The Singapore of Africa

It’s amazing how the fate of nations could change in the span of decades. In 1994, the tiny central African nation of Rwanda seemed to suddenly succumb to a level of carnage not seen since the Second World War (notwithstanding other under-the-radar conflicts like the Congo War).

Over a period of just 100 days, up to 1 million people were slaughtered by paramilitaries and even friends and neighbors, mostly by machetes and small arms. Already poor and politically dysfunctional, Rwanda was ignored and let down by the international community even in its most calamitous state—how could it ever recover from such an orgy of bloodshed and neglect?

Well, close to thirty years later, recover it has. While undemocratic and undeveloped, it has made incredible strides for a nation that faced one of the most horrific genocides in human history. How could Rwanda, of all places, become so stable and economically sophisticated?

“There are a few fundamentals you have to understand. Firstly, our country is the same size as the U.S. state of Maryland, but our population is around 12 million people. Secondly, we have no natural resources — no oil or gold or anything else that countries benefit from,” explains Claudette Irere, director general at Rwanda’s Ministry of Youth and Information and Communication Technology. “This means the only way for us to move forward and to build our future is to empower people and make good use of technology. With this strategy, we are shifting our country from an agrarian economy to a knowledge-based economy.”

Rwanda is beginning to leapfrog developed countries in fundamental areas such as smart city infrastructure, vocational training, and strategic foreign investment. As of January this year, 4G/LTE networks cover more than 95 percent of the country, and a mix of public and private players are working together on a national roll-out of fiber-optic broadband. As its citizens and businesses get connected, Kigali is becoming an African hub for multinational tech companies, including Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

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Between 2001 and 2014, Rwanda achieved an annual growth rate of 9 percent and earned a global reputation as an attractive business destination. According to the World Bank’s 2018 Ease of Doing Business Index, Rwanda has risen above countries like Italy, Belgium, and Israel to become the 41st most business-friendly nation on earth. Rwanda was also the index’s biggest business reformer, with activities like starting up, registering property, paying taxes, and enforcing contracts all becoming increasingly easier in the country.

“Urbanization is becoming more of a challenge for things like traffic and public transportation. This creates a lot of opportunities for technology and innovation,” Irere says. “Working with global companies that lead in areas such as the internet of things (IoT) is helping us understand the problems we must solve before our city grows beyond our control.”

Kigali has even developed a culture of digital entrepreneurship that seems straight out of Silicon Valley.

One local company that’s making the most of Kigali’s digital infrastructure is ride-hailing app SafeMotos, founded by a Canadian entrepreneur who fell in love with the city. Road traffic collisions are a significant problem in Rwanda and its neighboring countries, with 40 percent more road deaths occurring per 100,000 people than in low- and middle-income nations in any other part of the world. To combat this problem, SafeMotos provides drivers with smartphones and pulls data from an app to measure their performance on trips. Customers are connected only with drivers who meet a certain safety threshold — an algorithmic score of at least 90 out of 100.

To be sure, Rwanda is far from idyllic. The moniker “Singapore of Africa” is apt in more ways than one: Not only is it an island of relative stability, development, and technological progress, but like the southeast Asian city state, it is also low-key authoritarian. Its president, Paul Kagame, who is credited with helping defeat the genocidal regime and carrying the country though to its recovery, has been in power since 1994—and is slated to remain in power until 2034, thanks to changes in the constitution that he has presided over. He won 99 percent of the vote in the most recent election, while critics from journalists to government officials have been imprisoned for their insolence; some may even have been assassinated.

The country is even pioneering the use of drones to deliver medical supplies to remote communities and enforce its COVID-19 lockdown. By the standards of Africa and even the world, Rwanda has one of the lowest rates of corruption, which no doubt accounts for a lot of its business success.

