Addis Ababa tackles poverty with a solution as big as the problem itself March 22, 2024

Addis Ababa tackles poverty with a solution as big as the problem itself

Behind the scenes of a bold idea coming to life in an ambitious city.

March 22, 2024

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There’s something special in the works in Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian capital is taking on poverty by addressing early-childhood development (ECD), the first few years in a young person’s life, when early experiences make a critical difference in brain development and, as a result, in their foundation for learning, health, and behavior. In order to ensure all of its children reach their full potential, the city is utilizing a data-informed, portfolio-style approach at creating 12,000 playgrounds, deploying 5,000 parental coaches, transforming 1,000 preschools, closing 120 streets for play on Sunday, and much more. 

Mayor Adanech Abiebie
Addis Ababa Mayor Adanech Abiebie. Photo courtesy Mayor's Office of Addis Ababa

“Addis Ababa is working with the vision of becoming the best African city for raising children,” says Mayor Adanech Abiebie, who is laser-focused on leading her city—and her continent—forward, with the ECD work serving as a beacon.  

Mayor Abiebie has emerged as a standout of her cohort of the African Mayoral Leadership Initiative (AMALI) City Leadership Forum. The first major program helping local leaders across Africa develop critical new capacities, AMALI is a partnership between the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, Big Win Philanthropy, and Bloomberg Philanthropies. Each mayor develops a legacy goal, or a statement of purpose that speaks clearly and tangibly to their level of ambition and intended impact on citizens’ lives within a defined timeframe. And Mayor Abiebie has been crystal clear about ECD work being her top priority. 

As Edgar Pieterse, founding director of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town and co-chair of AMALI, explains, “Not only is her laser focus on children strategic and visionary, but it also exudes compassion and care for the most vulnerable in her city. It sets her apart from her peers.” 

Here’s an inside look behind the scenes of a big idea in a bold city, how it’s being brought to life by a strategic agency with a strong delivery orientation that is virtually unprecedented on the continent, and how it aims to inspire other cities throughout Africa and around the world. 

Setting a goal. 

In Addis Ababa, where the UNDP estimates poverty rates jumped from 18 percent to as high as 24 percent between 2016 and 2022, leaders are committed to reversing that trend. To get there, they’re zeroing in on early-childhood development because, as the city outlines in its comprehensive roadmap, “investing in the early years has been proven to be the most effective method for poor and vulnerable societies to break the cycles of poverty and vulnerability.” 

The city has set a goal of ensuring that 95 percent of its under-6 population—estimated to be approaching 1.3 million children—are developmentally on track by 2030. “Once you are able to invest at the right time of brain development…it means a lot in the future of the nation and the future of the city,” explains Dr.-Ing. Eshetayehu Kinfu Tesfaye, head of the Strategic Programs Management Office (SPMO), the delivery unit helping agencies work together and drive results in Addis Ababa. These investments, the city’s plan notes, also have peripheral poverty effects by improving the lives of caretakers, specifically mothers. 

Leaning on special strategic capacity grounded in mayoral vision. 

Mayor Abiebie’s support for the Strategic Programs Management Office has been critical to realizing her vision. She has been able to call consistently upon this dynamic, cross-sectoral agency to tear down the walls of possibility. Among other things, the agency serves to coordinate between the various sectors affecting children, like education, parks, and healthcare. It is also tasked with tracking performance, measuring success, identifying problem areas and, when necessary, course-correcting to keep the initiative on track.

But this capacity would not produce very much without an obvious mandate and political support from Abiebie. A former attorney general in Ethiopia, she realized ECD work had the potential to not just reshape life in her city but across her continent—and her ambition only grew when she began meeting with colleagues through AMALI.

“The scope and scale of ambition of Mayor Abiebie is unprecedented in the African context,” Pieterse says. “Her focus on holistic interventions to support young children is especially profound given that Africa’s median age is 19. Africa’s greatest asset is to ensure that it nurtures children and youth that can lead Africa’s economy into the digital and green 21st century.”

Implementing an all-of-government approach.

Effectively addressing a broad-scoped issue like early-childhood development requires a portfolio-style approach that tackles a wide range of problems—from inadequate daycare and preschool options to unsafe streets. As Eshetayehu explains, Addis Ababa’s effort is “multi-sectoral by its very nature.” 

That’s why the city landed on six interconnected initiatives, led by the Strategic Programs Management Office: parental coaching, community-run early-childhood development centers, publicly financed daycare centers, improved preschools, helping kids learn through play, and the establishment of a Center of Excellence. The latter is intended to provide research and a foundation for the work to be emulated in other cities. “They are already getting a huge amount of interest in replication across the continent,” explains Linda Gibbs, a principal at Bloomberg Associates, a pro-bono consulting firm that works with cities around the world. 

The city has also leaned on a handful of what it calls “cross-sectoral enablers” that help make this work as effective and disciplined as possible. In addition to a centralized governance structure, these include standards for accessibility and safety of programming and a plan for measuring and employing data.

The data work has included a baseline survey of existing ECD services, but also an effort to verify that the city’s focus on low-income families captures the range of need. To that end, with support from the AMALI data team led by JHU Bloomberg Center for Government Excellence alum Tiffany Davis, the city has worked to dispatch 300 door-to-door canvassers to help ensure no one slips through the cracks, and to employ geospatial data to identify where ECD facilities might need to be located. More recently, the city has been working to develop a dashboard to track results as they accumulate.

Centrally testing programs.

Unlike many cities that start the work in individual departments, Addis Ababa leads the pilots from a centralized delivery unit—the SPMO—to ensure consistency across the program and alignment with mayoral priorities. This strategy provides an opportunity to ensure new efforts are on solid footing before spreading them citywide, while also making the most of both city hall and departmental resources and expertise. 

Eshetayehu uses the example of open streets made available for children to play in on Sundays. Once the SPMO finds success with its pilot, they will hand over the program to an agency focused on women, children, and welfare as part of an effort to scale the approach and mainstream implementation throughout the city. 

While the work from Addis Ababa is far from complete, the fact that the city is already attracting so much attention raises the possibility of it serving as a model for a visionary plan around a multi-sectoral goal. In the meantime, the city’s leaders aren’t taking their feet off the gas pedal.

As Mayor Abiebie explains, “I would like to call upon our people to enshrine their legacy in contributing to this historic program.”