Publications by Eva Poluha and Elehu Feleke




.. is a thoughtful, well researched and compelling attempt to make sense of why Ethiopia … remains one of the poorest nations of the world.”

Kristine Morris, Foreword reviews


Ethiopia is one of the oldest still existing state formations in the world. The predominantly agrarian population has developed diversified food cultures and domesticated a number of major food plants like teff, ensete, nug (Guizotia abyssinica) and coffee. Paradoxically, the name Ethiopia was until recently almost synonymous with mass starvation. Even today, food security is a major problem and the country is one the poorest in the world.

THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX: ESSAYS ON THE HISTORY AND (UNDER) DEVELOPMENT OF ETHIOPIA is an attempt to make sense of this “enigma”.  The book is divided into three parts.

Part 1 deals with the historical background. There are a number of scholarly works on the history of Ethiopia. Some cover only particular periods; others focus on the (now defunct) “Solomonic” dynasty. This book attempts to present a concise and coherent picture of Ethiopian history from the first to the twenty-first centuries, focusing particularly on the long history of interactions between the different parts and populations in the Ethiopian region. In the process, a number of “axioms” (like a supposed history of ethnic feuds) and specific counter-narratives are discarded. Thus, contrary to the usual picture of the Oromo people as constantly oppressed and marginalized, the study reveals that the Oromo people have not only contributed to the intermingling of the Ethiopian population, but also that Oromo warlords have alternated with Tigray and Amhara warlords as supreme rulers over the realm.

Part 2 addresses the current situation by surveying the human, institutional and natural resources as well as the structure of the Ethiopian economy. The main goal behind the surveys is to examine in what respects the social and political environment is conducive to rapid economic development and if there are trends indicative of a structural transformation of the economy. The survey shows that despite the recent surge in the growth of GDP, there are a number of important constraints and challenges to rapid development.

Part 3 deals with development and underdevelopment from a broad perspective. Starting with the question of how “the West” became rich, the study uncovers concrete historical circumstances that facilitated the sharing and accumulation of scientific knowledge. The East Asian economies (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan), that succeeded to catch up with the West did so by adopting available technology and knowledge. Suggesting that “catch-up” development should be the only appropriate goal for Ethiopia and Ethiopians as well, the authors argue that it is essential to “think outside the box” to surmount the challenges and constraints to such a development.


Excerpt 1: (pp 178 -184 in the Book)

Summing up

(the Review of Ethiopia’s History)

Before closing the historical review extending from the time of Aksum to the end of the twentieth century, we believe it is worthwhile to reiterate the most important points we raised concerning some misconceptions or misrepresentations about Ethiopian history.

1. The first question  concerns the artificial distinction that some authors try to create between the names Ethiopia and Abyssinia. As mentioned earlier,  the historical evidence suggests that the rulers of Aksum referred to the country as Ethiopia when writing in Geez or Greek and as Habesha or  Habeshat when writing in Sabean (an extinct South Arabian language). Even today ordinary Ethiopians say Ethiopia or Ethiopian in writing and in more formal speech, but use “Habesha” in informal conversation. The name “Abyssinia” is a European creation derived from the Arabic name, Habesh, for Ethiopia. Thus, to all intents and purposes, Ethiopia, Habesha and Abyssinia refer to the same entity. Those who insist on making a  distinction are those who want to claim that “Abyssinians” (meaning Amharas and Tigrayans) conquered the “non-Abyssinians” in the nineteenth century to form the “Ethiopian Empire.” Our review of Ethiopia’s history  makes it clear that it was predominantly Amharic- and Oromiffa-speaking warlords who spearheaded the process.

2.This brings us to a  related misrepresentation that also needs to be resolved. Following the counter-narratives that we mentioned in our introductory chapter, there  has been some debate on whether Ethiopia has a history of 3,000 years or  only 100-odd years. Those who claim a history of 3,000 years base their  assertion on the unsubstantiated story that the Imperial dynasty that ended in 1974 was established by Menelik I, said to have been the son of King Solomon of Israel a nd the Queen of Sheba, alias Queen Makeda of  Aksum. We have as yet no evidence substantiating this claim. On the other hand, there is ample evidence that the history of the Ethiopian state is at least 2,000 years old, even though the details for the period between the 7th and 13th centuries A.D. are somewhat blurred. If the relation between the pre-Aksumite (Daamatite) state and the historical Aksumite state can be elucidated, the length of the history  may extend to 2,500 years or more. Those who insist on a history of  100-odd years base their claim on the proposition mentioned above – that the “Ethiopian Empire” was formed at the end of the nineteenth century  when the “Abyssinians” conquered the Southern regions to form a new entity called the “Ethiopian  empire.”

 3. The next question is how  to understand “the conquests” or the territorial expansion of the realm by Menelik II. To grasp the situation clearly, one has to see the history of the Ethiopian region in its entirety and not as a “truncated history,”  tarting from 1855 (when Tewodros II was crowned Emperor) or from 1890 (when Eritrea became an Italian colony). As our presentation of the     history of the Ethiopian state has demonstrated, the history of the region  was dominated by rulers who called themselves “Neguse Negest” (roughly translated as King of Kings or Emperor) and who adopted Christianity in the fourth century A.D. The extent of this domination varied throughout the centuries under the  influence of a number of other actors. The realm under the effective   control of the Christian monarchs waxed and waned according to the  relative strength of the monarchs and the other actors. During the last decades of the 19th century, the territory under the control of   the King of Kings was extended (for the third time in the history of the  region) with the expressed intentions of both restoring the ancient boundaries and resisting the European scramble for Africa. The resources of the whole region then contributed to the resistance against the external armed aggression –  firstly from European dominated Egypt and then British-inspired Italy. Because of this effective resistance, the European powers (particularly  Britain, France and Italy) who had subjugated the adjacent regions as colonies or “protectorates” were obliged to recognize the independence of Ethiopia and the boundaries of the Ethiopian empire were determined through international treaties. Through this process, the age-old realm of the King of Kings, the extent of which fluctuated according to     circumstances, was transformed into a modern nation-state with legally established international boundaries - a nation-state (in the common usage of the term) which subsequently gained membership in the League of Nations and also became a founding member of the United Nations. The process is therefore not the formation of a new empire, but that of transforming an age-old realm into a modern nation-state. Those who  disregard these facts and propagate for other narratives must assume, consciously or unconsciously, that such niceties of international relations are irrelevant when it comes to Africans.

4.The third question, which arises from the misrepresentations mentioned above, is whether modern Ethiopia is a collection of unrelated ethnic groups (held together, as some claim, by sheer force) or if there is “a mysterious magnetism” holding together “the crazy structure of the Ethiopian Empire.” Whether the magnetism could be called mysterious or not, our study and the     observations of authorities like Richard Pankhurst and Donald Levine     indicate that there has been a long history of close interactions among  the people of the Ethiopian region – through trade, military conflicts, large-scale migrations and inter-marriages across ethnic/linguistic religious divides.

5. Finally, why did the strongest (and allegedly ethnic-based) rebellion against the central government arise in the northern provinces of Eritrea and Tigray, the  greater parts of which have always been part of the historic Ethiopian  empire? Even though Tigrigna is the dominant language in both entities, the recent history of the region shows that the two entities have to be  seen separately.

In the case of Eritrea, European colonialism carved out the territory and its recent history has strong international involvement. Before its formation, Britain invited Italy to the area to deny Emperor Yohannes free access to Massawa, contrary to their pledge in the so-called Hewitt Treaty. Italy used various measures to establish Eritrea as a colony for penetrating the Ethiopian region economically and/or politically. Italy’s ambition led to the Battle of Adwa (1896) and later to the occupation of the whole region from 1936 to 1941. After the defeat of Italy in 1941, attempts by the Eritrean elite to unite with Ethiopia were frustrated by the ten-year old machinations of Britain and Italy, which finally led to the ill-conceived federation in 1951. In another ten years, the Unionists of Eritrea, assisted for sure by the Ethiopian Government, proceeded to dismantle the federal structure and make Eritrea a province of Ethiopia. This in turn kindled an armed opposition in Eritrea, which later grew into a protracted liberation struggle. The struggle was kept up by the inability of the Ethiopian government to solve the problem politically and the assistance provided by various Arab states (either because they were made to believe that the majority of Eritreans are Arabs, or because they specifically wanted to weaken Ethiopia).

The case of Tigray is very different. The main reason for revolt, as formulated by TPLF, was the “deliberate marginalization of the Tigray people” by the (Amhara) government in Addis Abeba. This is not, of course, a correct presentation of the problem. The peasants of Tigray were neither more nor less marginalized than the Amharic-speaking peasants of Gojjam, Gonder or Shewa. The most senior elites of Tigray were definitely not marginalized, as they were integrated with the Imperial family through high positions and a web of inter-marriages. It was only the intermediate elites of Tigray that were marginalized by two circumstances that followed on the death of Emperor Yohannes. Firstly, through the formation of Eritrea as an Italian colony, they lost their political and economic influence over the highlands of Eritrea and access to external trade through Massawa. Secondly, most of the national administrative posts in Ethiopia went to Shewans (and to Eritreans after the federation) and the share of Tigrayans was as meagre as that of Gojjam or Gonder.[5] Thus, the struggle and (subsequent dominance) of TPLF in the present government appears as a struggle for the restoration of the Tigrayan ascendancy that was lost after the death of Emperor Yohannes. As the excellent analysis of the conflict between TPLF and EPLF by Tekeste Negash and Kjetil Tronvoll demonstrates, the recent war between Eritrea and Ethiopia can also be seen as an expression of the conflicting ambitions of the Tigrigna-speaking elites of Eritrea and Tigray for economic and political hegemony in the Horn of Africa (Tekeste Negash & Tronvoll: 2000). Seen in this light, it also becomes easy to understand TPLF’s insistence, allegedly against the advice of EPLF, on the “right to self-determination, up to and including secession.” As noted earlier, this idea was probably introduced by the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) to the Ethiopian intelligentsia to popularize the idea of Eritrean secession during the 1960s. When EPLF, which replaced ELF, assumed full military control over Eritrea in 1991, EPLF found the idea of “self-determination, up to and including secession” more of a threat to its own hegemony in Eritrea, while TPLF insisted on the formula “as a fallback position” if its agenda of hegemony in Ethiopia would not work (ibid: 16).



