“Twenty years of service to Ethiopia: Bidding farewell to John Graham”

Wednesday 7 June 2017

As we bid farewell to our Country Director, John Graham, we wanted to pay tribute to his contribution to Save the Children and Ethiopia at large through a special edition of our newsletter. In an exclusive interview with our communications team, John discusses his experience with Save the Children, his moments of triumph and uncertainties, as well as what is next for him. Enjoy the read.

We will just start by asking you how it feels to leave Ethiopia after twenty years- not just as a leader behind big development organizations like Save the Children but also as a person who may have worked out strong connections with locals and Ethiopia at large.

Obviously, there is a lot of sadness involved when you are moving on, and I think I am going to miss Ethiopia very much. I spent about 11 years with Save the Children and nine years with USAID. Therefore, I have had variety of experiences. I will miss it, but I am also fortunate that I have been able to travel to every part of Ethiopia. I do not think that I left any spot untraveled, and the thing that I will miss here is just the people and all the many friends I have made, and so on. However, these days, there are all sorts of ways to keeping in touch. I am sure we will be doing that.

Tell us about some of your major achievements and challenges as a country director with Save the Children in Ethiopia. The big highs and the big lows?

We have made some remarkable progress with Save the Children over the 11 years I was there, first with Save the Children UK and now Save the Children International. Early on, when I first came, we were engaged in developing Alternative Basic Education, which was something that was controversial with the government, but Save the Children and other organizations were able to prove that it worked very well. After some skepticism in the Ministry of Education, when they actually reviewed the program, they thought it was great. They reviewed us out in Jigjiga, and they said, “Wow, this is so good that we will adapt it to ourselves.” Of course, then, it was taken up by thousands of schools across the country. That is the kind of thing I like. We were also able to develop and redo the Early Warning System for Ethiopia based on the Household Economy approach. This was done because of terrible tragedies especially in the 1999/2000 drought in Somali Region, which unfortunately killed a lot of children. There was just no agreement on early warning at that point. So that gave us the impetus to redo the early warning system in Somali Region and then across the whole country. Now we are actually doing the second round of baselines ten years after the first ones were completed across the country. So, we are still contributing a lot towards early warning in Ethiopia.

Also with Save the Children UK, we did the large pilot programs that related to the Productive Safety Net Program. Through the support of USAID, Great Britain, Holland, and so on, we were able to do big scale pilots with 500,000 beneficiaries with 300,000 tons of food, in order to test the model of the Productive Safety Net. After the drought in 2003, the donors and government then adopted and expanded it now to over 8 million beneficiaries. So again, it is a kind of program I like – improve something and it is scaled up across the country.

In a way, that is contributing to the country’s national development policy and performance.

Exactly, and it is not just small projects which will help few people. These are big projects, well researched, which are helping many people. When it came back to Save the Children, there was a very good example of the Saving Newborn Lives program where we had done five years of research with Gates and with the Lancet magazine. We were able to show how to reduce infant mortality in the first 28 days by 60 per cent with simple techniques. Then, the government asked us to take that more broadly. We have taken that to two-thirds of the country in support of the government. Now it is about to wrap up.

I think we have had some very good and interesting successes in education with Literacy Boost and Early Literacy in Maths, which are also expanding. We are getting to take off. The Literacy Boost is now being taken up by the Tigray Regional government and taken across the whole region. I think we have also been able to do a lot on youth livelihoods. We are really developing some interesting models that I think everybody can learn from. We do well on that. That is a very critical area for Ethiopia right now. This is apart from the emergency work that we have done. You know, I think that the proudest moments we will end up with are the ones where you can look back and say the lives of many many children were saved or dramatically improved because of the efforts that we have made. I have been involved in droughts in Ethiopia since 1984. However, I think with Save the Children UK, what we were able to do in 2003 with response to the drought then, and what we were able to do this last year, 2015 and 2016 with Save the Children International – the largest drought response by Save the Children in any country anywhere in the world ever, is remarkable. We also provided a lot of leadership in terms of helping to tell the world about the situation, helping to provide leadership in the donor community, in the NGO community, and so on. I think that is something we are very proud of. We made great strides in emergencies for child protection, and for education in emergencies which are areas which are neglected as well as doing massive food security, health and nutrition programs. We have really broadened our scope. It is exhausting, but I think very satisfying.

I understand why you keep saying ‘we’ because it is not something you can do all alone. You can only make it happen with your staff, all the resources available and so on. However, how has the model of leadership you have pursued over the years played into all these achievements?