“The most obvious example of this was the inquest into the assassination of Patrick Karegeya, Rwanda’s former head of external intelligence, who was strangled in a South African five-star hotel on New Year’s Eve 2013. In January 2019 the case opened in a courtroom on the outskirts of Johannesburg, a city where every news agency and broadcaster, from AP to Xinhua, AFP to Reuters, the BBC to DPA, has an office. It was a story on a par with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi or the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in terms of international interest, massively diplomatically embarrassing to the Rwandan government — the South African Hawks hold it directly responsible — and the courtroom was a ten minute taxi ride from various well-staffed newsrooms. When I turned up, I was astonished by the pathetic press turnout. At first I assumed that the victim’s family and lawyers just hadn’t been very efficient at getting the word out, but if anything, press attendance got worse as the days passed and more and more hugely awkward details — all of them wonderfully quotable as they were being revealed in court — were brought to light. A massive opportunity missed.”

Such repression is not only obviously unjust and problematic in its own right, but it threatens the country’s incredible progress over the last 26 years since the genocide. Rwandans have demonstrated remarkable resilience, innovation, and creativity, but all that will be hard to maintain under the shadow of such a paranoid and stifling regime. I can only hope this promising success story can expand to more than just economics and include a free and democratic country—where such potential and prosperity can truly be unleashed.

Source: Lauren Razavi

What an Ancient Broken Femur Says About Civilization

There is an apocryphal story about the anthropologist Margaret Mead that has a timeless and universal message, though it’s relevant now than ever.

Years ago, she was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about clay pots, tools for hunting, grinding-stones, or religious artifacts.

But no. Mead said that the first evidence of civilization was a 15,000 years old fractured femur found in an archaeological site. A femur is the longest bone in the body, linking hip to knee. In societies without the benefits of modern medicine, it takes about six weeks of rest for a fractured femur to heal. This particular bone had been broken and had healed.

Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, you cannot drink or hunt for food. Wounded in this way, you are meat for your predators. No creature survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. You are eaten first.

A broken femur that has healed is evidence that another person has taken time to stay with the fallen, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended them through recovery. A healed femur indicates that someone has helped a fellow human, rather than abandoning them to save their own life.

Many thanks to my friend Arthur K Burditt for sharing this.

The Most Powerful Cities in 2035

The future of humanity will be driven by the rapid growth and power of cities—especially in the developing world.

Today, Tokyo is the No. 1 city in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), with an estimated $1.6 trillion GDP. But by 2035, it will be supplanted by New York City, which will have a GDP of $2.5 trillion—larger than all but a handful of countries. Two more of the world’s richest cities will be American—Los Angeles and Chicago—while four will be in China, the most of any country in the world. London, Paris, and Tokyo are set to round out the last three.

Altogether, these top 10 cities will have an astounding $13.5 trillion in GDP by 2035 (to put it in perspective, today that would be the third biggest economy in the world).

In terms of population, all but one of the world’s biggest cities in 2035 will be in developing countries (Tokyo is the sole exception). Most are not well known: No. 1 will be Jakarta, the bustling capital of Indonesia, while others will include Chongqing (China), Dhaka (Bangladesh), Kinshasa (Congo), and Lagos (Nigeria).

While not shown in these graphs, all the world’s fastest growing cities in terms of population will be Indian.

Economically, India will make up three of the top five of the fastest growing cities, including No. 1. China will claim four slots, while the remaining three will be the capitals of Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Source: World Economic Forum

The Politics and Pragmatism of Progress

We might find the W.H.O.’s politics unseemly. At times they are certainly troubling, especially regarding Taiwan. (Though in fairness, most of the world, including the powerful U.S., has also officially shunted Taiwan in deference to China.)

But they are an inevitable, if not necessary, evil for an organization run by 194 countries full of rivalries, self-interests, and division. Its weaknesses very much reflect our own. International cooperation is not about singing kumbaya and getting along harmoniously; it is the sober and practical realization that, however divided the world is, there are problems bigger than any one country can handle (look at how the richest country in the world has struggled to contain this pandemic). That means making difficult, imperfect, and sometimes even maddening compromises.

It took working with a murderous bastard like Stalin to beat the Nazis in WWII, with the Soviets accounting for 80-90% of Axis losses at the cost of tens of millions of lives. (We also had to work with the bastard Nationalists and Maoists in China to accomplish the same feat against Japan, with the Chinese tying up most Japanese forces at similarly horrific costs.)

