In November 2006, I traveled to Ethiopia to join an international medical mission organized by ‘Operation Smile;’ a twenty-five year old, non-profit organization, based in Norfolk, Virginia, which provides free cleft palette and cleft lip surgery to the economically disadvantaged worldwide. Teams consist of plastic surgeons, nesthesiologists, nurses, students, medical record organizers and a range of other professionals and assistants. I had been charged with a photography mission, visually documenting the operation and its participating personalities. All members are volunteers who work arduously, and often welcome the opportunity to do so time and time again.
My sense of awareness had been heightened since the announcement of my deployment to Ethiopia, although the Prague-Addis Ababa flight did not do justice to the great economic disparity occurring 28000 feet below. I arrived several days prior to the commencement of the mission, wanting a chance to explore the city. In spite of the usual reminders of life in the developing world, comfort, safety and security were in plenty. There was little evidence that the Ethiopian armed forces – one of the largest and most professional armies on the African continent – were readying itself for a ‘self-described’ humanitarian intervention in neighboring Somalia. Personal security risks seemed remote, and even the risk of common street crime, (despite sticking out as a rare Caucasian), were small. In a country where a range of different ethnicities, cultures, religions and linguistic communities interact, and where the struggle for basic survival persists, general security was assured. I freely visited large outdoor markets, random shops, and local restaurants, without worry.
One of the first, and most absurd, visions a foreign visitor confronts in Addis Ababa is the abundance of embassies and NGOs. The city is very literally an ‘alphabet soup’ of acronyms and flags of every nation imaginable, all adorned in heavily-guarded structures. With such a great international presence, it is easy to conclude that Addis Ababa is one of the more developed, advanced and prosperous cities in the region, if not on the continent. Well-intentioned aid-workers wonder aloud if there are simply too many actors in the city, and though an excess of aid money and experts seems positive, perhaps it has created a barrier to any real development as the city and its residents have fallen into the trap of dependency.