Well, I have to be careful to be modest, you know, because as you say, it is a team effort. This is all about the team. Save the Children, in 2015 and 2016, had a remarkable team all the way from the top leadership of Save the Children International. . The members were fantastic, and they supported us. Save the Children was the 12th largest donor to the Ethiopian drought compared to other countries and no other NGO makes the list. We were larger than countries like Denmark and China in our contributions and all that came from the hard work of the members. That money was very useful because we had a lot of freedom to spend it on the highest priorities. We did not have to go through a long process with donors. We were able to save many lives with that. It is also because of the team here. People take on extra burdens and we even take many additional staff on. That is a big workload all the way from SMT down to the area offices, and so on. Everybody just took it up with a real Save the Children spirit, and we did go out to save children because everybody was working together. I hope what I was able to do was to provide a good voice about what the situation was here both nationally and internationally. I have also done some writing and publishing on emergencies and emergency responses in Ethiopia. I was able to share a lot of the history and to help to improve on past performance in previous droughts and I was very happy that the donor community and the humanitarian community were willing to listen to that. I think for these members and so on, I was to be able to go visit and host their visits by them so they could fully understand the situation. The advantage for me, of course, is that I have been here a long time and I worked on many droughts. That gave me both the ability as well as the responsibility to speak out more and to even go out on a limb in order to make sure the right message was heard. I am very pleased with everybody on that.

What is next in line for you?

Well, I have been working on some academic work. I went to the University of Manchester, took a break and have written a couple of draft papers which I hope to have published. I am talking to various publishers. I am also developing links with academic institutions because I would like to be more connected to academic institutions. I do like writing, and I have my two books on travel in Ethiopia. I have written hundreds of articles on Ethiopia on various topics. I would like to share my experience on Ethiopia, of 20 years of living here, but overall almost 33 years of some involvement on Ethiopia. I would like to share that. People have been asking me, “Oh, can’t you share your experience?” I do want to put that down on paper and publish articles as well as books. I am interested in doing all that, but I want to take a bit of a break. I have been resisting job offers saying, “No, give me some time.” However, Save the Children has been very good, and they said they want me to come back to work with them. I think I am too young to retire, so I just do not mind. I could get bored as easily as well. I will be planning to be back to Ethiopia in October for some events. So, I think that you will not get rid of me.

Oh, not at all. Actually, my next question is, do you want to maintain your ties with Ethiopia? How do you plan to do so?

Absolutely! I mean Ethiopia has been such a big part of my life. My wife and I feel it is time for us to go back to Canada. Our kids are there. They are grown up, but we want to be close to them and other members of family. Our family in Canada has complained for a long time. They say, “You have been away in Africa for all these years. We want you to come home.” Therefore, I think it is time to do that, but, on the other hand, I think as long as there are people who feel I have something to contribute, I am happy to come back and to work on those issues. Plus, I think there is a lot of things we learned in Ethiopia which are applicable to other countries especially around this sort of job recovery, resilience and how that connects to youth and migration. That is the kind of work that I am interested in pursuing, in Africa or globally.

Finally, do you have a piece of advice for the incoming Country Director, Ekin Ogutogullari, in managing this massive Save the Children program and its mosaic of staff?

(Smile) I have been teasing Ekin quite a lot because; we know each other very well. He has been here for 17 months now. He has been a very good Deputy Country Director for national programs. He now knows quite a lot about Ethiopia. We have traveled together and I have taken him around to meet Ministers, donors and other people that I know very well. I have total confidence that Ekin is a very good choice. He has a lot of experience, he has been a Regional Director already, and he has been a Country Director. I will just say, of course, Ethiopia is so huge, and that is a particular challenge. We also have a complex and diverse program. We also have an operating environment that has its challenges. I think all of those things require we get the best person we possibly can. I think Ekin is suited to this position. I tease him and say, “We have to find somebody who is nuts enough to take this job.” But, all kidding aside, I think that it is a good time for change; it is time for some fresh blood. I came into Save the Children just a year after transition, and we have tried to pull it together all into one Save the Children and to make final model that works for a really big organization, but also continue to grow. We have grown quite a lot since the merger. So, I think that we have got to a certain level. Now I am very happy to pass it on. I think we got most of the things that needed to be fixed have been fixed. Now it is easier to hand over and say “Keep the machinery going.” In addition, there are so many demands here and we have to be very nimble with donors and new money and so on and so forth. I think we have some very good prospects. For me, I feel like I am leaving the organization in good shape and happy to hand it over in this way. I hope Ekin will take the organization to new levels and new heights beyond anything I did.

Thank you very much and good luck with your future.

Thank you.