As tensions once again escalate between Ethiopia and its neighbor, Eritrea, it is worth recalling that the conflict between the two countries has resulted in organized efforts to improve the lives of the people in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Founded in the late 1980s as the thirty-year war between Ethiopia and Eritrea finally ended, the Tigray Development Association (TDA) has spent decades building schools in Tigray, working with other organizations and government agencies to bring much-needed supplies to the region’s residents, and connecting with Ethiopians around the world who fled Tigray during the war.
Here are more details about the history of the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict and the founding of the Tigray Development Association:
A Battle for Independence
The nation now known as Eritrea formed around the year 300, but conflicts with adjacent Ethiopia didn’t begin until centuries later, following years of European involvement in Northern Africa. Eritrea was subject to Italian rule in the 1880s, as the European nation’s military established a presence in the region. British forces occupied Eritrea in 1941, which led to its classification as a United Nations trust territory eight years later. In the early 1950s, the UN established Eritrea as a federal component of Ethiopia.
By the early 1960s, conflict was brewing. An Eritrean liberation front had already organized, and in 1962, land-locked Ethiopia formally annexed Eritrea—which is home to multiple seaports—and made it a province. Eritrea’s war for independence had begun.
The two countries battled for almost three decades. Following years of guerilla warfare and a government coup, outside forces—including Cuban troops and a Soviet-backed military junta—became involved in the dispute. The ongoing conflict had a particularly significant impact on Ethiopia’s mountainous northernmost region of Tigray, which lies along the border between the two nations.
Some historians attribute the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict to ethnic differences rather than a border dispute, but in 1993, Eritrea achieved independence from Ethiopia after a landslide nationwide vote. The newly independent Eritrea then joined the United Nations as a sovereign state.
Before the early 1970s, few Ethiopians left the country for an international destination, and those who did often ranked among the country’s educated elite. However, a series of repressive leaders that came to power throughout the decade—along with widespread famine—drove thousands of Ethiopians to immigrate to other countries. In the ensuing years, many more have left the region due to renewed conflicts between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The TDA’s Response
The Tigray Development Association officially became a nonprofit organization in late 1991, when it received licensure from the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. It now comprises more than one million members, the majority of whom reside in the Tigray region.
Other members, however, are part of the vast Ethiopian diaspora. Many of these individuals became refugees in the 1980s, fleeing Ethiopia as it faced one disaster after another. During this time, military leaders were at war with the Tigray people, who lived under the constant threat of bombings. The region also faced one of the most severe droughts in its history, resulting in a famine so severe that it drew international attention. Although the global community attempted to provide humanitarian aid, military leaders thwarted outside efforts to provide critical supplies to many Tigray regions.
The TDA responded with immediate relief and long-term plans for helping Tigray recover from years of conflict. Operating with a focus on health and education, the nonprofit has built and staffed several hundred schools across the region, as well as nearly 70 healthcare clinics. In addition, it has formed partner development associations and attempted to make connections with similar organizations in neighboring African countries.
Building a Better Tigray
Some of the TDA’s most successful long-term work has been in the education sector. In 1998, the organization founded the Kallamino Special High School with the goal of developing an outstanding science education center in Tigray. The school offers full scholarships to talented students, who attend the school from many parts of the Tigray region.
More than 900 students have graduated from Kallamino Special High School, and more than 600 have gone on to graduate from a university and secure jobs in Ethiopia and abroad. The school is currently working to build a robust alumni network that will encourage graduates to share expertise, knowledge, and financial support with the school’s student body.
The TDA’s work has also focused on building and preserving the culture of Tigray and ensuring that the region’s residents live healthy lives. For several years, the organization sponsored a family festival in Mekelle held in conjunction with Ashenda, a traditional religious celebration. Each year, Tigrayan families gathered to share and enjoy traditional food, drinks, clothing, hairstyles, and dancing. The TDA has also sponsored cultural symposiums and funded the purchase of books written in the Tigrigna language, providing them to students to promote cultural education through literature. Additionally, the TDA’s healthcare activities have included working with local and foreign donors to provide reproductive health and family planning services, as well as building clinics and providing emergency aid.