4 January 2016

Ethiopia: The Business of Hunger and the Rights of the Poor

opinion

Why the individual should be at the center of development thinking

Once again Ethiopia is facing a major food crisis which could threaten the lives of as many as 15 million of its people. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), the recent drought is one of the worst in a decade. The immediate cause of the drought is attributed to the El Niño, a weather condition in the pacific which significantly reduced the much needed rainfall in the country. UNOCHA's latest figure shows the need for $596 million in food assistance, which the government in Ethiopia appealed to its international development partners. So far only 43 percent of this need has been met by the international development partners.

Understandably, The recent drought and the looming food crisis brings memories of the 1984 Ethiopian famine, which claimed the lives of about half a million people, tarnished the country's image and made Ethiopia to be known as the poster child for humanitarian aid. The BBC's Michael Buerke's report about the famine, with its image of starving children, shocked the international community and galvanized an unprecedented humanitarian support ever seen in history.

Notably Ethiopia's 1984 famine happened during the Derg regime led by Mengistu Hailemariam, a communist despot who reigned over a government which committed some of the worst massacres in human history. As such it is interesting to note that most of the worst famines in human history happened in the context of some of the most repressive regimes where despots and authoritarians wantonly silence dissenting voices. Stalin's collectivization of agricultural land and political repression led to a large-scale famine, which claimed an estimated five to seven million lives of Ukrainians from 1932 to 1933. During Mao's 'Great Leap Forward' in China, collectivization of land and political persecution claimed the lives of an estimated 20 million people from starvation between 1958 and 1962.

A more recent study titled "Famine in the Twenty First Century" and written by Stephen Decereux has looked into the history of 30 major famines and clearly showed the direct link between famine and lack of good governance.

Admittedly, after the overthrow of Mengistu's dictatorship, Ethiopia, under the leadership of the governing ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has made considerable economic achievements. The country has made progress in infrastructural development and economic growth averaging 10.8%, according to World Bank figures. Nevertheless, Ethiopia's political situation and human rights record is bleak. A recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) shows that Ethiopia is the fourth most censored country in the world with dismal record on freedom of speech and basic political liberties.

In the recent general elections in April 2015, the incumbent won all the 547 seats in the national parliament, which rights groups characterized as a mockery of democracy. In the aftermath of the contested 2005 national election, Ethiopia's democratic trajectory was reversed to a creeping all out authoritarianism. In 2009 the government adopted draconian laws including the Anti-terrorism proclamation, the charities and Societies Law and the Mass Media Information Proclamation which were repeatedly used as political tool to silence dissent. All these factors have significantly choked the political space and the ability of individuals to contest dominant political narratives of the EPRDF in the marketplace of ideas. In short Ethiopians are free to consume state led propaganda or face the consequences of contesting it.

The equation of development partners

For the UN, development agencies of individual countries and the international community at large, Ethiopia provides a test case where conflicting international interests overlap. On the one hand, Ethiopia is seen as a reliable ally for not only the 'war on terror' but also a remarkable success story (and a poster child) in the fight against poverty and its commitment to ensure 'sustainable development'. The aggressive diplomatic moves by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in portraying the country as one of the success stories of economic development in Africa has earned the country praise and support from the international community. As a result Ethiopia became one of the most prominent destinations for foreign aid and a good example of aid success stories which brings in relief to its donors. Since the year 2011, Ethiopia received on average US$ 3.6 Billion in foreign aid, making it one of the most significant recipients of foreign aid in the world.

But on the other hand, the government in Ethiopia has been criticized for its authoritarian tendencies and repressive measures on dissenting voices. Despite international criticisms and pressure from rights groups, the regime's grip on power and repression continues unabated, while its development partners continue to run short of the necessary political will to exert pressure, merely paying lip service to human rights concerns.

Not a matter of choice

If human rights concerns and governance issues are not adequately addressed, the vicious cycle of poverty and of deprivation will continue to haunt Ethiopia. Short term economic gains will continue to elude its fundamental structural problems; the problems of the deficit of democratic political governance which persistently constrain its democratic trajectory and economic development. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen's famous quote that no country in a democracy has experienced famine best describes the current situation in Ethiopia.

In a very captivating article "Food and Freedom" Amartya Sen remarkably demonstrates the these facts. Ethiopia had more yields of crop per household than India which had a much bigger population when the 1984 famine struck the former. But India had begun laying down the foundation for consolidating its political governance which led the country to be known as the 'largest democracy in the world'. Its vibrant civil society, media and political parties enabled India to avoid any famine in its entire history by facilitating better coordinated responses and managing risks. On the other hand, Ethiopia was under the brutal regime that destroyed the social and political fabric of the country, which left communities vulnerable.

The great French political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said: "the nature of things [do] not madden us, only ill will does." This quote has great theoretical resonance with the socio-economic reality of contemporary Ethiopia and the looming famine as well as its relation with its international development partners. The immediate cause of the current drought and the looming famine is attributed to the dry spell cased by El Nino. Nevertheless, the undeniable fact of Ethiopia's continuous vulnerability to drought and famine has been its inability to establish and consolidate its democratic transition. The economic system is directly and significantly constrained by political factors such as rampant corruption, a business community that works under political patronage and clientelism, a judicial system that has little functional independence and where the rule of law is severely curtailed as well as a system of government with little political accountability and carless about political incentives to address wide ranging socio-political challenges.

William Easterly, in his recent book the Tyrany of Experts has meticulously demonstrated the unparalleled significance of a good system of political governance in development. He has done great justice by exposing the complete disregard of political and human rights considerations in development agencies including international financial institutions. The West's indifference in approaching the development problem of poor countries as a purely technocratic issue has hampered efforts to address lack of good governance issues in developing countries such as Ethiopia. It is also ironic to see that while Western states have a robust system of human rights protection and political governance, they are increasingly failing to demand genuine political reforms in poor countries.

Honest and dedicated scholars from Fredrick Hayek to Amartya Sen to William Easterly have clearly demonstrated with evidence time and gain that the root cause of famines and poverty in poor countries lies in the lack of democratic governance. And in the big business of aid agencies, where technocrats and development economists have gained so much benefit and prestige, there are also those who were brave enough to expose the flaws of the status quo and demand a major shift in development thinking. It is important to listen to their critic and focus on the root causes of poverty.

Unless, the leadership of the EPRDF shows a political commitment to change this structural political governance deficit, its economic resilience in the face of drought and its ability to cope with recurrent food shortages will continue to haunt the country. This is a political reality that its development partners have also to come to terms with. Democracy cannot be exported, neither is it desirable to do so. But Ethiopia's development partners including the United States and the EU have significant political leverage to demand political reforms and support local civil society initiatives. If we continue to ignore the plight of poor people and the increasing authoritarian trend of the EPRDF led government in Ethiopia, it's not long before famine and the risk of conflict revisits the country.

Development cannot be dissociated from human rights; in fact the right to development itself defines development as the continuous fulfilment of fundamental freedoms. A lasting peace and development can only be established in a solid democratic practice that respects the fundamental rights of a society and freedoms of individuals by making the individual at the centre of development thinking. It is about time that we focus on addressing the enduring problems of political governance in poor countries rather than wasting the much needed resources of aid money that cannot fundamentally change the course of development of these States.

Ed's Note: Mesenbet Assefa Tadeg is PHD Candidate and Fellow at the Irish centre for Human Rights, National University of Ireland, Galway. He can be reached at tsehay2000@gmail.com

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