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Tessie San Martin, President/CEO of Plan International, is a seasoned executive with more than 25 years’ experience helping to address gaps in education, economic growth, capacity-building, corporate governance, political reform and labor policy globally. Her work has taken her to Egypt, India, Mexico, Bosnia, and Indonesia, among other countries, where professional initiatives have involved supporting disenfranchised populations, a significant number of which are women and young girls. Capital’s Fitsum Abera sat down with her to talk about Plan International’s work here in Ethiopia. Excerpts;
Capital: Please tell us a bit about Plan International and your role in the company.
Tessie San Martin: I am the national director/CEO of Plan International in the United States. Our objective, our role and our mission in the US is to support our programs in the field and all over the world. Ethiopia is obviously a focus of ours. So that is why I am here.
Capital: How long has your company been working?
Martin: Plan international USA is actually the first office established by our organization and that was 75 years ago. So it was established in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War to help the children that were orphaned as a result of the conflict. I think we started working in Ethiopia about 16 or seventeen years ago.
Capital: What does your job entail?
Martin: My job in the US is to look for and mobilize resources to support our programs in the field. Those resources come from individuals, corporations, foundations, or from large donors like the U.S. government and the World Bank.
Capital: Is this your first visit to Ethiopia?
Martin: No. I was in Ethiopia in 1991. I came here with the UNDP to help them develop a strategy. Obviously it was during the conflict. Then I came here again in 1992 at the request of USAID to help them develop their strategy for the private sector. I haven’t been back since. It has changed quite a bit.
Capital: So you came to visit your Ethiopian Projects. What is their status?
Martin: I came here with some of our donors. Like I said before, Plan is funded by individuals from all over the world. I am responsible for those individuals in the USA that fund these projects. So we brought several of our major donors and also the chair of my board to become acquainted with the projects that we are doing here in Ethiopia, to understand some of the challenges and really understand the work that we do here. It is excellent work. I mean one of the things that I have seen over the years that I have worked in Plan is we work very effectively at the community level. Sometimes the best way to get our donors to support us even more is for them to see the great work that we are doing on the ground.
Capital: So who are your major donors? Who came to visit your projects?
Martin: They are individuals. We have corporations that help us but these were strictly private citizens. They are people who give their own money because they want to help improve the lives of others. In this case they were very interested in seeing what we are doing and to support activities increasing the access to education for girls. So we took them to see the projects that we were doing in Addis. We are working with very poor, marginalized families to help them to work with both the parents and the students to support them to get to school, improve their self-esteem and self-confidence, to train teachers so that they learn better in school. We saw those projects.
Capital: How many countries is plan active in?
Martin: We are active in 50 countries hopefully soon 51 with the inclusion of Nigeria.
Capital: What social problems are unique to Ethiopia?
Martin: I don’t know if they are unique to Ethiopia. Ethiopia is a very interesting country because it is so rich in culture and history. It has one of the oldest civilizations. Clearly it is a rich country. The people are incredibly bright and entrepreneurial. They want to go places. It is also a country that has had harsh conflicts over the years but it is now peaceful and stable. With more peace comes more investment. I can see the investment all around me now. I think over the last few years Ethiopia has had one of the fastest growth rates in the world. I believe it was last year or the year before it was number twelve in the world;growing at more than 10%. The question is how do you translate that growth and investment in all of the infrastructure into growth and improvement in the lives of the people in the community.
Capital: So are you saying that for Plan International there are no problems that exist only in Ethiopia and no where else?
Martin: I don’t think there are problems that don’t exist in other countries. Ethiopia is not the only country that struggles to bring water to the community. That is a really hard task. So in Ethiopia and other communities we work with the community and the local authorities to bring water to those communities, to improve sanitation and hygiene. We work with schools and teachers to improve curriculum and the training that teachers have so they can teach better. So the challenges that Ethiopia has are not unique to Ethiopia. They are challenges that exist in other countries. Ethiopia is such a rich country, there are some countries that are really poor and you look around and say wow this is really going to be hard. Because they don’t have many resources, they might be landlocked. Ethiopia has resources. Most of all it has people that are smart and entrepreneurial. It is about taping into that richness that the country has.
Capital: How is the struggle against FGM?
Martin: I think the interesting thing about FGM is that there are laws which prohibit it. It is a question then of being able to enforce them. That issue is also not unique to Ethiopia. In many places you have laws in the book already. You have really good laws. Then the question is how do you get better enforcement of the laws? I think that takes educating the individuals to know that those laws are there for their protection. We need to educate the broader family and the community of the traditional leaders. In that process the community itself can be the one that is asking for better enforcement of the existing laws. But it starts with better knowledge about the laws that exist. But the laws are good.
Capital: Tell us about the ‘Because I am a girl’ campaign.
Martin: The concept of that project is to improve the access that girls have to education. We know that when girls are educated all kinds of good things happen to them and their community. If they can finish school, they are also less likely to marry young. When they have families those children are more likely to be educated well and better nourished. It is a virtuous cycle. If we can get girls to school and get them to finish school and have some skills, really good things happen for their countries and communities. Here in Ethiopia we have a number of programs that are funded under that campaign including the one that I took my donors to in Addis.
Capital: Which project is that?
Martin: We went to the school Hibret Chebo. It is one of the many schools that are under this project. We talked to the teachers, students and found out the activities that were being provided. It is a lot of simple things. We look at why girls are not getting to school. In part it has to do with the parents themselves who might not have the money to buy books or uniforms. We initially might provide some assistance to them but fundamentally we also provide access to the mothers, we help them put money in savings and loan associations. Which enables them to then begin saving. They get income which they can then use for their business which enables them to have more money. They can then ensure that their girls get their education. We work with the parents around better nutrition. We work to create parent-teacher collaborations and dialogues to ensure that the facilities are well maintained. The girls themselves were very impressive. The girls we talked to wanted to be journalists, doctors… it is very coo.