Our overseas teams often find themselves up against deep-rooted negative attitudes towards donkeys, which lead people to undervalue their hard-working animals and make them hard to convince that the donkeys deserve better care. One of our teams in Ethiopia have come up with an unusual way to change people’s thinking within this culture.
They are hoping to harness the power and influence of well-respected local laws and traditional community associations. This could mean that people caught beating, overworking or neglecting their donkeys would find themselves in breach of a community law, and could also risk losing practical and social support.
The Kebele is the smallest local government unit in Ethiopia, each representing around 700 households. But it has a certain degree of power - each Kebele has a group of elected representatives, who’re entitled to introduce new local laws.
The Idir and Geda systems can also exert a lot of influence. The Idir is an association which serves as a funeral insurance scheme - its members pay into it, and it gives them practical and financial support in times of bereavement. The Geda is a traditional group with political and judicial influence. Both have sets of rules which are agreed and respected by their members, and anyone breaking those rules risks being socially ostracised as well as being made to pay a fine.
Our project leader at our base at the University of Addis Ababa, Dr Ayele Gizachew, told me the Idir and Geda schemes have played an important part in changing people's attitudes and behaviour during the introduction of other, human health-related initiatives. In one case the Government brought in new laws, but they were not widely observed. However, when the Idir and Geda leaders agreed to support the legislation and encourage members to observe it, there was a widespread shift in behaviour.
Dr Ayele and his team have been holding meetings with Kebele representatives, leaders of the Idir and Geda groups, and other community leaders and officials, in five districts of the Oromia region of Ethiopia. So far there is encouraging progress towards incorporating good treatment of donkeys into the rules and standards of behaviour upheld by these influential local groups.
One of these group meetings, in February this year, ended with agreement on 10 types of behaviour towards donkeys which they all felt should be considered unacceptable. The ‘offences’ included forcing sick, wounded, pregnant or under-aged donkeys to carry loads; failing to take a sick donkey to the vet clinic; using inappropriate harness or no harness at all; beating, drenching and branding; and not providing adequate food, water, shelter or rest. These were in addition to the more obvious 'offences' of killing or injuring a donkey, or abandoning one which was old, sick or injured.
The group also agreed to set up animal welfare committees in their Kebeles and press ahead with work to develop local laws. The Donkey Sanctuary agreed to assist, if necessary, in drafting the wording of rules based on the donkey welfare concerns highlighted by the participants. Meanwhile, the Idir and Geda leaders confirmed that they would incorporate donkey welfare into the rules of their membership.
"There is a great motivation by these people to change this project into reality" said Dr Ayele.
Our national co-ordinator in Ethiopia, Dr Bojia, also welcomed the scheme. "It is a huge potential to bring a sustainable change" he said.