Interview with Helene Bagirishya, Deputy Director of the CIRDI SUMM Ethiopia project

With 12 years of accumulated international experience in the non-profit, public, entrepreneurial and business consulting sectors, Helene Bagirishya has recently taken on the new role of Deputy Director with CIRDI’s Supporting the Ministry of Mines Ethiopia project in Addis Ababa. Helene started her professional journey with the SUMM project as an Organizational Development Advisor, eventually moving into the role of Senior Planning and Program Officer, and Project Deputy Director in 2019.

Throughout her career, Helene has been closely involved with community development projects in Canada and abroad with particular emphasis on capacity building, resource mobilization, local content application, project initiation and development, and value chain development.

Helene holds a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in Sociology with a specialization in International Development from Université Laval, Québec, Canada and is fluent in more than 5 languages.

Helene, you started working with CIRDI’s SUMM in 2017 as an Organizational Development Advisor. What inspired you to join the project and take this role?

H.B.: When I initially started working with the project, I was immediately drawn to its innovative approach focused on close collaboration between the programming team and the Ethiopian government. I noticed how in its early stages, the project illustrated a paradigm shift in international assistance program planning and delivery, where building local capacity and encouraging local engagement was integral to ensuring sustainability of interventions. During its implementation phase, the SUMM team has set some ambitious goals, and I was truly interested in taking an active role in their delivery. Moving into a managerial role as a Deputy Director is most definitely an experience I look forward to contributing to, as I am now able to contribute at a higher strategic level.

How does your experience prepare you for this job and this position?

H.B.: I started at CIRDI as an Organizational Development Advisor, which allowed me to quickly identify and review the intricacies of our partners’ organizational structures, gaps and areas of focus for support and improvement. Just in a matter of months, I was quickly drawn into creating systems and practical tools to increase the efficiency and the effectiveness of the project’s planning, monitoring and reporting. It led me to become the SUMM Senior Planning and Program Officer. I was then involved in overseeing the implementation of all project activities, monitoring and reporting on the outcomes. I was also involved in providing support and facilitation to the Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation directorates of both the Ministry of Mines and Geological Survey of Ethiopia. Not only did I get a full picture of the overall project scale, but I was also able to evaluate its outreach and identify the key focus areas to optimise sustainable delivery in collaboration with our partners. Finally, my evolving responsibilities and active role within the project prepared me to have an all-encompassing understanding of the SUMM interventions, to actively participate in the management of gained knowledge, as well as build fruitful relationships with our local and other Canadian partners.

You spent several years studying and working in Canada. What prompted you to relocate to Ethiopia?

H.B.: My academic and professional life all started in Canada, where I have evolved in multiple sectors: private, non-profit, public and entrepreneurial. The interest in finding ways to contribute to international development and education sectors has always been quite present in my life. Being connected to the African continent through my Ethiopian and Rwandan descent, I was always keen to find ways to build bridges. When I first moved to Ethiopia in 2015, I was looking for tangible ways to contribute to the community and to share my expertise and knowledge with young entrepreneurs, primarily through social entrepreneurship. Eventually, it became clear to me that contributing at a much larger scale would be closer to my values and interests – what could be better than being engaged in public sector reform? Thanks to the SUMM, I am now able to facilitate the creation and strengthening of collaborative environments between Canada and Ethiopia.

What do you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities within the SUMM Ethiopia project at the moment?

H.B.: The SUMM is most definitely an innovative and creative project that acts as a facilitator, a convener. It is designed to support the development of systems that will sustain the updated mining sector’s regulations; consequently, will lead to improved governance and increased contributions to the national economy. Moreover, the project doesn’t heavily depend on international expertise but rather builds upon contribution from local experts – consultants and resource persons – recognizing their instrumental contribution and facilitating sustainable actions. In essence, all project activities aim for the actualization of the co-factor, which refers to co-planning, co-sharing, co-funding, co-implementing. The collaborative and consultative nature of the project ensures that interventions stay relevant, aligned and integrated to the partners’ needs. These few examples illustrate the opportunities and the strengths the project was able to leverage. Within three years, the SUMM helped the Ethiopian extractive sector gain recognition and visibility, moving away from being a disregarded sector to becoming a priority in the Government of Ethiopia agenda (now considered as important as agriculture industry). The project’s greatest challenge would lie in the institutionalization of newly built capacity and supporting systems, which require time.

Often, international development organizations and aid agencies struggle with the concept of “local empowerment”. How is CIRDI SUMM project different in this sense?

H.B.: Like I mentioned above, the establishment of a true partnership between CIRDI SUMM and its Ethiopian partners is what makes the difference. Development of national ownership, local capacity building and acting as a neutral convener are the main principles that underpin the SUMM’s approach to public sector reform project. This concept is actualized through the development of multiple strategies – you can read more about it on the project website. Moreover, the project’s activities are not implemented in parallel with our partners’ activities, they are integrated; which reduces duplication, ensures alignment and complete appropriation of delivery. The project, therefore, serves as a supporting resource to achieve national and regional goals within natural resource governance sector.

Can Ethiopia’s resource wealth contribute to the country’s growth and transformation? What is your perspective on this as a new Project Deputy Director?

H.B.: Ethiopia has been long known as a country stricken by poverty and wars. But in the last decade, the national image has been redefined, and now the country is mostly seen as a regional stabilizing force with a lot of economic growth potential. Its extractive sector’s potential has been known and explored since Imperial times, but never truly tapped into. Ethiopia is endowed with a rich variety of minerals – industrial, metal, construction – as well as semi-precious and precious stones, including varieties of Opals that are only found in the country, and most recently discovered oil. A structured sector, that operates upon sustainable principles, and a strong regulatory body are key – not only to create a conducive environment for local and international investors, but to ultimately create new job opportunities for youth, and stimulate entrepreneurship.

What do you hope to accomplish in your new role in the next year?

H.B.: This upcoming year we will start operationalizing and institutionalizing the systems and structures whose ongoing foundational steps were laid in the last three years. With the valuable contributions of our teams based in Addis Ababa and Vancouver and ongoing collaboration with our partners, I aim to continue strengthening the project’s outreach and management. It is also important for me to focus on measuring the impact of the project’s capacity building interventions, to consolidate and exchange knowledge gained internally and externally, and to continue serve as a facilitator in important conversations about the future and impacts of the sector. It is a good time to be in Ethiopia and contribute to the country’s progressive transformational reforms. I have no doubt the SUMM project and its partners shall continue to achieve their targets, ultimately working toward the improved governance of Ethiopia’s extractive sector.