Abebe Haile-Gabriel

The community at ISS is truly international

Abebe Haile-Gabriel

ISS PhD graduate from Ethiopia

Abebe Haile-Gabriel talks about obtaining his PhD degree at the International Institute of Social Studies, about his subsequent career path and about his position and vision on development work.

Tell me, what was your thesis about?
‘My PhD thesis was about development strategies and Ethiopian peasants. I have always been fascinated by the interface between policy and practice, with the conviction that positive policy outcomes would be possible only through empowering people at the grassroots level. My PhD was an attempt to see how development policies and strategies over a period of time have been shaping production conditions and livelihoods for the majority of the people in Ethiopia. Most of the people in Ethiopia are rural producers.’

Abebe Haile-Gabriel PhD graduation

How has this theme played a role in your career path since then?
‘Like I said, the interactions between policy processes and practices intrigue me a lot; and it is important to understand how the dynamics between these processes play out. My experience at the African Union, where I served for more than ten years in various capacities, accorded me a unique platform and opportunity to engage with high level policymakers in Africa – including ministers and Heads of State and Government. It was a unique opportunity to advocate prioritization of agriculture and the rural economy within the transformation agenda.’

Why did you make the move from the African Union to FAO?
‘Although we did great things, one of the lessons I have learned at the African Union, is that it was not so easy to translate political commitments to the local level. This partly motivated me to join the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). FAO has strong capacities and structures that can better support policy and actions in member countries.
However, I still consider my current position as both a continuation of what I was doing before and a complement to it. At FAO, we work both at policy level with governments and partners, and also facilitate and support development and change at the grassroots level, working with communities, with farmers, with pastoralists, with women and young people. We see the challenges they face on a daily basis, but also the opportunities and their innovativeness towards meeting these challenges. And we witness improvements in their lives and livelihoods.’

‘My experiences at ISS have prompted me to explore opportunities to join international organizations that are committed to supporting development efforts in Africa’

How is this related to your studies at ISS?
‘For me this experience is a reconfirmation of what I have learned during my time at ISS. At ISS I was reading and writing about policy neglect and social exclusion as root causes for lack of progress in agricultural and rural development in Africa, while emphasizing entitlement and empowerment as important solutions. These arguments are still valid and through my work, I continue to advocate and support policy effectiveness and social inclusion towards addressing those challenges.’

Why would you recommend ISS to others?
‘My journey to ISS, 33 years ago, was my first ever international travel. One of the best things about ISS is that your classmates and professors come from different countries all over the world. Although it is based at the heart of Europe in the Netherlands, the community at ISS is truly international. We had discussions both in and outside class, heavily drawing on alternative development experiences. It was the coming together of many different perspectives. This was for me a revelation, as it must have been the case for many of my classmates. And I felt quite at home.’

In what way has ISS helped you in your current career?
‘My goal when I first came to ISS was to prepare myself to be a good academic at the university where I came from, in Ethiopia. But after my experiences at ISS, I started to explore opportunities to join international organizations that are committed to supporting development efforts in Africa. Countries face increasingly common development challenges. They have a better chance of addressing these challenges more effectively if they could collaborate. And I believed that my expertise and experience could enable me to contribute in this regard.

‘I see the relevance of what I was studying at ISS in my work every day’

 think my ISS experience may have instilled in me a sense of a better confidence to be more open and engage internationally. When I joined the African Union, I was initially posted in West Africa, the first posting in my international career. At that time, I was not even able to communicate in French. But I was not intimidated by this because I had the experience of meeting and working with people from all over the world. Studying at ISS opens you up to the world.’

What is the most important thing you learned?
‘Policies and strategies matter, but they need to be deliberate in terms of addressing the empowerment of the affected people. Development is not something that is available for the affected people to receive in a passive way. It is something that they can achieve through active engagement. Development is not charity; it should be earned. It should be intrinsic and integral to the system that it aims to improve. I see the relevance of what I was studying at ISS in my work every day.’

Where is Abebe  now?

Abebe Haile-Gabriel is Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Africa, of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). He is based in Accra, Ghana.

He can be contacted at Abebe.HaileGabriel@fao.org

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