August 26, 2013 by

It all started with National Geographic magazines. If you were a kid like me, you thumbed through them and dreamed about the exotic places that were halfway around the world. African stories always caught my eye. So unusual. So different from life in Nebraska.

Especially Ethiopia

I recently traveled to Ethiopia, spending several weeks exploring the culture and the country. Like most of you, when I travel, I pack my passions. In my case, that’s business ethics. Wherever I went, I asked about business practices and economic development. I learned a great deal about the ethics of the people and, in the process, I reflected on our Greater Omaha values. Let me share two experiences.

Hawassa University

At Hawassa University, I spent time with Dean Fitsum Assefa’s faculty and MBA students. We talked about business ethics as a competitive advantage. In a country ranked 114 of 147 on Transparency International’s Corruption Index, the consensus among students was that being ethical would not lead to business success. My experience is that our Greater Omaha students think differently than this. What is your opinion?

Omo Valley and Economic Development

One of the most intriguing destinations in Ethiopia is the Omo Valley. Through the heat and the mud, we traveled to the Valley to interact with its tribespeople. I grew up on a farm, but I have never experienced this kind of outdoor life where people live with their cattle herds and have only the most basic shelters. The customs of the people are exotic—the Mursi women wear lip plates, the Hamer people use cattle jumping as a rite of passage to manhood, and the Bumi participate in scarification. There are no other people on the planet like the people of the Omo Valley.

Herein lies the rub. The Ethiopian government has a plan for economic development. They are selling tribal land in the Omo Valley, primarily to foreign investors, to create sugar cane plantations. In tandem, they are building factories to process the sugar cane. The plan is to entice the tribespeople to work in the factories to alleviate their extreme poverty.

It is difficult to imagine the challenges for Ethiopian leaders, one of the poorest countries in the world. They must promote economic development. (Our Greater Omaha leaders have that responsibility here, too, right?) But their plan will literally destroy the tribal cultures.

So I talked to Mrs. Moges, the CEO of Travel Ethiopia, the largest travel agency in the country, and a member of the Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce. I asked what she thought of the plan and its implication for the tribes. Mrs. Moges said, “The Omo Valley is Travel Ethiopia’s daily bread and butter. I know that the plan will destroy tribal culture and affect my business. But I think that is okay. Why? Think of the women. Daily, they carry bundles of sticks for firewood. They walk one to five miles a day with heavy containers to collect water. Childbirth is a nightmare. Is it okay to change the tribal cultures? You bet it is.”

I have been deep in thought since returning from my Ethiopian trip. When is it acceptable to change a people’s way of life for the sake of economic development? When should we save a way of life, knowing that doing so will stifle economic development? In Omaha, we have asked these kinds of questions, too, about our culture, our historical buildings, etc.

This I know: There are those who hold onto the past and those who grasp towards the future. In that tension, change is generated, and this is where communities’ values are revealed.

Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., is Executive Director of Business Ethics Alliance and Chair of Business Ethics & Society at Creighton University’s College of Business.