Ethiopia revisited

Notes from the Western Periphery

POVERTY AND WEALTH Addis Abba, where business districts and expensive hotels contrast with shanty towns and slums that are home to an estimated 80 percent of the city’s population.

John Bradley

Ethiopia is in the news again, for all the usual reasons. A protracted civil war; atrocities committed against the civilian population in the northern Tigray region; an impending famine. It brings back memories for all of us, and these are mine.
In April 2003, I was intrigued by an advertisement that appeared in the Economist. The Ethiopian Economic Policy Research Institute (EEPRI) sought an experienced EU-based partner with whom to collaborate on the strategic analysis of the Ethiopian economy.
I answered the advertisement and was successful. Only then did I discover that our own Department of Foreign Affairs, through its Irish Aid Programme, was a key funder of the initiative.
The EEPRI Director, Dr Berhanu Nega, wanted to broaden the discussion of Ethiopian development possibilities beyond the narrow and opaque circles of government and international aid agencies like the World Bank. He wanted to involve local civil society in a real national debate.
Of course, economists have a bad track record in development economics. Bill Easterly, formerly a senior economist at the World Bank, wrote:
“We economists have tried to find the precious object, the key that would enable the poor tropics to become rich. We thought that we had found the elixir many different times. The precious objects we offered ranged from foreign aid to investment in machines, from fostering education to controlling population growth, from giving loans conditional on reforms to giving debt relief conditional on reforms. None has delivered as promised.”

Different world
My first visit to Addis Ababa was in May 2004 when I met the local project team. By any standards, this was a well-qualified group: a team leader who had a PhD in econometrics and had worked in a Canadian university, and the four junior researchers all had Masters degrees in economics.
However, I was disappointed to learn that Dr Nega  had to resign from the EEPRI directorship, having entered politics in a leading role in a new opposition party. The new director did not seem enthusiastic about our project.
In setting about the project, what I brought to the EEPRI by way of experience was my work with similar teams in the countries of Eastern Europe. There, it was possible to have informal working arrangements between all members of the team, frank exchanges of views and knowledge sharing, and open enthusiasm for the work. There was no standing on dignity, and the smartest team members were often the youngest.
Very different characteristics emerged in the work environment in Ethiopia. There was an unwillingness to explore the fact that Ethiopia had passed through three distinct political regimes since the 1960s: the old imperial regime of Emperor Haile Selassie, the disastrous communist Derg regime, and the then current quasi-democratic regime. Only after my first visit did I have the opportunity to read Ryszard Kapuscinski’s extraordinary book on the final decade of Haile Selassie’s rule, and it confirmed my suspicion that we should have thrown away all data before the fall of the Derg regime in 1992 and restarted from scratch.
Ethiopia was a very autocratic society and I found it difficult to deal with the young team members directly, rather than through the local team leader. There was no culture of sharing information, even between colleagues within the EEPRI.
Most disturbingly, it was impossible to discuss public policy in a frank and open way. These types of critical discussions are the vital life-blood of Western civil society. My Ethiopian colleagues quite literally looked over their shoulder constantly when they spoke to me about the government and public policy.

Political repression
Unfortunately, by the summer of 2005, events took a serious turn and the project, the original brainchild of Dr Nega, had ground to a halt. Dr Berhanu Nega’s opposition party was about to be declared winner of the general election, and Nega himself had been elected mayor of Addis Ababa. However, the vote count was abruptly terminated by the government.
Nega and other leaders of the opposition party were arrested following public protests against election irregularities, during which 46 people were killed and hundreds were injured. They were all imprisoned for long periods under bad conditions and were charged with treason, punishable by death under Ethiopian law. Amnesty International regarded them as ‘prisoners of conscience, arrested solely for the non-violent expression of their political beliefs’. Sadly, these events attracted little media attention in the West.
Gradually I came to realise that Nega’s idea of the EEPRI playing role in the Ethiopian economy similar to that played by the ESRI (amongst others) in Ireland would be difficult to implement. There was little functioning civil society in Ethiopia. There was no genuine culture of openness when it came to evaluating critically government policies and debating alternatives.
So, perhaps we should consider ourselves fortunate that we live in a state where the worst thing that can happen if you disagree publicly with government policy is that you will be ignored.

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.