In the context of public health, this is nothing new. Even at the height of the Cold War, countries including the U.S. and the Soviet Union managed to set aside their differences and work through the W.H.O. to eradicate smallpox, a scourge of humanity that had killed hundreds of millions just in the 20th century.

With over 50 million cases and 2 million deaths annually, in 1958 Soviet virologist Viktor Zhdanov became the first to call on the W.H.O. to lead a global eradication effort. In 1966 Canadian-American epidemiologist Donald Henderson formed the U.S.-led Smallpox Eradication Unit to assist in this endeavor. A year later, the W.H.O. intensified global smallpox eradication with millions of dollars from around the world and a method developed by Czech epidemiologist Karel Raska. The Americans and Soviets provided most of the initial vaccine donations (no doubt, at least in part, to one up each other).

By 1980, the W.H.O. declared smallpox eradicated—the first human disease wiped off the face of the Earth, thanks to global cooperation.

Image may contain: people playing sports, possible text that says 'WORLD HEALTH THE MAGAZINE OF THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION MAY 1980 smallpox is dead!'

Happy Birthday to Mir

On this day in 1986, the Soviet Union launched Mir, the first modular space station, the largest spacecraft by mass at that time, and the largest artificial satellite until the International Space Station (ISS) in 1998.

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Assembled in orbit from 1986 to 1996, the station was the result of efforts to improve upon the Soviet Salyut program, which produced history’s first space station. It served as a microgravity research laboratory where crews conducted experiments in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology, and spacecraft systems, all with the ultimate goal of preparing humanity for the permanent occupation of space.

Through the “Intercosmos” program, Mir also helped train and host cosmonauts from other countries, including Syria, Bulgaria, Afghanistan, France, Germany, and Canada.

Mir was the first continuously inhabited long-term research station in orbit and held the record for the longest continuous human presence in space at 3,644 days (roughly 10 years), until it was surpassed by the ISS in 2010. It also holds the record for the longest single human spaceflight, with Valeri Polyakov spending 437 days and 18 hours on the station between 1994 and 1995.

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This is all the more remarkable considering that Mir lasted three times longer than planned, and even survived the Soviet Union itself, which collapsed just years after it was launched. The fact that Russia managed to keep it afloat despite its tumultuous post-Soviet transition speaks to both ingenuity and the goodwill of global partners like NASA.

In fact, the U.S. had planned to launch its own rival station, Freedom, while the Soviets were working on Mir-2 as a successor. But both countries faced budget constraints and a lack of political will that ultimately quashed these projects. Instead, the erstwhile rivals came together through the Shuttle–Mir, an 11-mission space program that involved American Space Shuttles visiting Mir, Russian cosmonauts flying on the Shuttle, and an American astronaut flying aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for long range expeditions aboard Mir.

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With various other nations, from Canada to Japan, also cancelling their own space station programs due to budget constraints, Russia and the U.S. soon brought them into the fold to create a new international space station—today the ISS we all know and love.

Thus, by the time the aging Mir was finally cut loose and allowed to deorbit in 2001, the ISS had already begun taking occupants, building upon the old station’s technical, scientific, and political legacy. (In fact, Russia has contributed most portions of the ISS after the U.S., and both its spaceport and its spacecraft serve as the primary—and for many years, only—source of crew and supplies.)

In its detailed tribute to Mir, NASA notes its importance to all of humanity as a milestone for human space exploration:

“The Russian Space Station Mir endured 15 years in orbit, three times its planned lifetime. It outlasted the Soviet Union, that launched it into space. It hosted scores of crewmembers and international visitors. It raised the first crop of wheat to be grown from seed to seed in outer space. It was the scene of joyous reunions, feats of courage, moments of panic, and months of grim determination. It suffered dangerous fires, a nearly catastrophic collision, and darkened periods of out-of-control tumbling.

Mir soared as a symbol of Russia’s past space glories and her potential future as a leader in space. And it served as the stage—history’s highest stage—for the first large-scale, technical partnership between Russia and the United States after a half-century of mutual antagonism.”

Despite all the geopolitical rivalry and grandstanding that motivated incredible breakthroughs like Mir (and for that matter the Moon landing), the value and legacy of these achievements go far beyond whatever small-mindedness spurred them. Wrapped up in all this brinkmanship was—and still is—a vision of progress for all of humanity.

