Students discover African-led development in Mason’s first trip to Eritrea


There are multiple sides to every story. But when it comes to Eritrea, a country that’s been isolated due to 20 years of war and nine years of sanctions, much of their story hasn’t been told, said Carol Pineau, a former CNN journalist who reported live on the Eritrean-Ethiopian war and is a visiting scholar at George Mason University.

This summer, faculty from Mason’s Center for the Study of Narrative and Conflict Resolution took 11 PhD, master’s and undergraduate students to Eritrea for two weeks to uncover the country’s narrative of development.

“It’s exceptional for the number one conflict resolution [school] in the country to be going into Eritrea—a place like that is post-conflict in real time,” said Pineau, who added that she believes the trip was the first open enrollment study-abroad program to Eritrea from any U.S. university.

S-CAR Ph.D. student Felegebirhan Mihret sitting on steps and chatting with a group of local men in Asmara.
S-CAR Ph.D. student Felegebirhan Mihret making new friends with a group of local men in Asmara. Photo by Carol Pineau.

Very few articles have been written on Eritrean development, so the best way to understand it is to go there, said Pineau, who co-led the trip with Mason professor Solon Simmons.

During the trip organized by Pineau and the center’s director Sara Cobb, Mason students met with Eritrean ministry heads, spanning health, social welfare, education, agriculture and national development, and information representatives from the United Nations and several ambassadors. Venturing out of the capital, they saw development projects firsthand, including a referral hospital for pediatric and maternal care, reforestation and terracing projects for soil and water conservation, dams to improve drinking water, and more. They also met with Eritrea’s best-known writers (including the author of their national anthem), and toured the battlefields with the commander who led the decisive battle that ended the fighting.

“Social justice is one of their highest values [the ministry heads] spoke about,” said Friderike Butler, a graduate student in Mason’s Organization Development and Knowledge Management Program. “Any approach for development has to be good for the community, it has to afford equality for all the stakeholders involved, it has to be good for the environment and it has to be sustainable.”

“What surprised me is that we actually have an African country that is addressing the idea of development that is self-driven, self-propelled,” said conflict analysis and resolution PhD student Gbenga Dasylva.

Eritrea has a negative reputation in the world press, Dasylva said, and it is often seen as stubborn or threatening for not receiving outside aid. The country has no World Bank, no NGOs and no international players at the table developing their programs. Even so, they’re one of the few countries in Africa that is meeting the sustainable development goals set by the United Nations.

How are they excelling without aid?

They’re focused on African-led solutions to African challenges, said Pineau, who added that their story challenges the narrative that development happens because the global north finds the solution.

“The [development] programs they’re putting in place are really amazing,” said Butler, who cited one example as the Minimum Integrated Household Agricultural Package, a program that allows Eritrean families to learn skills in organic farming, feed their family, generate an income and help their neighbors do the same.

Eritrea’s innovative work could benefit the rest of the developing world by learning from their unique and locally driven solutions, Pineau said. The experience has also had an impact on students.

Dasylva said he was so inspired by Eritrea that he changed his dissertation to look at development happening there, and how it can be a model for the rest of Africa.

“There is a need for us scholars of international relations to address issues contextually and to start rethinking how we define concepts like development, peace building and governance,” Dasylva said.

Development isn’t the creation of buildings, Dasylva said. “Development is: Do the people have quality of life? Are they able to sustain themselves? Eritrea has been able to address this.”

During the trip, students recorded interviews and gathered documentation of Eritrea’s people and history.

Group shot of students standing in Eritrea.
Students at the Ministry of Investment and Promotion in Eritrea. Photo by Gbenga DeSilva.