Excerpt 2: (Chapter 7; pp. 321 – 364 in the Book)

On Development and Underdevelopment in Ethiopia


In the previous chapter (Chapter 6), we studied the process that enabled the “West” to become rich and how the Industrial Revolution created the so-called “Great Divergence” between the industrialized rich countries and the non-industrialized poor countries. We further reviewed the developmental experience of some countries in East Asia who have succeeded to bridge the big gap with the rich countries and attain the same economic status and standard of living as the West, while other countries like Ethiopia remain poor. We have also seen how the experience of the East Asian countries has given rise to an extensive literature on the “developmental state paradigm”, which we briefly reviewed.

We shall now examine Ethiopia’s underdevelopment and prospects for future development against the backdrop of the discussions presented in the previous chapters. To begin with, we have to clarify what we consider the ultimate objective of present and future development efforts in Ethiopia, as in any currently poor country, ought to be.

For some years, Ethiopia’s main development objective has been characterized as “poverty reduction” - presumably to conform to the objectives of the Millennium Development Goals. Currently, the Ethiopian government (GoE) is following a so-called “Growth and Transformation Plan” (GTP). This plan ended in 2015, and has been replaced by a second GTP. The expressed long-term goal of the Government of Ethiopia is to attain “middle income status” by 2025. Even though stating the goal in this manner may serve as a catchy slogan, the exercise is like aiming at a moving target. Since the economies of all other countries will presumably also grow, albeit at different rates, it will be impossible to determine where the cut-off level between low-income and middle-income countries will be in 10 or 15 years from now.

We would instead like to propose that the only reasonable objective is to aim for attaining the same standard of living that is at least average for the developed countries – unless one is prepared to claim that there is something inherently inferior with the Ethiopian (or other African) people and that they should therefore be satisfied with less. The aim should thus be, as it was for the “Asian Tigers”, to catch up with the most advanced countries of the world. It is obviously difficult to foresee how long the process may take. However, we have to assume that the goal is possible to realize because a) the experience of the East Asian “NICs” (e.g., South Korea and Taiwan) has demonstrated that “catch-up development” is achievable in a relatively short time; and b) the experience of Ethiopia during the last decade has also shown the possibility of speedy growth. This aim will have the added advantage of focusing on the conditions for sustainable and long-term development instead of on some numerical goals arbitrarily set by various experts.

Before discussing the requirements for “catch-up development”, we need once again to go back to history and pose the question why Ethiopia remained poor and underdeveloped. Once we have answered that question, we will examine the strengths and weaknesses of the current development efforts followed by a discussion of the main challenges and constraints for a “catch-up” development of Ethiopia. We shall then proceed to discuss why some constraints persist before offering some concluding remarks.

Why did Ethiopia Remain Poor?

As Paul Collier (2007) has noted, all societies have been poor. This does not necessarily mean that all members of all societies were poor. In each society, there has always been a minority who lived in relative prosperity. When we speak of poverty in societies, we are referring to the poor standard of living of the great majority of the members of that society. Broadly speaking, poverty implies inadequate access to the basic necessities of life – decent food and clothing, adequate shelter, and, in present-day society, adequate access to health services, education and information[6]

Throughout the past several millennia, human history has recorded several mighty and prosperous empires in different parts of the world such as the Chinese, Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Persian, Aksumite, Aztec, and Inca, empires. Judging from the monuments produced or the written records left from these empires, we can surmise that all of them were able to produce goods and services far above the needs for subsistence and that at least the elite lived in relative luxury. Another general observation that one can make about all these empires is that all of them had their periods of greatness, followed by periods of stagnation or decline leading to each empire being eclipsed or destroyed by other empires.

The collective memories and cultural heritage from these past “civilizations” may continue to influence the attitudes or customs of the people who have inherited their legacies. Nevertheless, we have to acknowledge that the economy and livelihood of all the people in the world today is being shaped by one global historical trend, namely, the steady growth in production that originated in medieval Europe and subsequently gave rise to the Industrial Revolution. As we have seen in a previous chapter, this development was the result of discernible historical “accidents” and did not depend on any inherent (genetic or other) superiority of the west Europeans or any supernatural interference.

Another basic observation that we can make about this global development is that all present-day societies that by now have eradicated or are in the process of eradicating poverty, have done so, or are doing so, by taking advantage of the technological skills and body of knowledge that have been accumulating during past centuries. Such knowledge was previously mediated through direct contacts between people or through books, magazines and various audio-visual media (pictures, films, videos, etc.). Today, a vast body of knowledge is also available on the internet, open for anyone with access to the internet to take part of, apply and develop further according to inclination and capacity. We would therefore rather liken today’s development agenda not as “getting on” or “missing” a boat (as Paul Collier suggests), nor needing help to get on the first rungs of “the ladder” of development (as Jeffrey Sachs suggests) but as a process of “stepping onto the bandwagon” of technological development. It means that even late-coming societies have the possibility to join the train, whenever they are ready for it. As an example, we can mention that the more advanced societies had telephone lines drawn to practically every home before mobile phones made such large investments superfluous. Developing countries are today making huge progress by adopting the technology of mobile phones and mobile broadband, thus bypassing the need to draw telephone lines to remote corners.

Looking at the current technological backwardness and economic under-development of Ethiopian society, especially in the light of the developmental experience of “the West” and the East Asian countries as discussed above, we have to conclude that Ethiopia failed to sufficiently embrace modern technology as, say, Japan did starting from the 19th century, or other countries did in the 20 th century. This failure was not due to “traps”, which some outside force is expected to fix, but to a succession of missed or messed up opportunities. This means that Ethiopian society, as well as any other society for that matter, has the opportunity to join the ongoing technological revolution, given sufficient determination.

If we look back to the time of antiquity, we can surmise that the economic and technological level of Ethiopian society was on a par with that of the most advanced regions of the world, particularly the Eastern Mediterranean region and the Middle East. Western Europe was presumably technologically more backward at the time. During the Middle Ages, when Western European technology began to advance, technology in the Middle East and Ethiopia was stagnating (even though the technology and economic power behind such marvels like the churches in Lalibela need to be elucidated).

One of the earliest contacts of the Ethiopian region with emerging European technology appeared in the form of firearms. According to Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, firearms came to Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Yesehaq (1414 - 1429) (E.A.: 2005: 547-549). Later on, firearms supplied to the Muslim states via the Ottoman Empire and to the Christian state via Portugal played major roles in the “jihadic” wars of the 16 th Century. Initially, the Muslim forces had the upper hand due to possession of 7 cannons and 200 muskets. When the Portuguese brought 6 cannons and 100 other guns, the Christians were able to regain the initiative and ascendancy. One could have expected that the introduction of such decisive technology would stimulate a desire to learn more about the technology, but we do not see any evidence of an attempt to study the mechanisms of the firearms. This is one example of a missed opportunity.

Faced with a similar situation, the Japanese reacted differently. When they saw firearms for the first time in the hands of shipwrecked Portuguese sailors, the military examined the mechanism and started to manufacture guns themselves (Maddison: 2007: 140). Even for Japan, this did not at the time lead to stepping on the train of European-led technological development, because contact with the outside world was rigorously restricted (just as in the case of Ethiopia) as a reaction to the political activities of Jesuit missionaries from Europe.

The self-imposed isolation of both Japan and Ethiopia was broken by pressure from American and European Imperialism, respectively, in the middle of the 19 th century. In the case of Japan, the pressure came in the form of imposed unequal treaties that both elite and common people resented. This, as we have seen, sparked a movement that led to rapid technological development and an all-out determination to absorb the knowledge and skills of the West, in order to make Japan equal to the leading nations of the world.

For the Ethiopian elite, the pressure came in the form of assaults on the independence of the country. The elite was thus forced to defend the independence of the country by whatever means available. The first military attack came from European-inspired Egypt. Emperor Yohannes IV decisively repulsed the attack. The next aggressor was Italy, implanted in the area by British colonialists. The first major attempt was again decisively defeated at the battle of Adwa in 1896. Rubenson (1976) attributes the survival of Ethiopian independence to the repeated underestimation by would-be colonizers of the country’s resolve to defend itself. The opposite side of this coin was the belief that was inculcated in the elite that Ethiopia could remain “an isolated fortress,” able to defend herself indefinitely, without having to change the socio-economic system. We attribute this belief to what we call “igno- arrogance.

Let us digress here to explain what we mean by this term. By “igno-arrogance,” we mean an attitude or course of action borne of arrogance superimposed on ignorance – a failure to realize or recognize one’s limited knowledge and one’s ignorance of what exists in the outside world. Not all “igno-arrogance” is necessarily detrimental. There is for example always an element of “igno-arrogance” when people decide to move to places they know very little about. Some do become successful in the new place despite the initial igno-arrogance. Some igno-arrogance can also just be silly or ridiculous. Take the example of raising the left fist during political rallies imposed by the military regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Ignorant of the universal norm of raising the right fist on such occasions, Mengistu or his advisors reasoned that it should be more appropriate for “leftists” and “genuine communists,” to raise their left fists. Imposing this reasoning on all people made it a subject of political jokes during Mengistu’s rule. A more detrimental example of “igno-arrogance,” was, of course, the bombastic belief expressed by Mengistu and his junta that they could achieve wonders through high-sounding slogans and brute force. “We shall defeat not only Reactionaries but also Nature!” (“Adharianen bitcha sayhon tefetronim ennashenifalen!”) was an often-repeated slogan of the time.

Returning to the examination of instances of missed or messed-up opportunities for modernization in recent Ethiopian history, the first major opportunity to step onto the bandwagon of technological development occurred at the beginning of the 20 th Century. After the battle of Adwa, Ethiopia was recognized as an independent sovereign nation, international treaties determined its territorial borders and the risk for further aggression was, at least temporarily, averted. At the same time, the technological backwardness of the country and the vulnerability of the state as the only independent nation in Africa should have been evident. The situation could thus have provided a strong impetus to embark on a program of modernization in the same manner as Japan.