A fun note about the name: The word mir is Russian for “peace”, “world”, or “village”, and has historical significance: When Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom (virtual slavery) in 1861, freeing over 23 million people, mir was used to describe peasant communities that thereafter managed to actually own their land, rather than being tied to the land of their lord.

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia.

The “Wuhan Virus” and Human Progress

Believe it or not, the saga of the “Wuhan coronavirus” demonstrates a considerable amount of human progress since the days that diseases would claims tens of millions of lives (which wasn’t that long ago).

First, it was identified and determined to be a new strain of the coronavirus family at record speed. (Coronaviruses are best known for causing the “common cold”.) Just one week after it was discovered, Chinese authorities had already sequenced the virus and shared it with labs around the world; an Australian lab did the same not long after, allowing the whole world to pool its resources together to learn more about this pneumonia-like virus and develop a possible treatment.

“Something that’s remarkable here is that within a week, the RNA sequences of the virus are available on the internet, and many can look at it and begin to understand it,” Richard Martinello, an associate professor of infectious disease at the Yale School of Medicine, told Business Insider. “That’s something that’s never been done before.”

Second, since the discovery of coronaviruses around 60 years ago, medical technology has come a very long way, advancing to the point that we can conduct far more in-depth research into the way these viruses work. For example, while it was known that coronavirus could infect humans, the SARS outbreak marked the first time a coronavirus was traced back to animals. We will likely learn a lot from this experience as well.

And that leads to my third point: Thanks to the advent of institutions like the U.N. World Health Organization, there is unprecedented cooperation, monitoring, and exchanging of data and resources across the world. Just as diseases do not adhere to borders, so too are we humans learning the value of cooperating and coordinating to prevent or contain these pandemics.

To that end, Americans are presently far more likely to catch the seasonal flu than the Wuhan coronavirus. Plus, the preventative measures for both are the same: wash your hands frequently, avoid touching your face, and keep away from anyone who is sick.

None of this is to promote complacency, but to prevent unwarranted or possibly counterproductive panic.

Reflections on a Decade Graciously Well Spent

Around this time in 2010, I graduated from Florida International University with a double B.A. in international relations and political science. I had vague plans to either work at a think tank in D.C., enter the U.S. Foreign Service, be an international lawyer, or even some combination of the three.

But year after year, I kept stalling for one reason or another, mostly to do low self esteem, my comfort zone, and personal finances. In that time, I wandered through a disparate path, including a job at the county health department, a semester studying philosophy at Miami-Dade, an unpaid internship at an NGO, and three years in marketing (of all places). I also became a freelance writing, using the skills I learned in school for something totally contrary to my supposed goals.

To be sure, I was content and grateful — in far better shape than the vast majority of humans — but I did not feel fulfilled.

It remains surreal to reflect on where I am now, and how unspeakably lucky I am. I had lost hope on ever being a healthy long-term relationship, let alone the wonderful marriage I am infinitely fortunate to have. I am about to enter my last semester of law school at University of Miami — something I never thought I had the skills or courage to do — and gotten to see and do so many amazing things I missed out on in undergrad due to that same crippling self doubt. I am loving my legal work and finally found my calling in life, hand’s down.

Speaking of which, my psychological hangups have largely been contained as well, due in no small part to the support of an endless list of loved ones, colleagues, and peers, most of all my incredibly supportive wife, who was one of the main catalysts for finally getting into law school. The amount of patience, goodwill, and encouragement from a multitude of people in and out of law school has been overwhelming, humbling, and impossible to pay back.

Most of all though, I’m just lucky to be alive for another year, and to have enjoyed a steady and happy life from literally day one. So many people never make it to another year — hundreds of thousands still don’t pass their first birthdays — and yet I’m not only here, but remain in that elite fraction of our species that enjoys unparalleled privilege, opportunity, and hope.

It goes to show how much I owe my fortuitous decade to the kindness and charity of others, both known and unknown, and how much can change in just one year, let alone ten. Whatever you yearn for, don’t let up. I know it’s easier said than done, especially in hindsight, but there is no real alternative in my (privileged) view.

