Why Ethiopians must unite Part three of five.

By Aklog Birara, PhD

“In addition to its complete dominance of local and national government institutions, a number of large businesses are linked to the ruling party, either directly or through family members.”

Human Rights Watch and Center for Strategic and International Studies

In connection with the global concern about the rise of the world’s population to 7 billion on October 31, 2011 and the projection of 9 billion by 2050, James Eng, Chief Editor of MSNBC, one of America’s leading news organizations, asked me along with other global experts to share my views on whether this growth is “a cause for celebration or concern.” I should like the reader to understand that it can be one or the other depending on how a society with high population growth is governed. China is the most populous country in the world today. Its population is not a curse but a blessing for one simple economic and social reason. It has overcome the structural and policy sources of famine, hunger and destitution. It is the most dynamic economy in the world today, transforming the rural economy and integrating it with the rest. Close to 674 million Chinese or 50.3 percent of the population live and work in rural areas; but they do not starve. Close to 83 percent of Ethiopians live in rural areas; most of them go hungry. Millions starve. Whether one supports or opposes the regime, one cannot deny the fact that, today; farmers are unable to feed their families three meals a day. In Eastern and Southern parts of the country, those able to feed their children at least two meals a day find it harder and harder to offer one meal per day.

Contrast rural and urban lives

In China, millions move out of rural areas to urban areas. They have job opportunities, and incomes are three times higher. In Ethiopia the poor who move to urban areas remain poor. There are no jobs that offer higher incomes. The poor remain poor regardless of location. In contrast, in China, fewer and fewer farmers produce more and earn more from less land because of improvements in technology and other inputs. As rural incomes rise, the income gap between the rural and urban population narrows. In Ethiopia, the average rural farm size is less than half ha, and technology and other inputs have remained “biblical.” The policy and structure remain the same.

Whether rural or urban the poor are least likely to challenge a repressive regime than those with jobs, and higher and better incomes. Jobs and better incomes embolden and empower citizens. There are clear indications that, even in China, rising incomes and job security embolden Chinese citizens to demand more and more accountability from their government. This is a virtuous cycle that does not exist in Ethiopia. In almost all countries, virtuous economic and social cycles tend to contribute to greater freedom in the long run. Economic and social stagnation and repression go hand in hand.

Believe or not, it was not long ago that China suffered from recurring famine and hunger. One can say the same about India and others. China is by no means democratic. However, the political leadership is nationalist and has overcome one of the sources of national shame, namely famine and hunger. India is democratic. Although there is widespread poverty, there is no famine and debilitating hunger that characterized India before the “Green Revolution.” Population size is no longer a curse in any of the two or in Bangladesh and others that are developing faster and that have given special attention to the agricultural sector and smallholder revolutions in one form or another.

It is the health and wellbeing of individuals, families and the entire society that determines the extent to which population growth is a source of concern or a source of celebration. This is the reason for my thesis in the MSNBC piece that the single most important contribution that the global aid business that has poured in billions of dollars into the Ethiopian economy over the past two decades could have and could still make is to channel most of these resources into an Ethiopian smallholder farming or green revolution.

I argued in my latest book, “The Great Land Giveaway: yemeret neteka ena kirimit” in Ethiopia, that the TPLF/EPRDF regime failed miserably by not removing the policy and structural hurdles that keep the country among the “hungriest and unhealthiest in the world,” and the urban and rural population as among the poorest. Poor and repressive political and socioeconomic governance censures or restricts freedom and empowerment regardless of geographical location, ethnicity, religion or demography. For the regime, rise in population is just a number and not a potential source of growth and development. It does not see the potential that comes from empowering the poor to become both consumers and producers. Repression and control keep the poor and the rest in their place. As the Guardian Co. UK put it, “In Ethiopia, the threat of imprisonment for political journalists (and political dissenters whether rural or urban) is constant.” Here is the problem in simple terms.

Silencing those who demand economic justice will not remove famine, hunger and destitution whether the population is 90 million (today) and reaches 278 million by 2050. What will solve the problem is political and socioeconomic freedom that allows ordinary citizens to demand justice and to hold their government leaders accountable for their actions. Let me give you one example to illustrate why it is so critical for all opposition groups–whether political or civic–to work toward a common goal and action; and to speak with a single voice. Yemeret neteka ena kirimit abrogates many principles, among them citizenship and ownership of natural resource assets by Ethiopians. In a recent debate on Al-Jazeera, a leading Indian Economist noted that transfer of land resources to foreigners would have led to public outrage in India. Indian companies are among the lead land grabbers in Ethiopia, with Gambella, Beni-Shangul Gumuz and Oromia at the center. These companies are literally free to do as they wish: produce and export even to third parties while Ethiopians go hungry. They can destroy the environment as they wish. They can divert and use water as they wish.