We have seen that Emperor Menelik did make some tangible attempts at modernization. These attempts, however, were made against a seemingly compact resistance from the dignitaries and the clergy. At one time, the clergy reportedly threatened to ex-communicate the Emperor for sitting behind the steering wheel of a motor car because the motor car represented “the work of the Devil.” More significantly, his attempt to introduce modern education was vehemently resisted because of the fear that foreign teachers would contaminate the minds of youngsters away from the “right faith”. Consequently, the first modern school (Menelik II School), opened in 1908 only on condition that the foreign teachers were Coptic Christians from Egypt.

Despite such resistance, Menelik II was responsible for the commissioning of the Djibouti-Addis Abeba Railway line, the introduction of a rudimentary postal system, a banking system, a few telephone lines and the construction of some roads. Whatever other plans Menelik may have had came to a standstill when he fell ill in 1909. After his death in 1913, there was the usual protracted succession struggle that continued into the early years of the 1920s, by which time Ras Teferi Mekonnen, the future Emperor Haile Selassie, had emerged as the chief executive in the Ethiopian Government. Despite allegations to the contrary, Teferi/Haile Selassie was, at least during his early years, an ardent advocate of modernization. This can be witnessed by his attempts to modernize the administrative apparatus, establish a few more schools, break the isolation of the country through membership in the League of Nations, encourage the expansion of international trade and invite foreign experts from various countries of Europe and the U.S.

Not all these attempts however added up to a take-off on the path of technological and economic development because of a number of challenges and constraints:

  1. Firstly, the low level of the existing education and technology was a formidable limiting factor hampering the pace of  execution of any development plans.
  2. Secondly, the igno-arrogance of the traditional  nobility and clergy, who believed that the country could continue as an  “isolated fortress,” was a constant hindrance to all plans of  modernization.
  3. Thirdly, the Governments of Britain and Italy,  who regarded the existence of a prospering and independent African state as an affront to their racist world-outlook and a threat to their colonial  interests, were ready to frustrate the modernizing efforts.

The Italian invasion in 1935, an occupation that lasted until 1941, and several years of cold war with British colonialists, were of course developments that messed up the opportunities for modernization. It was only after the end of the Second World War that renewed efforts at modernization were attempted in earnest and a new development program was launched from the early 1950s. A National Economic Council was established in 1954 and at least three Five-Year Plans (1956 – 1961, 1962 – 1967 and 1968 – 1973) were prepared by the Imperial regime. The results were however meagre because the level of education and technology was dismally low and the igno-arrogance of the ruling establishment was still resistant to change.

Now, it may be pertinent to ask if the Imperial government could be called a “developmental state”. Contrary to allegations of being anti-development, the Imperial state had many features of the East-Asian type of developmental state. It had the required “pilot” agency in the National Economic Council, even though the expertise and autonomy of the agency may be questionable. It had “an industrial policy” in terms of being desirous to develop industrial production. The criticisms against the successive Five-year Plans used to be that they gave “more emphasis to industry than to agriculture” (Teferra Haile Selassie: 1997: 47). To achieve the goal of industrialization, the Emperor turned to the US government with an elaborate plan and a plea for economic assistance. As indicated in the book entitled Enlightened Aid: U.S. Development as Foreign Policy in Ethiopia, U.S aid officials had however no interest to support the Emperor’s plans for industrialization, because “the plan was to develop Ethiopia into the breadbasket of the Middle East, not into a clone of the industrial West” (McVety: 2012: 126). At any rate, it is noteworthy that the Ethiopian government under the Imperial regime established the great majority of the major industries operating in Ethiopia today. The Imperial regime thus appears to have had ambitions of being a “developmental state” (before the term was created) but the regime failed to realize its ambitions because it was not capable of implementing the necessary agrarian and political reforms.

This failure led in turn to the frustration and opposition from the minuscule intelligentsia. The attempted coup d’état of 1960, which ushered in a period of open revolt, differed from all previous attempts directed against the Emperor because:

1)    It stressed the need for political and economic reforms;

2)    Was led by people who were normally loyal to the Emperor but longed for change;

3)    It demonstrated the impatience of the intelligentsia with the status quo.

The period after the attempted coup d’état could have prompted more vigorous efforts at rapid technological and economic development. Unfortunately, this excellent opportunity was messed up because of two inter-related misfortunes.

The first misfortune was, to put it drastically, Emperor Haile Selassie’s longevity and lack of foresight. Had he been wise enough to read the “signs in the sky,” he could have arranged, as he had been advised repeatedly, for an orderly transfer of power at the zenith of his prestige, as for example after his triumphant success with the formation of the Organization of African Unity. If he needed any justification, he could have referred to precedents of past Emperors in Ethiopian history who voluntarily or involuntarily abdicated for one reason or another. Instead, he continued to cling to power until he was unceremoniously deposed in 1974.

The second misfortune was the diffusion of a “Marxist-Leninist” ideology among the minuscule intelligentsia despite the fact that at least those in Europe should have been able to see that the so called “Socialist” countries were plagued by widespread corruption and stagnant economies[7] and that the people were kept in place through fear of spy networks such as the KGB or the Stasi. The longing for “revolution” must have blinded the minds to realities. Just like their predecessors - the Revolutionaries of Russia and China - the Revolutionaries of Ethiopia were driven by the belief that an “enlightened” elite has the historical mission to free the oppressed masses from the yokes of “Feudalism” and “Imperialism”. Out of the igno-arrogance behind this naive claim of “knowing what is best for the oppressed masses” was also born a debating technique (still used in Ethiopia today) of silencing alternative views, not through reasoned debate but through a barrage of rhetoric and invectives and sometimes through violence.

As if this was not enough, the “revolutionary” intelligentsia divided themselves into warring factions, eventually preparing the political arena to ruthless demagogues, who could appropriate the revolutionary rhetoric to cover up a naked military dictatorship. Consequent to these developments, the last four decades of the 20th Century became decades of political turmoil and protracted armed conflicts, leaving no room for meaningful economic or technological development. The more unfortunate consequence of this development is that there is still no open debate on the applicability of the Marxist-Leninist ideology acquired during the 1970s.

Overall, after a whole century of aborted attempts and missed or messed up opportunities to step on the train of technological and economic development, Ethiopia sadly remains one of the poorest and technologically least developed countries in the world.

This is not to say, however, that only these missed or messed up opportunities will explain the dismal level of underdevelopment. Several factors in the political and social organization of the state (like the gult system of extracting surplus and the insecurity of gult tenures) have for sure contributed to maintain the extreme technological backwardness. Perhaps the most important factor, not only to explain past failings, but also to threaten future efforts for rapid technological development is the extremely pronounced resistance to change. The mechanisms through which this resistance to change is perpetuated even today has been documented by one of us (Poluha: 2004).

Current Development Efforts – Strengths and Weaknesses

To get an overview of the developmental efforts under the EPRDF government, we departed from two questions basic to development and economic change, namely 1) Is the environment in Ethiopia socially, politically and economically conducive to change? 2) Is value, resulting from investments in knowledge, techniques and/or machinery, being added to the goods and services in the production process in Ethiopia? In other words, has there been a move away from the production of or dependence on primary or raw materials to the production of secondary or tertiary products?

We sought the answers to these two questions through a review of the current Ethiopian human resources, some civil and public institutions, the natural resources and the major economic actors and activities. Our focus has been on the strengths and weaknesses within these fields as well as on the kind of policies and activities introduced by the EPRDF government to promote development. Focusing on the policies of the EPRDF government is warranted because the regime has allowed little room for other actors in the economy.

We have noted that the expressed objective of the Ethiopian government is to improve the situation of the poor rural population through reducing poverty. The explicit means to reach this goal has been to increase agricultural production. To promote productivity an encompassing system of extension services has been developed to make the farming population adopt new techniques and inputs and become more efficient in their agricultural production.

One of the first policies dealing with human resources and poverty reduction was a “Food Security” program which was later changed into what was entitled a “Safety Net” Program. The expressed objective of the latter was to protect five million people from predictable chronic food insecurity. Although the percentage of people living in poverty has been reduced as a result of the program the number of people suffering from poverty is the same due to population growth.

A second policy dealt with under human resources was ethnicity. The EPRDF party has emphasized the importance of ethnicity since its formation and in all its activities. They have even inscribed it in the Constitution – although using the somewhat diffuse terms of “nations, nationalities and peoples”. Government policies on ethnicity have resulted in most children (not all since some minorities have had to adapt to the majority language of the Region in which they live) being able to learn in the language spoken in their homes. For adults the policies have, among other things, implied that they can use the majority language in their dealings with the administration. A serious drawback with the EPRDF focus on ethnicity is, however, its exclusive emphasis on difference, on what separates groups, a focus that misses the positive contribution that can result from cooperation between people with different backgrounds and different traditions and where the varied experiences of all could substantially enrich the development process.

A third policy area regarding Human Resources and opportunities for development deals with population growth. To provide a quickly growing population with education, health and jobs can be economically strenuous. To slow down population growth the Ethiopian government has passed laws making it illegal for girls and boys to marry below the age of 18. At the same time school attendance has been made obligatory for both boys and girls. These measures were not only introduced to slow down population growth but also to improve the lot and status of women. Early results show that fertility rate has been going down from 4.8 children per woman in 2011 to 4.1 in 2014. It is possible that future evaluations of fertility rate will show that the impact of the laws, especially school enrollment, will be even greater.

A fourth field within human resources to whom the government has paid much attention is education. School education is today obligatory and teachers have been trained and schools built at a rapid pace all over the country. This is the case not only with primary and secondary schools but also many new colleges and universities have been established both by the government and by private enterprise. Access to educational institutions has thereby improved drastically. What remains a major problem is quality of education. National baseline assessments show very poor results due, it seems, to a variety of factors. One important reason is the generally poor quality of teachers in basic education, in vocational streams and in many colleges and universities. Other reasons are lack of school books, lack of libraries and laboratories, many students in class as well as a general perception of knowledge as something immutable which only exists in limited amounts and with which you arm yourself to pass examinations. Even more devastating to the educational standard is the lack of computers and the very limited access to the internet. Oftentimes neither university students nor even their teachers have access to important and for them relevant websites on the internet. Only 2% of the population has access to the internet in Ethiopia. Even for the few who do have access, the contents are usually censored, making it almost impossible for Ethiopian researchers to stand up to global competition in their fields.

