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Cruel Ethiopia’

In response to:

Cruel Ethiopia from the May 13, 2010 issue

To the Editors:

Development assistance is a complex and difficult task. In a recent article, “Cruel Ethiopia” [NYR, May 13], Helen Epstein highlights some of the challenges. However, I think that Ms. Epstein’s argument conflates two closely linked, but separable, topics.

Fundamentally, development assistance aims to promote national development for the country and the reduction of poverty for its people. In this regard, Ethiopia has an impressive performance, with economic growth accelerating sharply on a sustained basis since about 2003, despite the global economic crisis. Since 2000, Ethiopia has recorded the second-fastest improvement in human development in the world, according to the UNDP Human Development Report 2009. This measure relates to more Ethiopians living a longer and healthier life, being better educated, and having a decent quality of life.

With regard to the globally agreed Millennium Development Goals, Ethiopia is making significant progress in all areas. The country is on track to meet goals relating to extreme poverty and hunger, universal primary education, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases, and developing a global partnership for development. Good progress is also being made in reducing child mortality and ensuring environmental sustainability. Despite having already achieved gender parity in primary schools, Ethiopia is likely to fall short, as of 2015, on the targeted improvements for promoting gender equality and empowering women and improving maternal health.

These achievements in national growth and poverty reduction are important measures by which donors assess the effectiveness of their support to Ethiopia. They show that donor funding to the country and peoples of Ethiopia has yielded substantial results that have had a significant impact on improving the lives of the poorest families. They are also testimony to the government’s strong commitment to improving basic services and building a backbone of infrastructure (i.e., roads and electricity) that can facilitate economic growth. Such government commitment is central to sustained progress in the development process.

As important as they are, the results sketched out above are not enough, for ultimately the goal of development in every country is the freedom for every individual to realize his or her full potential. There are concerns about the overall governance of the country, efficiency and fairness of resource use, the risk of dependence on aid, and protection of basic human rights, as Ms. Epstein points out. We recognize these concerns, and development partners in Ethiopia take them seriously.

We start, however, with a belief that in every country people want to be self-reliant and prosperous, and to develop a transparent, accountable, effective, and efficient governance system. Ethiopia is no exception. Our task, as an external development partner, is to support that innate tendency.

However, building institutions, public and private, that assure every citizen’s right to and effective delivery of public services takes a long time; indeed, it never ends, as we can see even in the most industrialized countries. Changes are incremental, and at times they may suffer serious setbacks. It is, therefore, crucial that development partners work with the long-term process of change, always in support of it, not in control of it (which is impossible in any case).

Of course, this does not mean that we ignore the negative impact that our assistance may bring. That is why we monitor the effects of our assistance closely and maintain continual dialogue with the host government on issues that hinder a robust and sustainable development process. And this is precisely the approach we follow in our efforts to assist Ethiopia.

Ken Ohashi
Country Director for Ethiopia and Sudan
World Bank
Washington, D.C.

Helen Epstein replies:

While Ethiopia is indeed making good progress on AIDS and malaria, I’m less confident about its progress on extreme poverty and hunger given that some 12 million people there would likely starve without food aid. I’m also skeptical about the nation’s economic growth rate, and so is The Economist, which describes both the “puniness of the economy” and how the government’s “centralised control continues to inhibit enterprise and depress growth.”1
Such findings relate to Mr. Ohashi’s main question. In “Cruel Ethiopia,” I dealt with the issues of poverty reduction and health on the one hand, and human freedom on the other, because I think they are related. Of course, levels of poverty and disease have fallen sharply in some repressive societies, from Cuba to China, but this does not mean there is no relationship between repression and economic and social development.
In order to survive, the poor farmers I met in southern Ethiopia may not need a change of government every four to eight years, desirable as this may be. But at the very least they do need the political space to negotiate grievances concerning everyday well-being, such as perceived unfair or politicized exclusion from jobs and humanitarian programs, overtaxation, and decisions about how to manage their land. Right now many Ethiopians don’t have this space, and no vertically administered food aid or agricultural extension program will ever substitute for it.
An extreme version of what is happening in parts of Ethiopia now is China’s radical, top-down, “Great Leap Forward” development program for agriculture and industry between 1958 and 1961. Though the Chinese campaign was linked to efforts to improve public health, it is now believed to have been responsible for some 30 million deaths. Under Prime Minister Meles, whose party in late May swept to victory in yet another election marred by rigging and repression, Ethiopians have not suffered on that scale but they are subject to authoritarian programs that have caused much harm.

China learned from this experience. While the government still represses intellectuals and protesters, many others have been able to express their entrepreneurial creativity in agriculture, industry, business, and public health, enabling them to solve their immediate problems not according to a government or development agency plan, but as they see them. This emancipation, though far from complete, has contributed enormously to China’s development success. Let’s hope Ethiopia learns this lesson too, before it is too late.

  1. 1

    Five More Years,” The Economist, May 20, 2010. See also Stefan Dercon et al., “In Search of a Strategy: Rethinking Agriculture-led Growth in Ethiopia,” Oxford University, May 2009.

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