Do not forget land giveaway is water giveaway

 Huge land giveaways to business interests from 36 countries and to a selected few domestic allies are done at a huger cost to future generations of Ethiopians. Remember that these giveaways do not occur in an economic, social, political and financial vacuum. Someone benefits and someone else loses. Foreign investors make billions. They take hold of Ethiopia’s water sources for up to 100 years renewable.

I show the multidimensional and severe nature of the problem in my 478 page book with close to 150 references. It is the book that prompted MSNBC to ask me for views on population growth. Fortunately, there are many experts who see the danger of land grab in Ethiopia. The Indian economist mentioned earlier made several points that Ethiopians should note and do something about. Among these is the empty rhetoric on the part of the Ethiopian governing party that large-scale commercial farms owned by foreigners for periods ranging from “50 to 99 years” would “transfer technology, generate employment, lead to food self-sufficiency and security and raise incomes of the poor.” The expert suggested that none of these is true. What would lead to sustainable and equitable growth in agriculture is to empower smallholders and to remove the policy and structural hurdles that keep their productivity low and that perpetuate insecurity.

The fact that the new economic actors in land grab are non-traditional colonialists does not make them any different. They serve only their business, financial and national interests and not the interests of the Ethiopian poor or the country. The Arab world that includes Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Egypt has always been interested in controlling the sources of the Nile. The Saudis are doing it through Sheikh Al-Amoudi who controls 30 different conglomerates in the country.

This travesty that emanates from almost permanent transfer of Ethiopian water basins and fertile farmlands from Ethiopian to foreigners alone should embolden Ethiopians within and outside the country to reject the governing party’s economic and social model. It is essentially disempowering and dis-enabling. The Indian economist said something that each of us should keep in mind. If these kinds of transfers took place in India, people would revolt against their government leaders and throw them out of office.

A closer look at land grab will amplify the story. When one looks at it from the perspective of millions of Ethiopians who are land poor and landless, famine-prone and hungry, these massive transfers of water basins and farmlands and other pillars of the economy to foreign governments and businesses compel each of us to reflect more closely as to ‘Why unity of purpose and action is critical and urgent.’

The country should have achieved food security and food self-sufficiency close to 21 years of massive foreign aid. Instead of empowering smallholders and other Ethiopians, the governing party invited 36 foreign governments and more than 8,000 applicants from investors to take over millions of hectares of the most fertile farmlands and water basins. This is effective transfer of ownership from Ethiopians to the likes of Karuturi of India and Saudi Star of Saudi Arabia and undermines both sovereignty and citizenship.

Water and land transfers affect sovereignty and citizenship

The primary responsibility of any government in the world is to feed its population. For this to occur, a government must adopt sound, pro-poor and sustainable and equitable development policies and programs. Investments and foreign aid that do not correspond to these fundamental requirements will not work and have not worked in Ethiopia. Growth and the use of foreign aid are highly politicized and favor the merged party, ethnic elites and the state. This is why nepotism, discrimination, exclusion, corruption and illicit outflow of foreign exchange and money-making assets flow out of the country. In 2009, 22 percent of Ethiopians depended on international emergency food aid to survive. Today, the governing party admits that there is drought but not famine or hunger. The top leadership of the governing party differentiates who is to live and who is to die on the basis of political, ideological and ethnic criteria. This is what makes it heartless and soulless. Do not take my word for it. Just take a look at the Ogaden and other parts of the country where children and women are dying and judge. The contradictions that exist in terms of fairness, justice and equity are legendary. The simplest measurement is the condition of life for individuals and families on the ground.

In countries that used to be called “banana republics (Central America and the Caribbean) and natural resource curse nations (many Sub-Saharan African countries),” elites in power squandered natural resources at the expense of their populations. Yemeret neteka ena kirimit in Ethiopia does practically the same. Waters and farmlands are equivalent to or better than petroleum and gas, diamond and gold, bananas and fruits and so on. Ethiopia’s waters and farmlands are potential sources of riches and must be protected from the plunder that emanates from unguided and unregulated globalization and foreign direct investments; as well as political and economic elite capture. Just remember the millions of Ethiopian youth who need opportunities: jobs, new and income enhancing opportunities including commercial farms. Why should they allow transfer of these resources to the Saudis, Indians, Egyptians, Pakistanis, Turks and others? Would these nations and nationals allow the reverse? Not in your dreams.

