Ethiopia and Finland: solving 21st century challenges with longstanding partnership

By Ville Tavio

The year 2024 marks the 65th anniversary of Ethiopia and Finland’s diplomatic relations. The two countries’ bilateral relations are based on long-term and successful development cooperation since 1967. Nowadays the partnership between Ethiopia and Finland stands as an example of international cooperation based on shared interests and reciprocal respect. The two countries share more similarities than might meet the eye.

In 1917 Finland gained independence from the Russian Empire. At the time, Finland was one of the poorest countries in Europe, less developed than today’s Ethiopia, with an average life expectancy of only 46 years. The transition to independence was tumultuous, leading to a brutal civil war that claimed approximately 39 000 lives. In the aftermath of the war, the nation was more divided than ever. The country was grappling with instability fueled by rapid population growth, industrialization, urbanization and need for modernization.

How does a nation heal from such deep wounds? For Finland, addressing poverty and inequality became paramount. The deep disparities in well-being threatened the stability of both society and the economy. Ensuring internal stability required giving everyone a stake in the nation’s economic progress, making equal opportunity for all a key objective. Thus, Finland embarked on creating a welfare society that offered healthcare, education, and opportunities to everyone equally. This could not have been achieved alone. Finland was a recipient of development aid and loans from the World Bank. Now Finland is among the financier countries.

Gender equality and education for all were foundational to our newly independent society. Women had achieved universal suffrage and access to higher education even before independence. Especially after the wars in the 1940’s, the idea that equality and inclusion could bring prosperity by harnessing everyone’s potential guided Finland’s development. Inclusion is rooted in the belief that societies are stronger when every voice is heard, regardless of gender, disability, or age. Gender equality and equal opportunities to education quickly became Finnish exports. With a challenging development history, Finland also saw the advantage of seeking partnerships in development and trade early on.

No national history is the same, but aspects of Finnish history might sound familiar in present day Ethiopia. The key lesson for Finland has been to build a society where no one is left behind. This is also what the Ethiopian-Finnish partnership is all about.

Ethiopia and Finland have long cooperated in the education, WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) and agriculture sectors. According to our experience, investing in education and the entire knowledge chain from early childhood to higher education, science and innovation can transform a nation from a poor and rural society into a thriving economy. To address this, Ethiopia and Finland are working together to strengthen inclusive education and education in emergencies in Ethiopia, ensuring every child’s access to school. A major aspect of these partnerships is national ownership of the projects and the agency at national, regional and community level.  

In the WASH sector, Ethiopia and Finland are celebrating 30 years of collaboration this year. This collaboration commenced in 1994 with the Rural Water Supply and Environmental Program in the Amhara Region. Nowadays, the collaboration continues in a project called COWASH IV.

Ethiopia is already well on its way to growth, the country is one of Africa’s fastest growing economies with a young and dynamic population. Finland’s country programme in the development sector in Ethiopia is renewed for a new four-year period, but the countries are simultaneously seeking more and more opportunities in trade and investments. A key area of recent collaboration is digitalization and networks, since the recent openings in the telecom sector. Finnish high-tech company Nokia is already present in Ethiopia and working in widening the accessibility of Internet connectivity. The EU and the Finnish state-owned development financier Finnfund have recently launched the Global Gateway Africa Connected programme that aims to mobilise one billion euros for investments in digital infrastructure and solutions in Africa. Ethiopia is one of the programme’s partner countries. Investment in the digital leap is improving access to information, enhancing educational resources, and creating new economic opportunities.

As for future challenges, climate issues affect us all. Both Ethiopia and Finland place a high value on sustainable development and environmental stewardship. Their partnership addresses the adaptation to climate change. One adaptation solution, where private sector solutions can play a big role, is meteorology, including early warning systems. Proper meteorological services and early warning mechanisms are one of the best and most cost-effective ways to adapt to climate change. Finnish Vaisala Corporation and the Finnish Meteorological Institute are already working on a project with the Ethiopian National Meteorology Agency improving the agency’s weather observation systems. The improved observation systems will ensure that timely and accurate information about natural hazards and impending disasters reaches the citizens and weather-critical sectors, such as agriculture.

In an increasingly interconnected world grappling with shared challenges, the Ethiopia-Finland partnership offers valuable lessons. It shows that enduring relationships are built on trust, respect, and a commitment to mutual benefit. As international challenges become more complex, collaborative spirit and partnerships benefitting all parties become increasingly important in finding solutions to problems like stabilizing the economy, climate change and setting equal opportunities for all.

Ville Tavio is Finland’s Minister for Foreign Trade and Development

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