Ethiopia: Does Economic Growth Amount to National Development? – By Tesfaye Demmellash (PhD)

The late PM Meles Zenawi had considerable reputation among some elite circles at home and in certain sections of the international community as an able “development leader,” a functional modernizer of Ethiopian economy and society. Now let us suspend skepticism and say Zenawi’s reputation was deserved, not ill-gotten or merely hyped. Let us also suppose, putting aside the recent reported admission by his widow that his priority was “the industrialization of Tigray,” that, under his leadership, significant levels of economic growth have been achieved in Ethiopia generally. For Ethiopian progressives and patriots today, discussion of the relevant issues involved here begins, or should begin as one critical question: Does the growth of the economy signify the development of the nation?


I raise this question with the understanding that national development includes, but is not limited to economic growth. The former also refers to processes of social, cultural, and political progress which a nation undergoes. I posed the question, whose answer seems to go without saying for some people, to a friend – a fellow Ethiopian who is no fan of the Woyane regime. He thought the answer was obviously yes, overlooking the distinction the question suggests and noting that increasing flows of foreign capital, technology, development aid and other external resources into Ethiopia over the last decade or so have helped bring about appreciable economic growth and modernization in the country. To ask the question that I did was, he felt, rather counterintuitive; it was to raise a strange issue that defies facts and figures and readily observable reality.


My friend’s response was understandable in that descriptions and assessments of development in Ethiopia in the Woyane era are commonly limited to accounts of numbers, indicators such as economic growth rates, increases in GDP, investment, and exports, and material improvements in infrastructure and building construction. However, the story of Ethiopian growth and transformation the Woyane regime tells using such numbers as well as the numbers themselves are contestable, as the analyses of independent observers of the Ethiopian economic scene have shown.


For example, a report of the Prosperity Index a couple of years or so ago documented that, while GDP per capita grew about 8 percent annually between 2005 and 2009, the unemployment rate remained at over 20 percent, the sixth highest in the world. And Ethiopia’s world ranking along such dimensions of economic growth as entrepreneurship and opportunity, good governance, education, health, and communications infrastructure ranged from below global average, at best, to among the bottom few countries, at worst.


So, instead of taking at face value the government’s claims to have brought about phenomenal growth and transformation in Ethiopia, we can open the claims to probing question and analysis. We can have an informed discussion of economic and technocratic issues. But I will leave such discussion to economists and focus in this writing on some underlying political and conceptual matters having to do with the Woyane development project. My discussion revolves around the question posed in the title of this piece. To rephrase that question, does economic growth in Ethiopia mean the development ofEthiopia?



Development: Global and National


The phenomenon of development or modernization is a world-historical process in which diverse nations undergo varying modes and degrees of socio-economic, political, and cultural change, primarily driven by global capitalist forces of production and exchange. These forces can be, and often have been more or less effectively harnessed by particular countries for the purposes of national development. China is a good contemporary example of such “nationalization” of global development.


The Chinese example of the combination of an interventionist, “developmental,” authoritarian state and a fast-growing market economy, which has inspired the Woyane regime’s project of economic growth and transformation, also illustrates that development in its basic global form remains open to a variety of ideologically guided articulations or political projects. These include liberalism, socialism, colonialism, fascism, and ethno-centric as well as multiethnic nationalism. Thus we should not conflate modernity as a world-historical concept and phenomenon with particular, more or less successful political projects of modernization in particular national and cultural settings.


In the case of Ethiopia, the issue, then, is not whether we want to modernize or develop our economy and society. Rather, it is this: do we modernize in a way that has meaning and value for who we are as a nation and for what we aspire to be, or do we do so in a way that undermines our national interest, limiting ourselves to counting and measuring growth rates, celebrating abstractions which have little real significance in terms of meeting the basic needs of the Ethiopian people and improving their standard of living? Do we practically give away the nation’s vital resources, particularly land, to foreign interests in the name of attracting investment capital for economic growth?



Development: Economy Apart from Nation?


Preoccupation with development – in political thought, rhetoric, and struggle – has been a compelling response by Ethiopian revolutionary elites and regimes to economic backwardness and chronic poverty in the country. The limitations and failings of the ancient regime, the slow, uneven, and fragmentary nature of its modernization, and its inability to institute significant political reforms had two major consequences. They led to the violent overthrow of the regime and, more importantly, they set the national stage for the onset of “development” as a radical political obsession in the country following the Ethiopian Revolution.


A major legacy of the Ethiopian revolutionary era has been a deeply misconceived dissociation of affairs of economy from affairs of nation in development ideology. The paradigm of progressive change, which was initially worked out within the Student Movement and later more or less followed by the TPLF, largely separates issues of economic growth and modernization in Ethiopia from a specifically Ethiopian national concern about modernization. It breaks the connection between revolutionary development and the historical context of Ethiopian nationhood, often construing the latter wholesale as a drag on or an obstacle to the former.


