The headline in Britain’s Daily Mail couldn’t have been more triumphant: “Aid: Now they’re listening,” it shouted in huge letters.
The conservative paper was celebrating the withdrawal of British funding for an aid project in Ethiopia it has dubbed “the Ethiopian Spice Girls.” These “girls” are a five-member all-female band known as Yegna, or “Ours.” It was founded three years ago and produces a radio drama and music videos aimed at helping girls through the perils of adolescence in Ethiopia.
The Daily Mail attacked the project for years with a string of vitriolic articles, calling Yegna “the most wasteful, ludicrous and patronizing” aid project in Africa. That coverage apparently convinced Britain’s Department for International Development to withdraw its funding on Jan. 6.
Yet the aid agency had previously given the program high marks, presenting it as an innovative way to empower Ethiopia's young women. And while Ethiopia is the second largest recipient of British aid, getting $470 million a year, Yegna received only $6.4 million in total from the British government from 2015 to 2018.
Aid workers and activists say the rush to scapegoat Britain’s aid policy not only hurt a program that is helping adolescent girls but unfairly attacks the idea of using media for social change, a method development workers say is getting good results around the world.
Members of the Yegna band greet fans in the capital Addis Ababa
The show features the five members of Yegna, each from different backgrounds, confronting and overcoming many of the challenges specific to Ethiopia’s young women. Girls in this nation of 100 million suffer alarming secondary school dropout rates, domestic violence and a culture that in many places restricts them to doing chores at home. Many young women are also forced into early marriages.
The program was an initiative of Girl Effect, an organization that advocates for more development programs focused on young women across Africa. In Ethiopia, it hit on the idea of using music and entertainment to convince its audience rather than typical public service announcements.