Addis Fortune (Addis Ababa)

Ethiopia: Localised Clientelism

My experience at two recently inaugurated international hotels in our fair city left me with a sense of anger, confusion and hopelessness. It even pushed me to browse through the archive of my memory to look for some kind of trend and reach some sort of conclusion. The trend I discovered, I found a little worrisome.

One of the hotels is owned by a renowned long-distance athlete. I was there to meet a friend, who had just arrived from Nairobi, Kenya, for a short visit to Ethiopia. What confused me was the fact that everyone, from customers to the waitresses, in this four-star international hotel were from the same ethnic background.

Their communication was in a regional language, and they even came to every customer with the assumption that they were from the same ethnicity. None seemed to be interested in using the national language, let alone an international tongue.

Still feeling overwhelmed by this experience, I faced the same situation in one of the five-star hotels inaugurated recently. The case is even worse in this latest place, for the treatment of customers is less considered and verging on abusive. It goes to the extent of managers openly expressing their disinterest to serve local customers who speak a different language than their own.

My mental tour for similar experiences took me through companies, including banks, tour and travel agencies, cafes, transit companies, industries, consulting firms and public enterprises, wherein ethnicity, religious affiliation, language, political attitude and values determine business relationships. We seem to be establishing an economy dispersed along uneconomic lines. We are creating a system that lives by trading affiliations, rather than goods or services.

A strong economy works by the very principles of the market. Any rational consumer with effective demand and the ability to pay is supposed to be treated equally by the market. Markets differentiate between two demands backed with equal ability to pay by putting a limit to their supply. This is not theory. Rather, it is how markets of most developed nations work, regardless of their divergence from the textbook model. If there is any social justification within the markets, therefore, it will be embraced within the very values of the goods and services. Otherwise, no social judgments exist within effective markets.

Our economy, on the other hand, seems to be breeding ethnicised empires within it. It is creating biased partnerships and judgmental relationships.

Factors other than economic reasons seem to predominate relationships. Business issues, such as human resource management - which ought to be handled with purely professional drives - are seen swimming in the waters of religious judgments and ethnicisation.

I wonder how an economy could function effectively while implicit social values drive its operation - contrasting with the very fundamental principles of economics. Where would this faulty business-to-business and business-to-consumer relationship end?

I feel that the ethnic and religious over-consciousness that happened after the change in government in 1991, coupled with the prominent place provided to these same values under the federalism of the day, is creating smaller empires of narrowness within the larger system. What remains worrisome is that these empires struggle to be self-sufficient. By virtue of their attitude towards other empires, each of them avoids communicating.

Huge growth potential is being lost under this very inefficiency. My recent exposure, for instance, was to an empire built on the basis of religious affiliation, which constitutes a hotel, a commodity supplier, a transit company, a tour agency, a car rental, an event organiser, a bank and a cleaning service provider. Each of the companies involved in this empire survive on the shoulders of the other. It is crazy how narrowly we end up defining doing business.

The more I become conscious of the development, the more I got worried about the future of our economy. There is no way that we could sustain the economic growth of the past decade, largely realised by the huge public investment push, under a business regime that excludes customers and partners on the basic of subjective values. We might even limit the very potential of our economy by furthering its inefficiencies.

In most developed nations, such things are avoided by detailed rules of competition and service provision. Advanced regulators, which have the ability to efficiently identify service provision irregularities, would even make it more difficult for businesses to ignore the very basics of doing business.

Our fair nation needs the same business regime. Left unattended, our localised clientelism, built on our untested assumptions about ethnic and religious values, could cripple our businesses and our economy. It could even breed factors of further dispersion, until it eventually leads to social and political instability.

It is now time for us to avoid our narrowness and to do business for business's sake. We ought to treat every customer equally. So too should we use social instruments, including language, in a way that does not exclude others.

Getachew T. Alemu Is the Op-Ed Editor for Fortune. He Can Be Contacted At Getachew@addisfortune.com.

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