Heightened Ethiopian national consciousness was rarely absent in pre-revolutionary times when royal modernizers from Emperor Teodros to Emperor Haile Sellassie remained rooted in their national tradition, with all the flaws and limitations of their modernization efforts. Even during the revolutionary era, national concern was evident in the Derg, though the concern was expressed in a crazed “radical” style which was so brutal and tyrannical that it played disastrously into the hands of the Woyanes. Not so today. Today, the project of economic growth and transformation in Ethiopia is dominated by identity politics, and the common Ethiopian nationality of distinct ethnic and cultural communities is suppressed. Development is understood primarily as that of particular kilils, with “Ethiopia” seen as their mere sum or aggregation.


Consequently, the Woyanes have shown a tendency to drain Ethiopian national values, sentiments, and symbols right off their project of development and modernization. The devaluation by the late Meles Zenawi of the Ethiopian flag as nothing but “a piece of cloth” and, more recently, the attempt of the TPLF-EPRDF regime to turn the historic Waldiba monastery into a sugar plantation are symptomatic of this tendency. The latter, moreover, attests to the culturally insensitive crass commercialism of the ethnocentric development ideology and politics of the Woyane state.



Connection of Economic Growth and Nationhood


Against the tendency of the Woyanes to dissociate expansion of agriculture, industry, and infrastructure in Ethiopia from the significance of such expansion specifically in terms of Ethiopian interest and development, we need to highlight the role of our rich multi-ethnic national culture, not only in sustaining political order, but also in facilitating and stabilizing economic growth in the country. A robust Ethiopian solidarity can overcome the neo-feudal fragmentation of the national market into tribal fiefdoms or kilils and become the source of integrative laws, policies, and rights needed for the expansion and stabilization of private enterprise and free markets, for the unfettered flow goods, services, capital, and labor through out the country.


It is clear to all but the Woyanes and their gullible Western backers that their so-called “federation” of kilils that serves primarily the hegemony and economic interests the Tigre ruling stratum and its supporters is woefully inadequate as a broad-based, transparent institutional base or normative framework for the nation’s economic transformation and development. Nor is the corruption-ridden “developmental state,” which, unlike the Chinese model it is copied from, remains ethnocentric, is adequate to the task. Processes of economic growth and transformation historically have as their conditions of possibility and legitimacy particular national frameworks without whose support they are incapable of sustainability. These frameworks include territorial integrity, a common language, and a nationally conscious and committed governing stratum or state. So an exclusively partisan, ethnocentric project of development such as that of the Woyanes which fails to harmonize with and draw support from a given national tradition, even as it aims to bring about progressive change, will not be viable in the long run. It will bring upon itself the resentment and resistance of the people over whom it is imposed.


In short, growth and transformation, particularly the modernization of infrastructure – roads, highways, bridges, power-generating stations, and so on – are essential to the economic progress of an underdeveloped country like Ethiopia. But it is mistaken to equate such growth and modernization simply and straightaway with Ethiopian national development. After all, the Italians did build infrastructure in our country as part of an unsuccessful colonial project. Roads and highways are useful means and instruments of growth, but they are no substitute for national development as such. The expansion of infrastructure is only part of a nation’s modernization, and a nation which is only partly modernized remains underdeveloped.



Why Question the Woyane Development Project?


Our tradition of revolutionary thought about development and modernization, particularly in its present Woyane variant, has largely done away with Ethiopian national sensibility and concern. This is reason enough to call into question the Woyane project of growth and transformation in Ethiopia. Now the Woyanes are not so naïve as to deny the realities of the Ethiopian nation, which they preside over and profit from materially. But they have convinced themselves, not incorrectly, that the historic spirit, sentiments, and cultural values of Ethiopian solidarity are inconsistent with divisive identity politics, which is the center of all value for them. This constitutes a major weakness of the Woyane undertaking of development, namely, its fundamental contradiction with our deeply rooted historical sense of ourselves as one people and its vulnerability to patriotic and democratic resistance.


This underlying weakness of the Woyane regime, which lies below the surface of its ideological domination and repressive material power, also has to do with its political character, which invites opposition. Namely, at the core of the EPRDF state is an economically self-aggrandizing, insular, sectarian agency, the TPLF, that has unnecessarily overburdened itself in pursuing an exclusively partisan-tribal development project, shut off as it is from the good will and support of the Ethiopian people as a whole and from broader intellectual, cultural, and national life in Ethiopia.


