Thou Shalt Not Steal the Unbanked's Savings

Sep 10 , 2021
By Eden Sahle

A few months ago, I met a veteran daily labourer, Ambachew, who carried out renovation for our house. A father of two daughters in his mid-forties, he is a hard worker and friendly. As we got close, we enjoyed listening to his incredible stories and the mistakes, misfortunes, and future life plans he was happy to share. But things have not been going well for him lately.

Last week, he came home to tell us he will be going back to his hometown. We were sad to see him go, and even sadder that he would have to do as such without the 1.7 million Br he inherited.

Following in his father’s footsteps, he had saved his hard-earned money along with his inheritance with a man he described as a “wealthy big man with his own restaurant in Addis Abeba.” One of the millions unbanked in Ethiopia, he found the banking system too complex for his liking.

For many years, Ambachew believed his money was in safe hands with the man, sending him his savings without asking any questions. He had hoped that when he had saved enough money, he would go back home, build a house, and expand the family farm. The only problem was that, when Ambachew finally decided it was time to join his family, the restaurant owner was nowhere to be found. His phone was switched off, the restaurant closed, and no one knew where he had left with the savings.

It is hard to blame Ambachew for this. He had done due diligence on the restaurant owner before giving him his money to save it on his behalf. They both came from the same hometown and have long known each other – in most cases, the community substitutes for the state in rural areas. Ambachew came from a family that saved money in informal ways. The only difference is that Ambachew did not get his money back.

The family tradition Ambachew kept led him to heartbreak and sent him home empty-handed.

“How can a person break a promise like this and deny a word given in guarantee?” he asked.

I told him my experience of losing a quarter of the amount of money he lost from a person who disappeared with a project payment after I had delivered work. We both got scammed by people we knew and trusted due to their older age and status in society.

The injustice of what happened to Ambachew and I matters because it reveals the damaging behaviour that cascades deeper into society. Fraud of any kind is considered a smart and simple way of enriching oneself. Take loans. We all know people who borrow cash promising to return it soon. But years pass by and our money is nowhere to be seen. Worse still, we have lost their friendship as they want to hide from us.

Morality and ethics is a social thing. If we think everyone hides taxes, we are more likely to do as such ourselves. On the other hand, if we think everyone is paying taxes diligently, we are more likely to pay what we owe. The same applies when many do good for others – we tend to do the same.

Whoever does it, wrongdoing should not be justified. Abdicating responsibility and looking the other way is never right. Legal restrictions can only do so much. Any effort to reduce misconduct and criminal behaviour needs to be complemented by bottom-up efforts. It lies in what we as individuals do daily in our interactions with others.

Our actions are profoundly influenced by how we are raised, the people we are exposed to, and the things we are taught. Everything we do is somehow embedded in a complex moral ecology made up of family and society on the one hand and the cultural and economic makeup of the country on the other.

The sense of common purpose and public spirit is crucial for aligning with the Golden Rule, the principle of treating others as one would like to be treated. This is absent from our society today. A hurtful mentality has invaded every sphere of our lives, undermining trust among people. This lack of care and concern for others hurts Ambachew and society.

PUBLISHED ON Sep 10,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1115]

Eden Sahle is founder and CEO of Yada Technology Plc. She has studied law with a focus on international economic law. She can be reached at

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