of Hope Award Dinner.

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