Here’s to another year of building myself up to pay it all forward, with all you wonderful folks there to make me hopefully, happy, and forever grateful. I wish you all a great year and decade ahead.

The 2019 Human Development Index

The United Nations published its latest Human Development Index (HDI) rankings—using data from 2018—which is calculated based on three categories: Life expectancy, education, and per capita income. (Read the official announcement here.)

A country scores a higher HDI when its people live longer, have higher rates of education, and enjoy higher gross national income (GNI), adjusted for local purchasing power.

Norway and Switzerland are once again No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, while Ireland, Germany, and Hong Kong have risen to round up the top five. The U.S. ranks a respectable 15th.

However, note the second through fourth columns, which adjust the scores based on inequality. While countries may have an overall high rate of education, life expectancy, and income, how these benefits are shared among the general populace will vary.

Hence, Hong Kong would descend 17 places down if inequality were taken into account; the U.S. would drop by 13 points. Conversely, egalitarian Japan would climb 15 spots from 19th place, while the Czech Republic and Slovenia would also rise significantly.

Norway uniquely would remain in the same spot even if you adjust for inequality. Switzerland would drop just one point.

How Average Indians Revived a Beachside Dump Into a Turtle Hatchery

In spring of 2018, something amazing happened in one of the most polluted beaches in the world: For the first time in decades, an extremely vulnerable turtle species has been spotted on the shores of Mumbai, India.

As The Guardian reported:

At least 80 Olive Ridley turtles have made their way into the Arabian Sea from nests on the southern end of Versova beach in the past week, protected from wild dogs and birds of prey by volunteers who slept overnight in the sand to watch over them.

Versova has undergone what the United Nations has called the “world’s largest beach cleanup project” over the past two years, transformed from a shin-deep dump yard for plastics and rubbish to a virtually pristine piece of coastline.

The man who leads the ongoing cleanup operation, the lawyer Afroz Shah, said he started anticipating the turtle hatchings two months ago when farmers on the southern end of the two-mile (3km) beach reported seeing turtles in the sand.

“The moment we got that news I knew something big was going to happen,” he told the Guardian. Last Thursday, some of his volunteers called to say they had spotted dozens of baby Olive Ridley turtles emerging from their nests.

He called the forest department and then went down to the beach with about 25 others, guarding the area while the tiny creatures hobbled across the sand, “making sure not one hatchling suffered a death”, he said.

In just two years, average Indians were able to reverse ecological devastation and watch a dying species begin to rejuvenate. Imagine volunteering day and night to make sure these little creatures had a fighting chance.

For more than two years, Shah has been leading volunteers in manually picking up rubbish from Versova beach and teaching sustainable waste practices to villagers and people living in slums along the coastline and the creeks leading into it.

About 55,000 people live along the beach and the waterways that feed it in the crowded megacity. Shah said he taught them by example, offering to clean communal toilets and pick up rubbish himself before he ever sought their help.

“For the first six to eight weeks, nobody joined,” he said. “Then two men approached me and said, very politely, ‘Please sir, can we wear your gloves?’ Both of them just came and joined me. That’s when I knew it was going to be a success.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, in the eastern state of Odisha, a record-breaking 428,083 Olive Ridley turtles had nested a month before. This is hardly an isolated incident.

Think about these little-known success stories whenever we hear rhetoric about the developing world not pulling its weight in the fight against climate change or ecological devastation.

And let’s keep these efforts in mind when we begin to lose hope that we are losing this fight. In the grand scheme of things, cleaning up one polluted beach for one single species doesn’t seem like a lot, but it reveals our amazing potential to fix things if we have actually invested the time and will power.

Source: The Guardian

Ethiopia Rising

Long a byword for abject poverty and famine — issues the country continues to struggle with to this day — Ethiopia may soon be better known as one of the greatest success stories in the developing world, a model for reform, democratic transition, and socioeconomic development.