Massive transfers of water basins and fertile farmlands from Ethiopians to foreigners and domestic loyalists–all done in the name of development–do threaten sovereignty, citizenship, and the future of millions of Ethiopian youth as well as the environment. They make inhabitants aliens in their own country; they make them more vulnerable. They disempower the poor and drive them to urban areas where there are no alternatives for employment. In this sense too, the Ethiopian developmental state is not at all an empowering but controlling state. In contrast, the Chinese and Vietnamese or Brazilian developmental state creates the conditions to release the productive potential of all citizens. Here is my overall conclusion. Mismanagement and misallocation of natural resources subverts the future. It is distortions in national economic and social policy that makes the so-called developmental state in Ethiopia self-serving and opportunistic. Gaining immediate cash in the form of foreign exchange and riches for the few will, inevitably, lead to uneven development and will aggravate income disparities, corruption and diversion of resources.

The Ethiopian people and especially its youthful population that constitutes more than 50 percent–40 million of whom were born after the TPLF/EPRDF took political power in 1991–deserve better and empowering and freedom enhancing governance.

Knowledge is critical in the pursuit of change

Much, perhaps much too much, has been said about how bad things are for the vast majority under the TPLF/EPRDF. No day passes that someone, somewhere and somehow does not reveal the horrific untold stories of the authoritarian core that leads the country. I like to make a cautionary note though. One, let us pin down the reasons why change is necessary and for whom? Two, let us conduct serious soul searching on why opponents are incapable of setting aside minor differences to create strong and sustainable coalitions and partnerships. Here, I admit that all of us have failed to identify the reasons why the opposition camp–civil or political–outside the country is still in disarray. It seems to me that the primary reason is that we are not guided by the needs of the country and the population consistently.

I do not write these articles for the sake of writing. There are many other things that I can do. My intent is to provide analytical tools for those within the opposition camp within and outside the country who believe in one common cause, one country and for a unified and diverse population whose hopes and aspirations for justice, freedom and opportunity are similar regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation.

The moral imperative that should give us all sleepless nights is not simply to know and appreciate indescribable poverty, disempowerment and hopelessness, repression and persecution done one by one relentlessly, but to respond to this crisis in meaningful and substantive ways. We cannot do that unless we equip ourselves with knowledge and information that is credible and incontestable. Equally, no amount of knowledge or information can lead or contribute to change unless it leads to action. We saw and still see in North Africa and the Middle East–even here among youth who protest against Wall Street—that action requires collaboration and teamwork. The first step seems simple to non-Ethiopians but complex for Ethiopian elites. This is to set aside differences and make the needs of the Ethiopian people central and foremost in our thinking and actions.

Some skeptics may continue to believe the story line of the top the top leadership of the governing party and its allies that the regime is on the verge of creating the next ‘Singapore’ or another Tiger in Africa. I wish this was the case. It is not and cannot be. A Tiger like economy cannot be created without wide-spread participation of citizens and without a dynamic domestic private sector owned and managed by Ethiopians from diverse backgrounds. If it has not managed to achieve food self-sufficiency and security in 20 years, how would it transform the national economy into middle-income (MIC) status in the next five?

Before I close Party three of this series, I will pose a simple question for all of us to ponder. ‘Why does Ethiopia remain poor after an estimated US$40 to US$50 billion in all forms of foreign aid (official and unofficial) since 1991?’  I will give you my take. Ethiopia remains poor because of un-caring, cruel, repressive, discriminatory, non-participatory, unaccountable and exclusionary governance.

In part four, I shall provide a few global measurements used by reputable research, multilateral and other firms to firm-up the above thesis. These measurements will present one simple pattern: a graphic picture of poverty in a country that should not be poor. You can read and rationalize the reasons and express cynicism about the persistence of poverty and dependency. You can make this piece or anyone’s piece on the subject a one evening conversation with family and friends. You can cry in your homes, as do numerous foreigners-who visit Ethiopia, and express outrage as they witness the grossest inequality and ‘indescribable’ poverty they had ever seen-in the privacy of their hotels (Bill Easterly’s The White-man’s burden). You can also choose to let your voice and indignation known in partnership with others. This is the meaning of collaboration for a bigger cause.

In part five, I intend to propose a set of recommendations or a framework to stimulate conversation that will, hopefully, lead to concerted action in support of individuals and groups within Ethiopia who sacrifice their lives and their families in defense of justice, freedom, equality, peace and national reconciliation. I genuinely believe that the Diaspora’s contribution will depend entirely on whether or not its active support is sustainable and is anchored in the Ethiopian people, especially its youth, and in the country’s future.

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