Ethiopia’s “Spice Girls” are the first victims of a tabloid campaign for the UK to cut foreign aid

A victim of conservative views.
A victim of conservative views.
Image: Reuters/Siegfried Modola
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The British government has stopped funding an aid program aimed at empowering Ethiopian girls after a concerted campaign by tabloid newspaper and Conservative party politicians to cut foreign aid spending.

The UK’s Department for International Development announced on Jan. 6 it was pulling funding to Girl Effect, a non-profit that uses pop culture and mobile technology to empower young girls that it has supported since 2010. Conservatives took issue with the organization’s main outreach program: Yegna, a band of five young Ethiopian women who use their music, talk show and weekly radio drama to talk about early marriage, gender-based violence, education and self-worth.

“Empowering women and girls around the world remains a priority, but we judge there are more effective ways to invest UK aid and to deliver even better results for the world’s poorest and value for taxpayers’ money,” the department said in a statement on Jan. 6.

UK foreign aid spending on groups like Yegna have been the target of criticism by the Conservative Party MPs and the Daily Mail tabloid for some time. In a 2013 article, the tabloid dubbed the band “Ethiopia’s Spice Girls,” and argued that UK support had benefited band members while missing rural girls most in need of a message of empowerment. In 2015, it called continued funding of the program one of the “10 most outrageous ways British foreign aid has been spent.” Reacting to the announcement of the funding cut on Jan. 6, the tabloid described the UK’s support of the group as a “’blood boiling’ waste of taxpayers’ money” amounting to more than £9 million (just over $10.9 million).

Yegna (pronounced yen-ya) is part of a multimedia campaign to get communities to think differently about girls and their potential, according to its creators, who have started a similar campaign in Rwanda using a girls’ magazine. Girl Effect was originally also funded by the Nike Foundation and the NoVo Foundation at its inception, but became independent from Nike in 2015 in an effort to address criticism (pdf) about its accountability and financial management practices.

Girl Effect CEO Farah Ramzan Golant said they were determined to expand the project, despite the recent cut. The organization responded to news of the cut by citing its A-grade rating in the department’s annual evaluation for three years in a row. In its own assessment, Girl Effect found that 76% of the girls who listen to Yegna said they were inspired to continue their education, while 95% of boy listeners said they would now speak out if a girl was forced into marriage. Representatives of the Girl Effect declined to comment on the Daily Mail‘s coverage.

The Daily Mail began a focused campaign last year to highlight “waste in the £12billion foreign aid budget at a time when social care is in crisis.” Citing its own investigations, the tabloid alleged that funding was being funneled to terrorist cells and despotic governments and started a petition to get lawmakers to debate the 0.7% of the gross national income dedicated to foreign aid.

International Development Secretary Priti Patel, elected in July last year, has demanded greater transparency and more careful foreign aid spending, in line with core conservative principles of her party. Just days before severing ties with Girl Effect, Patel was questioned by fellow lawmakers over her department’s continued support of the program.

Opposition parliamentarians and activists have criticized the foreign aid department’s apparent capitulation to conservative criticism. “It’s wrong to let Yegna to hang out and dry. They were the babies of the British Council, the former British ambassador to Ethiopia and the Nike Foundation. They all brokered this deal for the betterment of Ethiopia,” said British Ethiopian poet and broadcaster Lemn Sissay.

“No policy, project or program designed to improve the lives of destitute and marginalized people around the world seems exempt from right-wing media criticism,” Labor party parliamentarian Kate Osamor told the Guardian newspaper.