World of learning: Ben Weisman

Ben Weisman

On his summer internship in Addis Ababa, Ben Weisman, a member of the class of 2011, is working with colleagues on issues of sustainable development in Ethiopia. (Photo: Courtesy of Ben Weisman)

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Ben Weisman
Class of 2011

  • Academic concentration: Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs; certificates in African studies and environmental studies
  • Hometown: Marlboro, N.J.
  • Summer location: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
  • Activity: internship with the International Water Management Institute; research associate with the UN Food and Agricultural Organization's Pro-poor Livestock Policy Initiative, a joint program with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development
  • Length of stay: nine weeks

Writing from Ethiopia

Why go abroad:
You can read a million books and articles on sustainable development and related topics in Africa  —  and I have  —  but putting my studies in context has really allowed me to challenge everything I have read and thought I understood. I wanted to see for myself what certain groups of people really need to improve their lives. 

Main objectives:
I hope to learn not just about water management, agricultural productivity, poverty reduction and related policy, but also about what development and sustainability mean in the context of extreme poverty. I also hope to contribute to both organizations I’m working with in meaningful ways, allowing them to better serve the people of this region.

A typical day:
Each day, I take two “public taxis” — a system of vans with defined routes but no consistent prices or schedules — to the campus of the International Livestock Research Institute, where both of the organizations I'm working with are located. My work differs each day: sometimes I visit government ministries, farmers, aid workers and other target groups for interviews; some days I do research in the office, tracing successful poverty reduction strategies from inception to budget allocation; sometimes I work with scientists to understand the intentions behind their products in order to evaluate them. After work I usually cook dinner or go out with friends. On the weekends, I either travel outside the city or explore the city itself.

Ben Weisman

While learning about water management is a focus of Ben Weisman's internship in Addis Ababa, the Woodrow Wilson School major is finding countless ways to put his studies into context. (Photo: Courtesy of Ben Weisman)

A highlight:
Visiting the countryside within a few hours of Addis completely opened my eyes. In the city itself, the most striking element of daily life is the incredible inequality — there are luxury hotels surrounded by slums, and children in tattered clothes begging for change from people driving expensive sports cars. Outside the city, though, I saw not only the immense beauty of the country, but also the true nature of rural life and the lack of exposure to many of the amenities even the urban poor can afford. The land that is supposed to sustain families has been degraded by poor land use practices as well as global and regional climate change. Seeing children — many of whom will never have an opportunity to go to school — trying to sell trinkets for pennies to tourists passing by just further challenged everything I have learned about how to help the rural poor in Africa.

A memorable experience:
The people I have met here have truly amazed me. On the campus where I work, I have met scientists and professionals from all over the world, each with unique perspectives on issues ranging from Ethiopian food to gender equality in access to information resources. On the streets, people never hesitate to try to assist the “feurenj” (“foreigner” in Amharic, the official language). From diplomats to waiters to friends, everyone I have met has been friendly and interesting, continuing to challenge all the preconceptions I had before coming.

I’m staying in a guesthouse (basically a long-term apartment hotel) with fellow Princeton student Danny Growald [a member of the class of 2011]. We live downstairs from Suleika Jaouad [a member of the class of 2010]. Melekot Abate, a member of Princeton's class of 2011 who lives in Addis Ababa, and his family have shown us a great deal of hospitality, so I’m lucky to have had someone to introduce me to both local people and local customs.