A fifth policy area of importance to Human Resources and poverty reduction which the government has emphasized is access to basic health facilities for a majority of the population. At large expense the government has introduced basic health services all over the country focusing on preventive interventions through the training and establishing of Health Extension Workers (HEWs). The objective is to have two HEWs in each Kebele and today there are more than 35000 HEWs in Ethiopia. Many improvements have resulted from the health services program such as reduction of under-5 mortality and of stunting, more family planning and increased access to improved water supply, latrines and composts. Maternal mortality is still high, however.

What we have found most noticeable with EPRDF policies and activities regarding civil society and public institutions is the party’s seemingly insatiable need to control both institutions and the people working within them. This is done through a politicization of both civil society and public institutions something which has led to close monitoring of the party line, seeing to it that party leadership decisions are implemented and that what happens in the public and social arenas all are in line with the party’s programme. The party furthermore controls the population, civil society and media through laws such as the Charities and Societies Proclamation, the Media and Anti-Terrorism Law, as well as through practices such as imprisonment of for example bloggers. The party’s control thus prevents both civil society and media from having an arena in which to question what the party and state institutions have decided or done.

Party membership is also a requirement for most administrative positions making staff subject to their superiors in the party and job recruitment dependent on connections and political views rather than on merit and capacity to do the job. The political control of most civil society and public institutions has resulted in the spread of corruption with unequal access to education, to legal procedure and, not least, to vital economic contracts. There is little transparency due to lack of checks and balances within the system and because decision-makers are not accountable towards the population. As a result there is little public trust in the formal institutions and the social and political environment can in this sense not be considered as conducive to change.

Earlier we discussed that access to key natural resources can radically facilitate and speed up a development process especially if the resources are used for the whole population and in a sustainable way. Ethiopia’s main natural resources, as they are known today, are land and water. An overwhelming majority of the population still make their living from agriculture and since land has also become a globally coveted resource the Ethiopian government as the legal owner of all land today leases land to both urban Ethiopians and foreigners. The government’s expectation is that the lease program will result in investments, technology transfer and employment opportunities for Ethiopians. Since the contracts are so favourable to those who invest, however, and their products do not require advanced technology there seems as yet to be few gains, technological or employment wise, for the population with the land lease program. Various precious minerals are also exploited although the amount is so limited that their contribution to the country’s income is almost negligible. Explorations for oil and gas reserves are carried out by foreign companies but as yet no substantial deposits have been found. The government has invested heavily in hydro-electricity both to cover the country’s own needs and to sell some to neighboring states. Because of the long period of gestation, it is difficult to know how soon the government will be able to recover the costs.

A key to economic development, as we have discussed earlier, is that new kinds of goods and services are produced and that these have had so much value added to them as a result of new knowledge, techniques or machines that they can be sold at competitive prices on a global market. Development thus requires a transition from the production of primary to secondary products and services, a process accompanied by a move of people from the primary to the secondary and services sector. The Ethiopian government’s major economic policy has aimed at increasing agricultural production through the spread of improved techniques, seeds and breeds to the farm population. The logic has been that increase in agricultural production would, in turn, allow for an Agricultural Development Led Industrialization. To promote this goal the government has made heavy investments in the country’s infrastructure. Rural and main roads, bridges, markets and administrative offices have been built, large areas have been electrified and access to mobile networks has been developed. All these investments have together promoted the movement of both people and goods over increasingly larger areas.

To increase agricultural production per se, various policies have been devised. One such policy was to give farmers certificates to the land they cultivate with the proviso that since all land belongs to the state the government could take it back if found necessary. The idea behind the certificates was to give farmers more security to the land and thereby entice them to invest in both land and perennial crops. However, a recent study found that the threat of expropriation and the limited rights to transfer land have negatively affected long-term investment. In recent years, however, farmers have been given the right to lease land which has made it possible for especially the better-off to cultivate larger areas. Unless these measures are accompanied by firm and credible legislation prohibiting arbitrary expropriation, it is doubtful if there will be substantial increase in agricultural production and transformation of the economic structure.

The major approach used by the EPRDF government to increase agricultural production is otherwise the same as under both Emperor Haile Selassie and the Derg. The approach has implied emphasis on extension services in order to provide more advanced inputs and techniques to farmers. As we could see above the most capable and better-off farmers have been able to make use of extension offers and have thereby greatly improved their economic situation, mostly because they could lease additional land which they could also irrigate. The use of irrigation seems to be what has contributed most to increased agricultural production. Approximately 20% of the farm population seems to belong to the better-off category which can make use of irrigation as well as new seeds and breeds. For middle-income farmers (about 40%) uptake of new techniques, breeds and seeds has been much slower and poor farmers (also about 40%) have not been able to partake of the new offers at all. The two latter categories tend to avoid new costly investments since they imply a big risk. To borrow money can put these farmers into dangerous debt with possible loss of land if the weather turns bad and the harvest fails. The extension program has therefore only had limited success. Future studies might clarify other reasons why so few middle-income and poor farmers make use of the offers made by the extension services as well as how to assist these farmers better. It is possible that an approach which is more open to the farmers’ experiences and more “farmer-driven”, as suggested in an extension evaluation conducted in 2010[8], could yield better results.

GDP results from agriculture indicate that there is some increase in the volume of production but no structural change in the sector. Few new products are grown, except for flowers, and few have had so much value added that they can be sold on a global market. Instead we still find Ethiopia selling hides and not for example bags, shoes or garments made from locally produced animal skin, and there is export of washed coffee instead of coffee that has been ground, blended, packaged and branded for international customers. Even state and foreign investors continue to cultivate and sell standard products like cereals, pulses and oil seeds to which flowers for export have been added. Agricultural production has, as yet, not undergone any structural change or been developed enough to become the basis for industrial development; too little value has been added to the primary products.

As to the other sectors, we could see that there has been very little industrial development. As a matter of fact GDP figures for industry (13.5% in 2010/2011) have not changed much since the 1960s and the industrial sector only employs about 5% of the labor force. Furthermore, there are very few new, or improved-upon, industrial products made in Ethiopia. The major change in contribution to GDP can instead be found within the services sector where a few more advanced services are offered. In 2010/2011 distributive and other services made up about 46% of GDP. Still, government employment in administration, education and health account for much of the increase in services and yet the proportion of people employed within the services sector has not changed much since 1996, when it was 14% of the working population as compared to 17%, in 2011. As a whole we can say that there has been no big move of people away from the primary to the secondary or tertiary sectors with 80% still remaining within agriculture. (Table 7:1.)

To sum up we can say that our investigation shows that despite all the policies and programs beneficial to the poor and despite remarkable GDP growth, structural change in the overall production of goods and services in Ethiopia is almost negligible. Little value has been added in the production process and most products are still mainly made up of primary or raw materials. Furthermore, few people have moved from the primary sector to production within the secondary or tertiary sectors. As a whole, the social and political environment does not seem to encourage individual or private initiatives or be conducive to radical economic change or development.

Challenges and Constraints for Catch-up Development

Since the advent of the Millennium Development Goals and the steady growth of GDP since 2004, there has been a tremendous interest in Ethiopia’s economic performance leading to an abundance of reports and policy recommendations from various International “Donor Agencies” like the World Bank Group (WBG), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Some of the most important reports that have appeared recently include:

  •  (First) Economic Update, published by the WBG in November 2012
  • Second Economic Update, published by the WBG in June 2013
  • Third Economic Update, published by WBG in June 2014
  • Country Partnership Strategy Progress Report, published in October 2014 
  • Poverty Assessment Report, published by WBG in January 2015
  •  National Human Development Report 2014, published in April 2011

All the above and many others are fairly unanimous in

  • Asserting that Ethiopia is following a “Developmental State Model”,
  •  Lauding the robust economic growth registered, particularly since 2004,
  •  Lauding the impressive reduction in the percentage of citizens below the extreme poverty line (even though, as some point out, the absolute number is virtually unchanged – around 25 million)
  • Acknowledging the impressive expansion in educational facilities, health services and the heavy state-led investments in infrastructure.

All the reports also point to a number of constraints – in essence, the same constraints we have discussed in this study. Of the recurrent “challenges” and/or “constraints”, we find that the most prominent ones include:

  1. That, despite the impressive growth in GDP, the  economy does not show signs of structural transformation,
  2. That the domestic savings rate remains low as  compared to other countries that have achieved rapid growth,
  3. That the private sector is weak, or maybe “crowded out” by the dominance of the  state,
  4. At least one report (the Country Partnership  Progress Report) also mentions what other observers see as repressive policies by referring to “continuing issues of Ethiopian legislation on  the role of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and the media, and GoE’s  approach to internal security, which some observers consider infringes on human rights” (WBG: 2014, Oct).

The terms “constraints” and “challenges” are often used interchangeably, presumably according to the preference of the author. In this discussion, we will make a distinction by using “challenges” for those impediments that are historically derived and which current policy makers will have to take into consideration and, if possible, make extra allowance for. We will use “constraints” for those impediments that depend on current policy choices and thus can theoretically be corrected by changes in policy.

According to this distinction, the main historically evolved challenges facing current and future development efforts are:

  1. Starting development efforts from an extremely low level of technology and productive capacity.
  2. The extremely low level of education of the  population mainly due to constraints created by previous regimes;
  3. A traditionally low esteem for skills and  knowledge and seeking education only as a means of obtaining grades and certificates;
  4. A propensity for “igno-arrogance” related to the  low esteem for knowledge.

All these challenges have been discussed in previous chapters and do not need further elaboration here.

 The constraints that recur in the international reports have also been discussed thoroughly. We shall only add a few points to highlight the situation.

The lack of signs of change in the structure of the economy

Table 7:1, derived from the recent reports, can illustrate the situation concisely. Even though GDP has increased appreciably and “services” have a greater share of the total GDP, the employment share of each sector has not changed markedly. It is worth noting that the sector called “services” includes a variety of activities: “trade; “transport and communications”; “real estate, renting and business activities”; “public administration and defense”; “health and social work”; other community, social and personal services”; “education”; and “private households with employed persons”. The activities in italics were made taxable only recently and have therefore become quantifiable and been moved from the informal to the formal economy. Most of the other activities are government services. The increase in the “service sector” can thus been seen as a reflection of not only the enormous increase in government activities, expansion of health and education services (both public and private) but also the inclusion of previously informal small-scale private activities into the formal economy. As to the agricultural sector, the bottom line is that nearly 80% of the population is still tied down to the land, despite two decades of ADLI.

