Musings on life in Ethiopia for a middle aged IT professional...or "Dilbert goes to Africa"

I will be working on a major upgrade to the Budget and Expenditures application for the Ethiopian Ministry of Finance during most of 2009 (I have been in Ethiopia since October, 2008). What follows are some somewhat random thoughts about life on a new continent.

Send me comments or feedback at JohnJeunnette (at)

Happy First Day of November, 2009...

In my wanderings through Addis Ababa over the last year I have noticed laser-printed signs in storefronts that said "DV2010". Most of the places with the notices were internet-related or secretarial services offering translations, "CD burning", or Internet access so I figured it was some special "digital video" thing. Mostly, I just added it to the collection of things I didn't understand. Lately "DV2011" signs have started showing up and today I learned what it is all about. "DV" refers to the "Diversity Visa" lottery program run by the US State Department. ("2010" is the last lottery date and "2011" will be the next one.)

So what is a "diversity visa"? It turns out that the US State Department issues something like 55,000 visas each year to folks from countries that have less than 50,000 people immigrating to the US. The State Department web site describes the program thusly:

The congressionally mandated Diversity Immigrant Visa Program is administered on an annual basis by the Department of State and conducted under the terms of Section 203(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Section 131 of the Immigration Act of 1990 (Pub. L. 101-649) amended INA 203 and provides for a class of immigrants known as “diversity immigrants.” Section 203(c) of the INA provides a maximum of 55,000 Diversity Visas (DVs) each fiscal year to be made available to persons from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.
The annual DV program makes visas available to persons meeting simple, but strict, eligibility requirements. A computer-generated, random lottery drawing chooses selectees for DVs. The visas are distributed among six geographic regions, with a greater number of visas going to regions with lower rates of immigration, and with no visas going to nationals of countries sending more than 50,000 immigrants to the United States over the period of the past five years. Within each region, no single country may receive more than seven percent of the available DVs in any one year.

Sounds simple enough: issue a bunch of visas from a pool of applicants that meet some basic criteria and try to spread the selected applicants evenly by geography. For the 2010 lottery, the web site indicates that there were 13.6 million applicants. 5200 were selected from Ethiopia (one of the higher numbers from Africa). This works out to a .04% success rate for an Ethiopian trying to get one of these "golden tickets"...Sounds a lot like the odds of winning any of the money lotteries in the US. So the reality is that someone with dreams of moving to the promised land in the United States has a very slim chance of actually having that happen through this program. I bet the impact on a selectee's life is similar to winning millions of dollars.

The reason the notices are in the Internet-related store fronts is that the application to be in the running for a visa is only on-line and a set of digital photographs that meet very specific criteria must be submitted with the application. The entire application process must be completed in a single 60-minute session on the State Department web site. Duplicate applications will invalidate all copies. Incorrect photo format will invalidate the application. Sounds a bit technologically stressful, doesn't it? Get it wrong and you aren't even in the pool.

The application requirements are sort of reasonable: finish a high-school level education and be qualified for an occupation that requires "two years of training" or experience. To me, the application gatekeeper seems to be the technical requirement to complete an on-line application and get the photographs of everybody in the family exactly correct. (The photo requirements include what the person is wearing, how the person is posed, and how the digital photograph is stored (color depth and storage format)). If you don't know what a digital photograph is or how to use a browser on the Internet you are out of luck.

One way or another, someone in Ethiopia (and many other places around the world) submitting this application is going to have to spend some money and probably get some help. The process seems tilted in favor of the folks with help from a friend or relative with access to better technology. Where does someone in Ethiopia get a digital photograph to start with?

Yet another reason things like Internet access continue to define the haves from the have nots. I had to laugh when the Ethiopian Prime Minister announced that there was no reason to look at competition for phone and Internet access because the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation just needed better management. (The fact that the government gets something like the equivalent of 800 million dollars out the phone system each year may have been a factor, too.) Unfortunately, Ethiopian has one of the lowest cell phone usage rates in Africa and an Internet usage rate of something like 0.4%. (The only lower countries are places like Somolia and Eritrea that hardly exist otherwise.) Oh well. I'm whining now so I'll shut up.

Some random thoughts in closing:

  • The Diversity Visa may or may not be a good idea. It does move the "decision" on whether someone should be allowed to immigrate to the US from a faceless bureaucracy reviewing applications to a "computer-generated" lottery.
  • "Sorry you were not chosen by the computer" becomes the primary response. (Actually, the primary response is silence. No notification it given to the non-chosen. Not even an e-mail.)
  • Access to technology and some ability to use that technology is more and more important every day.
  • Are we letting technology take the blame for something we don't want to do (telling millions of people they aren't welcome)?
  • Now I know what the folks at the US embassy spend all their time doing. Verifying eligibility and processing 5200 visas in a year takes a lot of effort.
  • What would be the impact on letting all 13.6 million applicants move to the US?
So how did we get from a notice in a shop window to immigration policy? No great thoughts here. Just one more example that things are always more complicated than we think they should be.

It's an amazing and complicated world out there.




Other Entries:
December 2009
   12/27/2009:   Snowboarding in Breckenridge
November 2009
   11/22/2009:   The Great Ethiopian Run, Take Two
   11/14/2009:   Mule
September 2009
   9/27/2009:   Meskel
July 2009
   7/31/2009:   People
   7/12/2009:   Traffic
May 2009
   5/03/2009:   Bubble wrap quest
April 2009
   4/18/2009:   Options: Electricity
March 2009
   3/22/2009:   Italian Connection
   3/01/2009:   Blue Donkeys
February 2009
   2/14/2009:   Eucalyptus Trees
January 2009
   1/31/2009:   Story
   1/25/2009:   Security
   1/21/2009:   Obama and Lions
   1/13/2009:   Orienteering in Addis Ababa
   1/07/2009:   Merry Christmas and Goats
November 2008
   11/30/2008:   Ethiopian Road Construction
October 2008
   10/05/2008:   Ethiopia Introduction

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