Dr Getnet Alemu completed his PhD on the nexus between economic growth and foreign aid in the local Ethiopian context. After receiving his degree in 2002, Getnet joined Addis Ababa University, working on various research projects linked to his degree.
Building connections with unexpected long-term benefits
In 2011, a project on community-based health insurance (CBHI) brought Getnet closer to ISS again. Together with Professor Arjun Bedi, Dr Robert Sparrow, Professor Marleen Decker (from Leiden University) and two other then-PhD students (Dr Zelalem Yilma and Dr Anagaw Derseh) the team conducted four rounds of household survey on 12 pilot districts in Ethiopia. The findings established CBHI and helped scale it up to the current 900 districts it is working in. Twelve years later, several of the original team members remain involved, with new expertise coming in to strengthen the project, including several from ISS. The concept has been brought to the urban informal sector and the team is now exploring and designing features to fit CBHI into an overall urban community as well.
I remember one time I sat in the Butterfly Bar for a few days, 1-2 hours a day, and I realised I was meeting people from at least 10 countries every time.
Around the same time, Getnet was working with Erasmus University Rotterdam and the Dutch government on an impact evaluation of two water supply and sanitation projects implemented in Addis Ababa and Adama in Ethiopia. Busy and engaged as he was at the time, what he values most about these experiences is the connections, especially within ISS. When asked about favourite moments or achievements in his career since his PhD, Getnet says:
‘What I get from these projects is the network. Of course, when you do an academic project there’s publications and reputation involved, but personally the most important thing is the network I have established! I feel I am part of the ISS staff without being formally on the payroll – the contacts I have gained are so strong, and the linkages I have built are so valuable and productive. I think I can also say that especially the CBHI project has contributed to the image and work of ISS as much as it has enriched me, and that is my biggest take away.’
Roses but also thorns: the journey of doing a PhD at ISS
At this point, the conversation moves towards Getnet’s experiences at ISS itself. He starts by talking about ISS’s internationalism: a common theme amongst everyone who spends time in the institute. In his view, ISS is like a mini-UN. It is possible to meet people from almost every corner of the world, and the uniqueness is how all these different cultures, political stances and social experiences come together naturally. In addition to the training ISS gives formally through classes and research, ISS provides informal training around communication and cultural respect, which, as Getnet suggests, is hard to come across in other institutes to the same degree.
But it’s never all roses. As we progress into the challenges of his chosen career, Getnet mentions one of his biggest: speedbumps in the supervision process within ISS. But in retrospect the challenges he faced actually strengthened his PhD in the long run, pushing him to be more critical of his own work and creating more impactful outputs. Sharing his thoughts, he slowly segues into the challenges the field of development studies itself faces. As he puts it:
‘What we learn is not a bible. If, as we work, something needs to be changed, we need to change it. The most important lesson I learned from development studies is that it seeks to understand the interplay between culture, economics, politics and society at different levels. There is no single entry point to solving a given problem. You need to have multiple entry points and all of them come from different expertise. That is the most important contribution of development studies, that you look at so many different angles and perspectives every time.’
Extrapolating further, he refers to the changes the field has undergone in the past two decades: whereas previously there were distinct donor-recipient relationships, development studies now looks at the partnership that needs to be formed at the various levels of involvement. And while touchpoints like gender equality or environmentalism are becoming more prominent topics of conversation, Getnet’s perspective continues to focus on the role of development cooperation and community impact even when accounting for these areas, asking the question of how to protect policy and people when it comes to aid and top-down intervention. To an extent it is taking place, but it is up to people like Getnet to show us how meaningful these connections can be.
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