First, as The Economist reported, the country of 100 million (the most populous in Africa after Nigeria) has unveiled the sort of robust social program one would expect of a wealthier nation:

Ethiopia’s Urban Productive Safety Net Project […] was launched in 2017 and is among the largest social programmes in sub-Saharan Africa (outside South Africa) designed specifically for urban areas. About 400,000 poor Ethiopians in 11 cities are already enrolled. The government hopes it will eventually help 4.7m people in almost 1,000 towns. Beneficiaries are selected by a neighbourhood committee based on how poor and vulnerable they are. In addition to the paid work, they also receive training. Those who want to start their own businesses are given grants.

Of course, there are plenty of Ethiopians slipping through the cracks, and the program can only go so far given the country’s poverty and political underdevelopment. But it is still a worthy effort that speaks to the nation’s maturation and increasing stability.

Ethiopia has also appointed its first female president — among the few female leaders in the continent — who in turn is spearheading national efforts to improve gender equality and internal security; a newly-established Ministry of Peace, also headed by a woman, will tackle the country’s endemic problems with violence and abuses by security forces.

Speaking of peace, the nation has restored diplomatic ties with its neighbor and former breakaway region Eritrea, following two decades of tension and acrimony after a bloody border war in 1998. Communities on both sides of the once militarized border have reported unprecedented freedom of trade and movement.

Its dynamic but rancorous capital, Addis Ababa, is launching a crowd-funding campaign to create more green spaces, bike paths, and walkways. It has tripled the size of its airport in a bid to become Africa’s leading gateway. With the help of China, the country will launch and maintain its first satellite, aimed at monitoring and collecting vital data on climate and weather related patterns in its infamously vulnerable ecology.

Just a week ago, Ethiopians even broke records in reforestation efforts, planting over 350 million trees in just one day.

This bevy of milestones and changes has occured under the administration of Abiy Ahmed, who rose to power from seemingly nowhere, in a country long bedeviled by ineffectual if not repressive rulers:

In the year since Abiy rose to power, the word “change” has come to define many things about Ethiopia. Under the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the decades-long tightening vise of repression finally led to widespread anti-government demonstrations in 2015. Mohammed was part of a diaspora movement of writers and activists who used their contacts to bypass the internet and social media shutdown in Ethiopia and document the growing unrest. In February 2018, in a bid to calm intensifying tensions and pave way for dialogue, then premier Hailemariam Desalegn suddenly resigned.

On April 2, Abiy, just 41 then, became prime minister and Africa’s youngest leader. In moves best described as salvific, he helped turned the trajectory of Africa’s second most-populous state. He made peace with long-time regional rivals like Eritrea and Egypt, released journalists, invited back opposition groups, acknowledged that prisoners suffered torture and abuse, and increased the place of women in power. He also promised to open up the economy for private investment, kickstarted a green initiative to transform the capital, and rolled out a visa-on-arrival push for African travelers.

Emboldened by these reforms, donor groups returned, with Ethiopia reportedly attracting a record $13 billion of inflows in the past year. Marathoner Feyisa Lilesa, who protested the previous government at the finish line at the Rio Olympics in 2016, also went back. During his East Africa tour last month, French president Emmanuel Macron commended Abiy’s transformative agenda, saying he “profoundly changed” Paris’s vision of Addis Ababa. Human Rights Watch staff who cover Ethiopia were also permitted to visit Ethiopia for the first time in eight years.

“It was refreshing how open people were to discuss politically sensitive issues, which is in sharp contrast to the past where there was much fear about speaking openly,” says HRW senior researcher Felix Horne.

As noted in The Economist piece, Ethiopia’s status as Africa’s second largest country (after Nigeria), and as being among the few to have retained its independence from Europe, gives it considerable influence throughout the continent and the developing world, and may perhaps inspire other nations to implement similar reforms despite their challenges.

Of course, Abiy’s markedly progressive leadership, and all the positive changes it seems to be engendering, remains tenuous. The country faces incredible challenges in virtually every sector, including a strong but highly unequal economy, ethnic tensions, endemic corruption, and the ravages of climate change. It will take more than one man or one administration, no matter how ambitious, to tackle so many pressing issues.

But given what we are seeing so far, it is safe to assume that whatever hiccups or roadblocks get in the way, the people of Ethiopia have displayed an incredible degree of resilience, resourcefulness, and hope that will see them through the 21st century. The world will be watching and learning.