11 January 2016

Ethiopia: Planning Without Accountability Serves Politics Only

editorial

The last time Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn appeared in front of the 547 Members of Parliament (MPs), dominantly from his ruling coalition, the agenda on the table was the Second Growth & Transformation Plan (GTP II). As usually is the case, though, he did not limit his discussion to the agenda.

He instead used the opportunity to deal with pertinent political issues, such as the public protest in Oromia, the spread of informal gun sale and the issue of good governance.

For a prime minister who is increasingly consolidating his power base, the parliamentary session intended to approve the first medium-term plan since the times of the late Meles Zenawi, a personality considered the mastermind of the policy stances of the EPRDF, was another opportunity to showcase that he is in command.

With the popular inclination being to compare things with how they were under Meles, it is not surprising to see Hailemariam dedicating much of his time to explaining the economic aspect of the plan. What the era of Meles has shown is that economic literacy is the key to the hearts and minds of the large contingent of cadres under the hierarchies of the ruling party.

In a House packed with parliamentarians, most of whom opted to ask improvised questions, Hailemariam appeared confident, informed and analytical. He oscillated between unpretentious analysis and revealing emotionality to tell the MPs about the way his executive branch thinks and acts. It was vividly clear that Hailemariam had got his unique voice in the ruling party.

Little has changed in the policy lines, though. On the main agenda of the day, for instance, the defining line remains "to plan ambitiously." In the words of Hailemariam, "planning ambitiously is mandatory." And economic growth is considered as "not a choice, but an existential issue." The case with the other issues discussed at the December 25, 2015 session, was no different.

Planning ambitiously is one thing, but realising the plans is completely a different issue. Hailemariam's visible confidence at the last parliamentary session would have been reasonable had his government performed satisfactorily during the first Growth & Transformation Plan (GTP I). Unfortunately, that was far from the case.

On major macroeconomic and sectoral targets, GTP I witnessed sizeable shortfalls. Annual export targets, for instance, were never been met in any of the years of the planning time. Growth of agriculture lagged behind the plan. Average annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth was lower than the base case scenario of 11.4pc.

Power generation, mining, livestock development, small and medium enterprises development, water supply and sanitation, infant and maternal mortality, and telecom expansion all saw considerable shortfalls. Average performance in these sectors was less than 40pc.

By and large, the ambition that donors and critics were worried about at the outset appeared a real-time dragging factor under GTP I. Latest estimates, by some development experts, show that the performance of the plan could only be between 40pc and 50pc. On agricultural scaling-up, for instance, Hailemariam admitted that only 50pc was achieved.

It is not clear why the ruling elite wanted to go for yet another ambitious plan, while their last plan was largely a failure. They may be playing politics. But the risk of a political game that provides ready made evidence for scrutiny is indeed huge. Not even a well-established political force, such as the EPRDF, could save its skin from thoughtful examination by the public, researchers, interest groups and political opponents.

Of course, tactically, the ruling EPRDFites appear wise for making their plans after elections. This ensured that they would not be facing electoral challenges because of their plans. This, however, does not mean that scrutiny will be completely avoided. It only means that its political impact will be significantly reduced.

One thing that seems to be missing from the policy sphere of the ruling EPRDF is the courage to admit failure. Even when the failure is too big to hide, the Revolutionary Democrats do not dare to admit it. They instead create bouts of excuses. This has been the case with GTP I and its predecessors - the Plan for Accelerated & Sustained Development to End Poverty (PASDEP) and Sustainable Development & Poverty Reduction Program (SDPRP).

In the parliamentary session that saw the GTP II approved, for example, Hailemariam opted to pronounce the failures under GTP I as "gaps to learn from". Instead of taking the failure upon his administration, he mentioned "implementation capacity" as the factor behind the shortfalls. What is even more puzzling is the fact that GTP II is also left with no system of accountability. Hence, there is no way to avoid repeating the events in 2020.

By way of lacking the courage to admit failure and standing accountable, the ruling elite has reduced planning to a mere political instrument. It is only when there is systemic, institutional and personal accountability that plans could serve as wholesome instruments of socio-economic development. Else, they will be mere completions of wish lists. The case with plans under the EPRDF are inching to the worst case scenario.

Planning experiences around the world, from Malaysia to South Korea, from Vietnam to China, show that accountability structures are key to success. Functional structures of accountability are even more vital when a country wishes to transform its economy from an agricultural mainstay to an industrial one. In China, for instance, political mobility within the ruling Communist Party is strongly aligned with performance in implementing plans.

In the case of the ruling EPRDFites, however, the intention is to have the cake and eat it too. It is due to this groundless inclination that the popular official line on GTP I is all about "success", while the facts in the ground are about considerable failure. Sadly, no one appears to take responsibility.

As GTP II comes to the scene, these trends remain worrisome. It would not be justifiable for the ruling elite to go ahead with the plan without establishing a functional accountability system in the different tiers of the government. If the plan is to serve as a tool of comprehensive policy guidance, be it in the economic or social sectors, it ought to be backed with clear, tailored and practical procedures of accountability. Who is accountable for what has to be known. Systems of awarding best implementers and punishing foot-draggers ought to be put in place.

At the higher level, the top leadership of the executive has to take responsibility for the implementation of the plan. This may be done by including a signed letter of responsibility in the planning document, as the case in Malaysia, or by way of a political process, as the case in China. Whichever way it goes, taking responsibility is essential.

Systems of accountability also need a mindset to be open to results. Be it positive or negative, results have to be considered openly. And when lessons are learned, the application of that learning ought to be done in a comprehensive manner.

Surely, a government that foresees to take a nation through the journey of structural economic transformation, needs a leader who is able to create consensus in the face of challenges. And Hailemariam may be considered as such, for his appearance came after the death of the widely respected Meles. Nonetheless, the bumpiness of the journey will only be defined by the systemic elements the leader puts in place.

That is why having effective systems of accountability matters to the success of the GTP II and the economic objectives foreseen to be achieved in it. Failure to have them will leave the nation to unaccounted economic turbulence and sessions of political excuses. And there is nothing to be gained in such an approach, except inculcating insanity defined by Albert Einstein as "doing the same things over and over again, but expecting different results."

Ethiopia

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