The Woyane undertaking of growth and transformation in Ethiopia thus reflects the insularity and exclusivity of the ruling Tigre elite in that it seeks to owe nothing and no one outside itself. There is no room in it for broad public discussion and debate of vital national development issues. The Woyanes fancy themselves as “practical” developers of the economy who want to produce tangible outcomes in the expansion of agriculture, industry, trade, and infrastructure. They don’t want to be detained by concerns about the national meaning of economic growth and its significance for the impoverished masses in the country, in short, about a specifically Ethiopian national development. They have no patience with any discussion of growth and transformation which does not immediately reduce itself to narrowly economic and technocratic issues. That is why the Woyane development project deserves broad-based Ethiopian scrutiny and critique.



Challenges of Opposition


So what is the task of the present generation of Ethiopian progressive thinkers, activists, and dissidents? What are we to do in effectively opposing the TPLF-EPRDF state, calling into question its development project? I see two distinct yet interrelated major challenges.

First, a robust patriotic and progressive oppositional coalition has to constitute itself, in a way it has not done before, as a coherent counter-hegemonic national force or the nucleus of such a force. Second, it has to articulate an alternative vision of Ethiopian development which does not recycle the relevant issues through old and worn out formulaic concepts whose matrix is that of Woyane “revolutionary democracy.” This is a critical point in that the underlying problems of growth and transformation that we face as a nation today stem in large part from the reigning development ideology itself.


As important as they are, these challenges have, sadly, not been the subject of concerted critical reflection and discussion, let alone a focus of sustained activism and movement, within the present generation of Ethiopian intelligentsia. This is a puzzle and a disappointment, given the enormity of our continuing post-revolutionary national crisis.


Let me make a few more observations on the challenges of opposition I have here identified. Concerning the first challenge, if patriotic and progressive dissidents – individuals and groups – are to put up effective, sustainable resistance against the dictatorship of the TPLF, to guide their movement on the terrain of ideas and politics, they must have a reflexive, strategic center. They must form an opposition with a disciplined, evolving core that can regulate itself as it grows and as the struggle advances. Only then can the opposition begin to shape events instead of merely reacting to them; only then can it envision anew the Ethiopian whole, and, as a leading part, begin to struggle for the whole by bringing to its side other parts.


The matter of exactly what and who make up the opposition so conceived – ideas, goals, strategy and tactics, individuals, parties, coalitions – and how theses vital elements cohere as a nucleus is open to debate and discussion. But the need for their strategic centering is, I believe, evident. We may broadly stipulate ahead that, whatever particular political forces constitute it, the emerging opposition coalition must have a dynamic value-core that is at once patriotic and progressive.


As to the second and related challenge, the opposition faces the task of formulating an alternative conception of development and progress that will do justice both to the aspirations of diverse communities in the country for freedom, equality, and prosperity, and the integrity and advancement of Ethiopia as a nation. The opposition can do this recognizing that what economic growth means in the abstract or in the context of identity politics is not more important than its significance in strengthening the common Ethiopian nationality of diverse communities in the country and in raising the standard of living of the Ethiopian people as a whole. The vision should make it clear who we are as a nation, in both historical and contemporary terms, and what we want or aspire to be.


If we must remain a collection of kilils under Tigre partisan-tribal dictatorship, we cannot also expect to become an open and free society in which individual rights and ethnic equality exist. We can be one or the other, not both at the same time. If we must go on being ruled by notions like “democracy”, “parliament,” and “constitution” in the way these notions operate within the Woyane regime, we cannot also expect to be governed by the genuine substantive contents and practices of these ideas. We will have to continue to settle for their cheap, conceptually vacuous and practically meaningless imitations.


These fundamentally bad choices will continue to bedevil us in the absence of a new forward-looking vision of national growth and transformation. Without the exertion of such power of patriotic and progressive imagination, waging political struggle for a freer, more democratic Ethiopia is like searching for something in the dark – groping this way and that, not really knowing who we are as a nation, where we are going and what we want to achieve.


To pave the way for the possibility of an alternative vision of Ethiopian development, certain conceptions and figures of thought that constitute Woyane “revolutionary democracy” and development ideology must be done away with or deconstructed and articulated anew. But this is really a topic unto itself and I will leave its discussion for another day.


To close this piece, while striving for and embracing economic growth, we must at the same time renew and revitalize our national experience in all its historical depth and cultural diversity. For insofar as we devalue the achievements and resources of our common nationality in the name of growth, degrade the very form of our historically developed Ethiopiawinnet, we marginalize ourselves as a people and remain incapable of progressive transformation. Against this, we should strive as a nation to come to terms with the global phenomenon of modernity, doing so by imparting to the phenomenon a specifically Ethiopian content and context.












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