Even though GDP/capita increased between 1996 and 2011 by 85% (529 -979 PPP$) and the contribution of services to GDP increased from 30 – 44%, these changes were not accompanied by an appreciable change in the employment pattern.

The low level of domestic savings

The extremely low level of domestic savings can also be illustrated with data (Table 7:2) from recent reports.


As the table shows, despite achieving comparably high levels of growth and reasonably high export and investment performance, the share of domestic savings in Ethiopia has been extremely low (3.2% as compared to 44.1% in China). The authors of the World Bank report try to explain this by claiming that “the country has not reached the subsistence level beyond which people start to save in earnest”. A closer look at the available data (Table 7:3) reveals however that the domestic savings rate have been consistently declining from the Imperial era to the present.

The question of why the domestic savings rate has been declining since the Imperial era while the ratio of investments to GDP has been steadily increasing is intriguing. As William Easterly (2002) has pointed out, “people respond to incentives” and they need good incentives “to lower present consumption in return for higher future income” (Easterly: 2002: 217). Apparently, the Derg and the EPRDF regimes have provided appreciably fewer incentives in this line than the Imperial regime. The gap between investment and savings has been covered by external grants and/or external loans, especially since FDI has been negligible. Such a trend does not appear to be a good ground for catch-up development.

The weakness of the private sector in the economy

Review after review of the Ethiopian economy stresses the importance of a thriving private sector for sustainable economic development. EPRDF’s party program also declares that rapid transformation of the economy is “unthinkable without a vibrant private sector”. Nevertheless, all findings point to the fact that the growth of the private sector faces many constraints. A recent review summarized the situation in the following words: “The current policy mix makes it difficult for private investment, private consumption and exports to flourish” (WBG: .2013:18).[9]

Other observers have also indicated that entrepreneurs in Ethiopia have no incentives to develop and invest in activities of which they have experience and knowledge. While the state, through SOEs and the party through EFFORT and similar enterprises are involved in most economic sectors, often with a next-to-monopoly situation, private enterprises face many difficulties. According to Sutton and Kellow (2010, see also Vaughan & Mesfin Gebremichael: 2011), private sector companies encounter great problems in getting access to foreign currency, loans, tele- and internet-communication etc., a situation which in the long run has a very negative impact on growth within both industry and services. Furthermore, they argue, that the private sector also faces great difficulties getting government contracts. This is due to lack of transparency in tender outcomes and the fact that competition between companies is not performed on equal terms. Thus Sutton and Kellow state that there are favored companies which work in close cooperation with the government or are government companies, like the SOEs, EFFORT and MIDROC, and there are private companies, which are not given the same information and treatment. The advantages given to the former have not only prevented competition but also promoted inefficiency. Consequently, Sutton and Kellow argue (ibid), it is not those who produce most efficiently but those who get most state support that can continue production. Together, these practices, or rather mal-practices, have influenced people’s trust in the institutions and their expectations of being fairly treated. The lack of equal treatment and the experience that not everyone is subject to the same rules and regulations has also had a negative impact on the business climate.

The persistence of such observations raises the question of whether the situation is the result of an ideological bias against private entrepreneurship. In this context, it is instructive to note what the International Finance Corporation (IFC) has to say on the question of financing the private sector. IFC is part of the World Bank-group, with the particular mission to assist the growth of the private sector in developing countries. In clear, but diplomatic, terms IFC expresses its frustration with the GoE on this issue. “Over the past few years, IFC has tried many different ways of engaging in Ethiopia, although GoE’s current regulatory framework significantly constrains the scope for IFC to do so. Currently, a US$550 million funding program (Package Proposal) is awaiting formal GoE approval”. The Package Proposal is said to aim at providing “substantial long term resources” to the country´s “young private sector” (WBG: 2014: 11, italics added). In plain language, IFC has not only been unable to contribute to the development of the private sector in Ethiopia, but also that a concrete Package Proposal amounting to more than half a billion USD was waiting for approval as late as October 2014.

Restrictions affecting the free flow of information

Advocacy organizations like “Human Rights Watch” and “Committee for the Protection of Journalists” persistently try to document violations of human rights and restrictions of the free press all around the world. The GoE routinely dismisses reports on Ethiopia as “uninformed or reflecting unthinking opposition to the current government” (WBG: 2014: Annex 10: xxxi). Such a stand is unconvincing in view of the number of journalists who have been jailed or forced to flee from the country and particularly in view of the case of the young bloggers held in jail for over a year on “terrorist” charges[10].

Even though the question of restrictions on media and on the activities of civil society organizations has a strong bearing on the issue of human rights, we shall focus on its detrimental effect on the free flow of knowledge and information. In 2005, a World Bank Report entitled Well-Being and Poverty in Ethiopia reviewed some “striking statistics” to conclude that “physical and informational isolation combine to exclude the Ethiopian population from exposure to new ideas and influences” (WBG:2005:ii, italics added). Since then, the physical isolation may have been slightly alleviated by the expansion of schools and road communication but the informational isolation has hardly been mitigated to an appreciable degree. Informational isolation has to be seen as particularly detrimental for development in today’s thoroughly globalized world with its heavy dependence on Information Technology.

Why is it then that a government that claims to lead a “developmental state” upholds or tolerates these and other constraints to rapid and sustainable development?

“Revolutionary Democracy” and the Persisting Constraints

Starting from the First Report of the Ethiopian Economic Association (EEA 2000), the constraints described above and many others have been discussed and economists have offered various technical solutions. Nevertheless, the constraints persist, despite their evidently negative impact on the prospects for long-term “catch-up” development. We believe that it is only possible to understand the persistence of such constraints if they are seen as embedded in the very concept of “Revolutionary Democracy” as practiced in Ethiopia today. Furthermore, “Revolutionary Democracy” in Ethiopia cannot be understood without reference to the history of the “Marxist-Leninist” Revolutionary ideology that shaped the outlook of a large segment of the Ethiopian elite.

As discussed in the historical part of this book, there has always been an “egalitarian” (socialist) streak in the preferred ideology of the Ethiopian intelligentsia, starting from the recitation of the famous poem by Tamiru Feyisa (Dehaw Yinnageral, The Poor Man Speaks) in front of the Emperor in 1961. Because of a number of factors discussed earlier, “Marxism-Leninism” became the dominant ideology within the so-called “Ethiopian Student Movement”. When the armed forces took power in 1974, the military rulers were therefore obliged to claim to be more Marxist-Leninists than the intelligentsia. When the founders of TPLF went to the countryside to wage a peasant-based (Maoist inspired) guerilla war against the Derg government, they conducted their struggle according to Mao’s teachings of “peoples’ war”. In 1985, TPLF formed a “vanguard” organization – the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray (MLLT) – to give “ideological guidance” to the TPLF.

Because of increasing contact with Western aid agencies in the aftermath of the 1985 famine in Ethiopia and the collapse of the “Soviet Block” at the end of the 1980s, the leaders of TPLF accepted the need to work with the capitalist Western powers for material support, but there is no indication that the underlying Marxist-Leninist ideology of the movement was questioned. When Meles Zenawi met with Paul Henze in Washington in April 1990, Meles was keen to downplay the role of Marxism-Leninism in TPLF (Henze: 2007, vol.2: 174ff). Henze, a veteran CIA operative and knowledgeable Ethiopicist scholar, does not tell us whether or not he believed Meles’ claim that he had been a convinced Marxist when he was a student at HSIU in the early 1970s, but that they (leaders of TPLF) had discovered that “Marxism was not a good formula for resistance to the Derg”. MLLT was not mentioned in Henze’s report (ibid).

A recent book published in Amharic by Gebru Asrat[11], an ex-Central Committee member of TPLF/EPRDF, sheds some light on the general trends that could also be deducted from the known events. According to Gebru, Meles started to argue for downplaying the role of MLLT after his return from the trip to the USA as reported by Paul Henze. Eventually traces of MLLT were meticulously removed and the ideology of MLLT was replaced by the new concept of “Revolutionary Democracy”. This concept was deemed convenient because the leadership could tell the Western world that Revolutionary Democracy was no different from standard (liberal) democracy except for its emphasis on “collective rights”. On the other hand the multitude of political cadres within the movement, who hitherto had been groomed to extoll the virtues of MLLT, could be told that “Revolutionary Democracy” was just a new formula to pursue “our ultimate goal” (i.e. socialism) unchanged. Gebru characterizes this stratagem, with the use of the Amharic idiom “beand ras hulet melas”, (ibid: 156) (“two tongues in one head”) an expression which conveys the meaning of Orwellian “double-talk”.

Even more interesting is Gebru’s summary of the differences between TPLF/EPRDF’s “revolutionary democracy” (RD) and “standard” (liberal) democracy (LD):

  1. Whereas  RD advocates partiality (to oppressed classes), LD advocates impartiality  to all citizens;
  2. Whereas  RD divides citizens into friends and foes, LD treats all citizens as  equal;
  3. Whereas  RD holds that oppressor classes should be denied rights and freedoms, LD  holds that rights and freedoms should be equal for all citizens;
  4. Whereas RD claims that all political, social  and economic activities should be under the control of the vanguard  organization (party), LD advocates that capable citizens should  compete (for the responsibility) to lead the political, economic and   social activities in the country (ibid: 128, italics added).

Guided by the ideology embedded in “Revolutionary Democracy”, EPRDF has therefore shaped the economic and political landscape in Ethiopia to exhibit many, though not all, of the characteristics that were common in the former “socialist” or “communist” countries of the Soviet Bloc.

