An NGO that uses music and radio to spread awareness about girls’ rights in Ethiopia has lost its UK aid funding after a negative press campaign.
Girl Effect, which created a five-piece girl group, Yegna, described by the Daily Mail and the Telegraph as Ethiopia’s Spice Girls, said its aims had been “wilfully misrepresented”.
It says Yegna is a multi-platform brand, not merely a girl group, that addresses issues such as early forced marriage, violence and barriers to education through a radio drama, music, talkshows, and a YouTube channel.
The shadow international development secretary, Kate Osamor, said headlines describing the group as simply a pop band were “sensationalist” and the money supplied to the group was part of a much wider campaign that was ignored in the reports.
“Sensationalist, headline-grabbing stories of waste and corruption have become an ever increasing staple of British newspapers over recent months,” Osamor said. “No policy, project or programme designed to improve the lives of destitute and marginalised people around the world seems exempt from rightwing media criticism.”
She said aid should not be “one size fits all according to what we in the west think is what is needed”.
The Department for International Development (DfID) said it had taken the decision to end its partnership with Girl Effect after a review of the programme, and had not been influenced by any newspaper campaign.
A spokesperson said: “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 loss of funding will be a big blow to the project, which has consistently been praised by DfID for its impact. It was initially created in 2011 by DfID in partnership with the Nike Foundation, which said Yegna aimed to “change the culture of Ethiopia in a good way, to explain the problems in the society”.
A spokesperson for the project said: “Partners like DfID broke new ground with us by investing in this cutting-edge work. DfID has consistently recognised Yegna’s impact, achieving an A grade in DfID’s annual evaluation for the last three consecutive years.”
Girl Effect says Yegna reach 8.5 million people, or 50% of the population in Addis Ababa and the Amhara region of Ethiopia, and help change the lives of some of the hardest-to-reach and most disadvantaged girls in the world.
Three-quarters of girls who listen to Yegna say the band have inspired them to continue their education and 95% of young male listeners say they would speak out against a girl being forced to marry, according to its evaluations.
The Daily Mail hailed the decision to stop funding on its front page on Saturday.
Leyla Hussein, a girl’s rights campaigner and founder of Dahlia’s Project, a therapy service for survivors of female genital mutilation, accused the paper of stoking a lynch mob mentality.
She said: “It’s really sad that the Daily Mail has reduced them to the Ethiopian Spice Girls, which is not what they are about, and it feels like a lynch mob, with the paper playing on people’s fears and spreading messages of hate.”
Hussein said she did not expect the money would be redirected to help address social problems in the UK, which is what many critics of the international aid budget often call for. “DfID is about international aid, not domestic, so you’re asking it to do the impossible. My hope is that they will redirect the money to a grassroots project with similar aims in empowering girls.”
The decision was also criticised by the British Ethiopian poet and broadcaster Lemn Sissay. Yegna have previously performed at events with him, he chose one of their tracks, Taitu, when he appeared on Desert Island Discs.
“The message of the song is about the empowerment of girls. If you watch the video, you’ll see the song is just as relevant to girls in Wigan as it is girls in the villages and cities of Ethiopia. This is not how they are being portrayed,” Sissay said.
“It’s really sad when this kind of thing happens. It’s like what happened to Camilla Batmanghelidjh. Suddenly everybody has an opinion and everyone thinks their opinion is right against what the money was being used for. And everybody suddenly becomes an expert on foreign aid. It seems like a really black and white issue but the relationship between the UK and Ethiopia goes back a long way.
“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.”
He hoped the attention would end up being positive for Yegna. “I think this is a great opportunity to get Yegna to come and perform over here. The funding has done its job and now they can take over the world,” he said.
The Tory MP David Nuttall welcomed the decision to cut funding. “The project is no doubt well intentioned but this is not the sort is spending my constituents expect our aid budget to go on,” he said. “At a time when domestic services are been cut back to help balance the books, taxpayers cannot understand how we can spend money on projects like this whilst there are so many pressures on spending at home.”
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