In a book entitled The Rise and Fall of Communism, Archie Brown provides a concise description of what he calls a “Communist system.” According to Brown, there were originally six (two political, two economic and two ideological) “defining characteristics” for a Communist system (Brown: 2010: 101-114). These were:

  1. The monopoly of power of the Communist  Party. The ruling party need not necessarily call itself “Communist”  as long as it insists on being the “vanguard” (of the working class) or having “a leading role” in society. This leading role implies that the party organization takes precedence over the state apparatus at any level  and that the party controls not only the administrative apparatus, but  also the judiciary, the military and the state security system.
  2. The principle of “democratic centralism”,  which was used not only to maintain the concentration of power in the central organs of the party but also inhibited horizontal communication between lower party organs.
  3. Non-capitalist ownership of the  means of production. In all communist countries, there was always some degree of private (capitalist) ownership, but the dominant part of the economy has been characterized by state or other forms of public ownership.
  4. A command economy, i.e. a situation in which the state sets the agenda of all economic activity,  expressed in most cases by the central planning of production.
  1. A      declared aim of building communism  as the ultimate legitimizing goal. This goal may not be openly declared   nowadays, but some reference to building a great and prosperous  (socialist) society is needed to justify the claim to the monopoly of  power.
  1. The  last characteristic, a sense of belonging to an international communist movement had even earlier been plagued  by controversies among the national communist parties, but has now lost  its relevance after the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc.

The fifth and sixth characteristics have therefore been abandoned by all Communist systems since the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc.

In the case of China, which is the largest of the remaining five “officially communist” countries (the others being Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam), Brown claims that only two characteristics remain: the monopoly of power of the party and democratic centralism. According to observers who have closely studied the Chinese economy, it appears that the development in China in the 1980s was dominated by individual and largely rural-based entrepreneurship and therefore predominantly capitalistic; the trend was reversed in the 1990s towards a predominantly state-owned urban-based economy (Yasheng Huang: 2008). Today, however, even though the Chinese economy seems to be dominated by non-capitalist ownership, it currently also includes a variety of private (local, national, foreign) and mixed ownership forms. More significantly, all of them function under free market (capitalist) principles (Guo: 2010; Steinfeld: 2010; Malik: 2012; Perkins: 2013).

In Ethiopia, it is possible to identify many of the defining characteristics of the “communist system” in the political and economic reality existing under the leadership of EPRDF:

1.    Concerning the monopoly of power, EPRDF has, perhaps inadvertently, gone even further than was usual among the past communist regimes. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union used to be derided for claiming that it had the support of 96 % of the population. Such a large majority means that there were no alternatives. EPRDF now claims 100 % of the seats in Parliament.

2.    On the question of democratic centralism, the statutes of the EPRDF not only declare adherence to the principle, but also claim that there should be “a lasting unity of ideas and practices from top to bottom.”

3.    On the question of non-capitalist ownership, the EPRDF Party Program declares that the party is striving for a free market economy and that “a free market economy is unthinkable without the extensive engagement of the private sector.” In practice, however, the “real” private sector, as we have seen, plays very little role in the economy. Firstly, all land is state property, giving the party, which controls the state full control over the most important natural resource. Secondly, the EPRDF controls the major economic activities since a) activities such as telecommunication, airlines, electric power generation and distribution and most major manufacturing enterprises are fully owned by the state, b) the government controls the financial sector through ownership of the lion’s share of the insurance and commercial bank activities, and c) the so called private sector is dominated by the party-owned “endowment” enterprises (such as EFFORT) or the MIDROC group, which appear to enjoy good relations with the party.

4.    On the question of a command economy, EPRDF has condemned and abandoned the principle after the fall of the Derg. In practice, however, the party has control of “the commanding heights” through the dominant role of the state in the economy and through the National Bank, which strictly supervises the few private financial institutions.

5.    Evoking the aim of “communism” or “socialism” as an ultimate legitimizing goal has become obsolete after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. An alternative approach is to call the movement “Revolutionary Democracy” and claim to lead a “Developmental State” as a means to legitimize the monopoly of power.

This is not to say that the ideology is entirely without merits. Without the “partisan” pathos for the “oppressed classes”, it is, for example, difficult to imagine that any other regime would devote so much energy to reduce the poverty head count in the countryside and to organize the largest Productive Safety Network Program in Sub-Saharan Africa (WBG: 2015, January). The other side of this “partisanship” is reflected in the bias against the private sector (capitalist, and therefore exploiting or “rent-seeking”), as well as restricting the flow of information outside the channels prescribed by “democratic centralism” and the “leading role” of the party.

The bottom line is that the leadership of the EPRDF has chosen to cooperate with Western “donors” in poverty reduction and other quantifiable goals, but does not seem to have given up on the hope of building a “socialist” society in the future for which heavy state intervention in the economy and monopoly of political power become essential components.

Is Ethiopia Following the “Developmental States” of East Asia?

In spite of repeated claims that the present Ethiopian government is following a “developmental state model” and that the model has been inspired by the experiences of the “East Asian NICs”, it appears extremely far-fetched to compare the developmental efforts in Ethiopia with those of the “classical” developmental states like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

First and foremost, the essence of state intervention in all these countries was the promotion of industrial production for the global market. Agrarian reform had been completed in all of the concerned East Asian economies before the beginning of the rapid growth phase. In Ethiopia, agrarian reform is still evolving and there is as yet no industrial policy. The existing industrial production is still miniscule. After more than two decades of Agricultural Development Led Industrialization (ADLI), industrial production does not employ more than 5% of the work force.

Second, all the East Asian “developmental states” have managed their interventionist policies mainly through private companies – either as large business conglomerates called zaibatsus (Japan) and chaebols (South Korea) or as a multitude of small firms (Taiwan). As explained earlier, the private sector in Ethiopia (outside small-scale farming) is small and not thriving.

Third, state intervention in the successful NICs was managed by a competent (“élite”), and a relatively autonomous “economic bureaucracy” in each state. The “economic bureaucracy” in Ethiopia may perhaps be competent (judging from its capacity to manage the recent high growth phase), but has no chance of being autonomous in view of the predominance of patron-client relations and the power structure of the ruling party. In this sense, the developmental efforts of the Ethiopian government fit more closely with what Chalmers Johnson characterised as plan ideological” (or the plan economy of the Soviet type) than with the “plan rational” efforts of the capitalist developmental states.

When we look at China, we can see that the question of whether China is a developmental state or not is usually not discussed explicitly in the Developmental State literature. Some, like Woo-Cumings (1999) do not mention China at all, while others, like Fine et al (2013), mention China without raising the question of its being a developmental state or not. Certainly, both China and Ethiopia can be called “developmental states” in the looser definition of heavy state intervention and development ambitions. On the other hand, neither China nor Ethiopia can be called “developmental states” according to the classical definition of Chalmers. What is more striking and seems to have passed unnoticed is that China has moved away from the “plan ideological” to the “plan rational” type of state intervention, whereas Ethiopia is closer to the “plan ideological” type of state involvement in the economy. To understand which way Ethiopia is heading, it is important to get “the China story right”.

The usual narrative about China’s economic reform suggests that the Party leadership initiated the reform in 1978 by changing the system of agricultural production from the Commune system to the “household responsibility system”. The leadership then proceeded to implement other reforms in a pragmatic manner, depicted as “crossing the river by feeling the stones” (The World Bank & DRC of the Peopes Republic of China: 2012).

In reality, the dismantling of the Peoples’ Communes started spontaneously when 20 peasants in a province called Anui “put their fingerprints on ‘land contracts’ dividing the communal land among the 20 households they represented”.   The practice spread rapidly to other areas because the provincial governor of Anui encouraged the move without even consulting the authorities in Beijing. Apparently Beijing accepted the initiative because of its evident popularity. By 1982, 80% of the agricultural households had returned to “household responsibility” and the reform was adopted by virtually 100% of the households by 1984 (Malik: 2012: 25).

The economic effect of the reform, which was essentially bottom-up, was admittedly beyond the expectation of the party leaders. Agricultural production, which was virtually stagnant before the reform, increased by 52.5% from 1979 to 1984. Since the government had also increased grain prices, the net income of the farmers increased even more, by 149.5% during the same period. The farmers used their surpluses to invest in what are called Township and Village Enterprises (TVEs). The ownership structure of the TVEs is somewhat diffuse and varied but the scholars who describe them seem to agree that they functioned as private firms under the umbrella of the local administration (Huang: 2008; Malik: 2012; Perkins: 2013).

The rapid growth of the economy which was thus initially driven by rural entrepreneurship in the 1980s led to rising inflation, especially for the urban population and an escalating corruption at every level. The resultant urban unrest was coupled with a movement among young intellectuals and workers in urban areas demanding political reforms. This resulted in a confrontation between the protesters and the military at Tiananmen Square in May 1989. Other events that shaped future policy in China included the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc.

According to Steinfeld (2010), the Chinese Party leadership, with Deng Hsiao-ping at the helm, chose to meet these shocks by opting for all-out “modernization”, i.e. embracing capitalist economic relations, and “opening up” to the West. The so-called “Southern tour” of Deng and his declaration that “it is glorious to be rich” are seen as indications of this strategic change. Beginning from 1993, the expressed goal of the leadership was changed from building what was previously called “market socialism” to the establishment of a “socialist market economy”. In the first formula, the main goal was still “socialism”; in the second formula, the main goal became a “market economy” with some “socialist” characteristics (Steinfeld: 2010: 57). Currently, socialism is not even mentioned. The goal is to build a “modern society”, defined as an “industrialized and urbanized” society that “enjoys a quality of life that is on par with the Western world” (The WB & DRC of PRC: 2012)

In the economic reforms carried out under the slogans of “modernization” and “opening up” to the West, the number of state owned enterprises (SOEs) was drastically reduced and the remaining SOEs were subjected to corporate forms of management. Accession to the World Trade Organization and the concessions that China accepted in exchange for admission led to an influx of trans-national companies and a wide variety of foreign-invested companies (fully foreign owned, joint ventures, management agreements, etc.). In 2008, foreign invested companies of various forms accounted for 55% of total exports and 54% of imports. In the case of high-value commodities (like TV sets, DVD players, other high-end electronic products), the foreign-invested companies accounted for 90% of the value of exports from China (Steinfeld: 2010: 85). Contrary to the thesis that China is building “capitalism with Chinese Characteristics” (Huang, 2008), Steinfeld claims that China has not only joined the global economy but the global (capitalist) economy has also interpenetrated China. In other words, “China is growing economically by deepening its involvement in export-oriented manufacturing. Yet, that manufacturing is managed in large part by foreign-owned and foreign-invested companies” (Steinfeld: 2010: 87).

This is not to suggest that Ethiopia can or should copy what has happened in China. In one sense, the future of China’s development is still open to question. There are some who claim that the country may risk being caught in the “middle income trap” unless it adopts a new development strategy (The W.B. & DRC of PRC: 2012). In another sense, it appears quite tragic that the ruling party in Ethiopia is objectively but unofficially aiming at something resembling a “socialist” society while China, after nearly 50 years of trying to build socialism, has now abandoned the aim altogether.

Currently, there is one policy area in which the ruling parties in China and Ethiopia appear to be following the same line. Both parties seem to be adamant in defending the monopoly of power of the “vanguard” party. This can be exemplified by restrictions on press freedom and the use of the internet in both countries. According to Freedom House, internet penetration rate in China was 46% in 2013. In terms of interference from the state (obstacles to access, limitation of content and violation of user rights) China scored 86, where 100 means least free. In Ethiopia, internet penetration was only 2%, but the interference score was almost the same as China (79). In both countries the press is also judged as “not free”. (See Table 7:4 for comparison of the situation in Ethiopia and China with one low income country (Kenya) and one high income country (Germany)).

How the ruling party of China can maintain its continued monopoly of political power in an economy that is increasingly capitalist is a debatable issue. At least one observer claims that due to the phenomenon of “self-obsolescing authoritarianism”, China will at some unpredictable time cease to be authoritarian, as was the case in South Korea and Taiwan (Steinfeld: 2010: 218-234). In the meantime, however, interference of the ruling party in Ethiopia with the flow of information and knowledge will be particularly damaging because the country already suffers from a low level of knowledge and technology.

 Concluding Remarks

During the past half century, the people of Ethiopia have experienced three types of regimes, each one with some ambition to introduce modernization. The Imperial regime, basing its legitimacy on the ideology of the Emperor being “Elect of God”, had no reason to ask what the people needed. Consequently, whatever innovations the regime introduced (for its own aggrandizement) came in carefully controlled doses. The second regime, the “Derg”, took power when the Imperial regime became incapable to rule. The Derg’s attempt to rule according to the dictum that “political power comes out of the muzzle of a gun” led to nearly two decades of turmoil and very little economic development. The EPRDF regime, which ousted the Derg, initially exercised power according to the same dictum, while simultaneously “branding” itself as democratic.[12] In the economic sphere, very little change took place until the beginning of the twenty-first century, when the UN Millennium Development Goals began to be implemented. This gave EPRDF the opportunity to call itself a “developmental state”. (See table 5:1 for comparison of economic indicators during the three regimes).

Table 5:1. Some Indices of Economic Development 1960 – 2010


Population at end of   period

GDP/cap in 2005 PPP$ at   end of period

Av. annual growth of   GDP/cap



1960 – 1970


29 mill





“Imperial” period.

Data on GDP growth   from US country studies


1974 – 1978







Early “Derg” period.

Data on GDP growth   from US country studies


1978 – 1980



35.4 mill





“Development Zemecha”

Data on GDP growth   from US country studies






1982- 1985



41.0 mill




(-) 6.6%

GDP/cap in 2005PPP$   dropped from 617 in 1983 to 499 in 1985 (the famine year)


1986 – 1990


48.5 mill




1.9 %

Partial recovery from   famine of 1984/85


1991 – 1995



57.0 mill




(-) 2.0 %

Lowest GDP/cap (432   PPP$) was registered in 1992 (transitional period)


1996 – 2000



65.6 mill




1.4 %

A 9.1% growth in 1996   dropped to -6.1% in 1998


2001 – 2005



74.3 mill




4.0 %

Growth still unstable:   varied from - 4.6% in 2003 to 10.8 %

in 2004


2006 – 2010


83.0 mill




8.0 %

First period of   sustained growth (> 5 years in a row) since the Imperial period

Source of data for the years 1982 - 2010: World Bank meta-database for Ethiopia.

One should not be carried away too far by the current hype of “double digit” growth of GDP[13]. In a small economy, a modest input can translate into a large percentage change. More importantly, the fact remains that, regardless of the “double-digit growth figures” for more than a decade, the country remains one of the poorest in the world. In terms of per capita income, Ethiopia is one of the ten or twelve (depending on which measure and year one uses) poorest countries. In terms of the aggregate measure of HDI (Human Development Index), Ethiopia ranks as number 173 out of 187 countries. Since similar developments have taken place in other comparable countries, the HDI rank does not differ significantly from what it was, say, in 1995, when Ethiopia’s HDI rank was 169/174.

As we have seen earlier, the growth of GDP during the last decade depended partly on some increase in agricultural production, partly on the transition of some informal service activities (like household employment and private renting of dwellings) into the formal sector, but mostly on heavy government investment in schools, primary health services, infrastructure, communications and hydroelectric power. If the country is to benefit from these efforts and embark on catch-up development, there is a need for an overall policy that promotes a structural transformation of the economy.

 From the findings that we have presented in this and preceding chapters, we can conclude that the basic pre-requisites for a successful transformation boil down to two inter-related requirements:

  • The promotion of knowledge and skills, as opposed to an emphasis on the number of schools and attendants in      various institutions of learning; and
  • The promotion of entrepreneurship, at all levels and in all sectors.

These requirements are by no means new or controversial; they just need to be re-emphasized in the Ethiopian context.

The promotion of knowledge and skills is particularly important in Ethiopia for several reasons.

a)    As we have seen, the accumulation and exchange of knowledge have been fundamental components in the “unstoppable” development that started in medieval Europe and is currently shaping the lives of people all over the world;

b)    It can be argued, as we have done in this study, that resistance to new knowledge, coupled with what we call “igno-arrogance”, have reinforced each other in maintaining Ethiopia’s technological and economic underdevelopment. The traditional conceptualization of knowledge in Ethiopia – still prevalent in schools – is that information from books and scriptures is immutable and finite and that knowledge cannot be questioned, revised or changed. This tradition, which has no room for new discoveries or insights, needs to be radically challenged.

c)    Even though the number of educational facilities and number of school attendees has greatly expanded in line with the UN Millennium Development Goals, an exaggerated focus of the government has been on increasing the number of schools, and of the students on getting the certificates rather than on the provision and acquisition of knowledge and a scientific approach.[14]

d)    The traditional culture of patron-client relations and the current practice of basing employment and promotion on loyalty and party membership undermine the respect for knowledge and expertise (skills).

e)    Without a trained and skilled labor force, it will be impossible to compete in the global market for foreign investment and to enhance the country’s technological development.

f)     Knowledge and skills are also essential to promote domestic entrepreneurship.

The second requirement for catch-up development is the promotion of entrepreneurship. This also appears difficult in the Ethiopian context, partly because of the limited exposure of the public to the outside world and partly because of the misguided and ideologically motivated tendency of equating private entrepreneurship (capitalism) with exploitation. There is for example no other imaginable explanation for the policy of the Ethiopian government to restrict the scope of the IFC and hinder its efforts to support the private sector in Ethiopia.

According to Baumol et al., an entrepreneur is anyone who starts a business – an entity that provides a new product or service or that develops and uses new methods to produce or deliver existing goods and services at a lower cost (Baumol e.a.: 2007:3). The emphasis is thus on newness (innovation) and lower cost. The authors maintain that entrepreneurship is as useful for developing countries as for the developed and that it can be both replicative (borrowing technology from abroad) and innovative (through “bottom-of-the pyramid innovations” adapted to the unique circumstances of the individual country) (ibid: 134).

The opposite of development through entrepreneurship, is all-out “state-guided development”. Such a strategy may appear attractive to the leaders of a country as well as to the “donor community” and “development experts” because “state-guided development” makes it easier for all sides to set numerical targets, execute (almost) as planned and show the required figures. But the pitfalls of heavy handed state-guided development and stifling of private entrepreneurship are many:

a)    One such pitfall is the potential to believe that a policy that appears to have worked once will keep on working for ever;

b)    Another pitfall is that the interdependence between policy makers and implementers increases the likelihood of rampant corruption and inefficiency;

c)    A third pitfall is that it can be difficult for policy makers to change direction (for fear of losing face or other irrational reasons) when a given policy proves to be wrong. The result can be disastrous for the people as was seen during “The Great Leap Forward” in China.

d)    A “plan ideological” kind of state-guided development does not leave room for individual trials and innovations, which are essential factors in today’s global economy.

These observations should not be construed to conclude that we are against state involvement in a country’s economy.  As pointed out by Chalmers Johnson (1982), all states intervene in the economic activities of the citizens in one way or the other.

In Sweden, where respect for democracy is deeply entrenched, the state intervenes in the economic activities of its citizens in a multitude of ways. In addition to fiscal policies, taxation and a multitude of regulatory interventions that fall within the domain of the functions of the state in all countries, there are, in Sweden, many state-owned enterprises (in railways, power plants, airlines, etc.). Furthermore, by general consent, many activities in the social sphere - education, health, pensions, care of pre-school children and care of senior citizens, etc. – are largely financed collectively through taxes. Progressive taxation serves to mollify income disparities between citizens. Sweden has one of the most generous state-financed insurance systems for the care of infants, equally available to both parents.

Many such state interventions in the lives and economic activities of Swedish citizens are generally regarded as “socialist” or “communist” in the United States. However, even in the US, the home of the “neo-liberal Washington consensus”, which supposedly is against all state intervention, the involvement of the state in the economy is extensive. Thus, for example, the state finances a good deal of the basic research that is freely available for private enterprises. In the field of aerospace research, atomic energy, armaments development, etc., the close cooperation between the state and private enterprises, characterized by former President Dwight D. Eisenhower as the “military industrial complex”, is still strong. The essential point is that, in spite of a strong, or less strong, involvement of the state in economic activities, entrepreneurs, both in Sweden and USA, have sufficient scope to be the drivers of economic growth. “State-guided” development at the expense of entrepreneurship has been detrimental for catch-up development and the policy has been abandoned even in China.

On Thinking outside the box

As we explained in our introduction, we have endeavored to “think outside the box” when trying to answer the question that has engaged us for so much of our lives, namely “Why does Ethiopia continue to be one of the poorest countries in the world?” We feel that we have learnt a lot during our journey of research. We have scrutinized inconsistencies, questioned implausible “facts”, taken notice of lack of logic in the reasoning of writers and politicians and not least, tried to understand the context in which some facts or opinions have been presented.

On our part, we believe that we have been able to give some answers that at least partially explain the poverty. Thus, we have seen the Ethiopian elite miss many historical opportunities to catch up on technology and available knowledge. We have noted that artisans and their respective skills and accomplishments traditionally have been looked down upon. We have argued that the conceptualization of knowledge, as something that comes out of books and scriptures and cannot be questioned, goes against the ‘autonomy of intellectual inquiry’ and the “spiral of knowledge” that allowed the West to develop. We have also seen that the age-old coexistence of people of different ethnicities (first languages), a subject that has been accorded disproportionate importance by the present government and many scholars, has had little historical relevance and that even today it is not people’s foremost concern. Furthermore, we have taken note of the present government’s laudable attempts to improve the economy but in doing so we have also seen that it is trying to build a “socialist” or “plan” economy, while such a goal has been abandoned even in countries like China. This belief in “plan economy” has in turn resulted in serious constraints on entrepreneurship. Probably no one expresses a negative opinion about entrepreneurs but there is always a sliding association from entrepreneur to capitalist, to “rent-seeker” and that is one of the most defamatory expressions in the official vocabulary today. This kind of reasoning precludes an understanding of entrepreneurs as necessary for new and innovative ideas and products to appear; that they even are a prerequisite for development, since radical economic change can only come about as a result of open competition and taking personal responsibility for one’s acts.

We would like to end this volume with encouraging others to take over the baton, to formulate new questions, and to seek for un-thought-of solutions that can promote “catch-up” development in Ethiopia and pave the way for people to have a “decent” standard of living. We are primarily addressing ourselves to three categories of actors, who are all involved in the so-called development agenda and whom we think could make a difference if they allow themselves to “think outside the box”.

The most important group comprises members of the party and government apparatus, which holds near absolute power in the country. Even though the party apparatus may appear monolithic, we can surmise that it is composed of at least two different categories of members. Like in any one-party (or “dominant-party”) state, a large number, perhaps a majority, of the members have felt that they had no choice but to join if they wanted to advance in their careers. Such members may have little scope to act outside given directives, but nothing can prevent them from “thinking outside the box”. The other category comprises those who believe in the basic principles of the “vanguard” party and assume that they are following the “right path”. This group should benefit the most and make the most difference by facing facts and “thinking outside the box”.

Marx and Engels studied the relations of production in advanced capitalist countries in the middle of the nineteenth century and predicted that a socialist (or communist) proletarian revolution was inevitable. For reasons we need not go into, such a revolution did not take place in any of these countries. Lenin, and his successor, Stalin, and. later on, Mao Tse-Tung, adapted this theory to lead revolutions in their predominantly agrarian countries (Russia and China respectively). To justify the seizure and continued monopoly of coercive power (legislative, military, police, judiciary and spy networks) they invoked the theory of Marx and Engels about “the dictatorship of the proletariat”, despite the fact that capitalism was still underdeveloped and the proletarian class was virtually non-existent in these countries at the time when they conducted their revolutions. The “dictatorship” was otherwise envisaged for the transition from advanced capitalism (where the proletariat are supposed to be the majority of the population) to the classless society of communism.

We have previously seen how the Ethiopian intelligentsia in the 1960’s and 1970’s were attracted to the revolutionary spirit of Marxism-Leninism and accepted the premises without much debate or question. The incongruence between theory and practice, however, must have bothered all members of the Ethiopian “revolutionary” intelligentsia, but they probably went along because a violent revolution seemed to be the only way toward a better future.

History has now given its verdict. The edifice built in Europe around the theory of “scientific socialism” or “dialectical and historical materialism” has crumbled with the disintegration of the “Soviet Bloc”. The individual countries have found their different ways. Some have developed into stable democracies with market economies (like the Baltic countries and Poland); East Germany has merged with its western counterpart. Others, like Russia, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan and the like, have fallen into the hands of “kleptocratic” oligarchies. In China, the vanguard party has managed to stay in power, still calling itself “communist”, but, as we have seen, having completely discarded the economic principles of “socialism”.

In Ethiopia, observable facts indicate that many of the political and economic principles of “scientific socialism” are being adhered to under the name of “Revolutionary Democracy”. If this observation holds true, then it is high time to re-examine its validity in the light of what has happened and is happening in the world. If, on the other hand, the disclosure by Meles Zenawi to Paul Henze that his movement had concluded that “Marxism-Leninism is not a good formula”, correctly reflects the ideology that is dominant in the EPRDF today, then there can be no justification for the paraphernalia of the monopoly of power by the “vanguard party”. Instead it will be necessary to re-view, re-think and revise the paths taken.

The second group that we suggest could “think outside the box” comprises representatives of the “donor agencies” who act as “partners” with the government and dispense aid funds. This group, called “Aid Inc.”, “Lords of Poverty” (Graham Hancock: 1989/2004) or the “aid biz” (Paul Colliers: 2007), wield tremendous power through the aid funds that they dispense. We think that members of this group may be of service to catch-up development if they start to question the very assumptions on which their partnership with the “vanguard party” is based. To give an example, there is a widespread assumption that peasants and pastoralists, the base of the Ethiopian economy, are ignorant and consequently the government’s field experts and development agents need to tell them what to do. Desalegn Rahmeto, who has devoted most of his career to the study of agrarian policy in Ethiopia, observes that there has been what he calls a “technicist” approach to rural development, which has been largely “donor-driven”, and in which,

The recipients – the peasant and the poor in the countryside – are assumed to be ignorant and their view is never sought; they are instead expected to be passive consumers of what is offered by the expert, who in the rural areas appears as the extension or development agent, the government scientist, the agriculturalist, conservationist, etc. This has been the context in which rural development programs have been framed, implemented and monitored in this country for the last fifty years” (Dessalegn Rahmeto: 2008: 339).

We think it is high time that the elite of Ethiopia and their “development partners” trust in the creative capacity of the Ethiopian peasants and pastoralists and assist them in their own attempts to acquire technology and knowledge about the world, instead of forcing so-called development solutions on them. After all, it was the Ethiopian peasants, and not any group of experts, who not only domesticated a number of food plants (ensete, nug, coffee, etc.), but also achieved the feat of turning a variety of wild grass into teff (Eragrostis teff). This, the most important cereal in the Ethiopian region, has the potential to gain a wide global market because of its being gluten-free, making it edible for people who do not tolerate wheat and related cereals.

Party supporters, “development partners” and development agents will of course try to convince us that they always strive for the participation of the local community in the implementation of their “development plans”. However, as one of us (EP) indicated already in 1989, there is a world of difference between participation as “mobilization” and participation as “empowering”. In “mobilization”, the main decisions have already been taken by people high up in the planning process and local people are only needed to implement the plans. In “empowering”, it is the local people that will have the power to decide about both the goals for development and the means with which to obtain them (Poluha 1989:188).

This suggests an excellent opportunity for the present government to do something radical about the low esteem accorded to peasants and pastoralists and find out what will happen if these people are “empowered” in the sense of being left free to attend to their own matters. Thus, instead of development agents telling peasants and pastoralists what to do, which fertilizer or breed to buy and who to buy from, the development agents can just be available to give advice and service on request from peasants and pastoralists. The ruling party and its “development partners” can conduct this experiment without the risk of any negative consequences.

The third group comprises the scholars (Ethiopian and expatriate) who conduct academic studies, experts who advise the Government or “donor agencies” and journalists who inform the public. This group is already used to “thinking outside the box” but needs to do so to a much larger degree, especially by questioning that which is considered normal and therefore “taken-for-granted”. One “axiom” that needs to be questioned is, as we have shown in this volume, the common assumption of “ethnic conflicts” in Ethiopian history. Another phenomenon that members of this group need to think about is self-censorship, a topic seldom discussed in the academic literature or in the press. With this we mean censoring what you write by avoiding hot or critical subjects due to fear of sanctions but without being overtly pressured to do so. Repeated exposure to situations where self-censuring is necessary may easily result in unconscious self-censorship. In other words, you become so used to self-censoring that you are unaware of the fact that you have stopped investigating or writing about certain activities or topics because you no longer feel they require scrutiny. Critical thoughts have in this sense been blocked out. We wish this group and the members of the other two groups luck in their endeavors to think outside the box and promote catch-up development in Ethiopia.


[1] It was quite instructive to observe that Orthodox Christian and Muslim schoolchildren in Addis Abeba in the 21 st century were ganging against the Protestants, who they identified as followers of alien religions. See Poluha: 2004.

i22.  (Munro-Hay 2002: 33).

[3] See for example Mikael Ståhl, a serious scholar, who nevertheless has accepted the counter-narratives of the 1970s as an axiom to declare that the growth and expansion of Shewa in the 19 th century resulted in a “new political entity, the Ethiopian Empire.” (Ståhl: 1974: 4, italics added).

[4] It is quite surprising to find John Markakis writing, “The Somali population of Ethiopia represents one-third of the widely dispersed Somali nation in the Horn” (Markakis: 2011: 55, italics added). One wonders if Markakis would extend his reasoning to Europe and claim “the widely dispersed French nation is distributed between the states of France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and the principalities of Monaco and Andorra?”

[5] See for example the list of the provincial origin of senior officials in Haile Selassie’s Government compiled by Clapham (1969: 77). Among 138 higher officials in the Ethiopian Government during 1941 - 1966, Clapham found that 62% were from Shewa, 14% were from Eritrea, 5% were from Tigray, while about 4% each came from Gojam, Begemeder and Welegga, respectively.

[6] In European statistics, “material deprivation” is defined as a state of economic strain and lack of durables (characterized by) “the enforced inability (rather than the choice not to do so) to afford three of the following six categories of expenses: i) pay unexpected expenses; ii) afford a one-week annual holiday from home; iii) a meal involving meat, chicken or fish every second day; iv) the adequate heating of a dwelling; v) durable goods like a washing machine, color television, telephone or a car; vi) being confronted with payment arrears” (of various recurrent payments). http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-eplained/index.php/Glossary.

[7] Some African students, including Ethiopians, used to supplement their scholarships by travelling to Western Europe during the summer vacations, work in the ”black” labor market, use the money to buy Western-produced consumer items (like blue jeans) to sell at handsome profits in the Socialist countries.

[8] pdfhttp://www.ata.gov.et/wp-content/uploads/Ethiopia-Agriculture-Diagnositc-Integrated-Report-July-2010

[9] The authors of this volume have personal experience of the multitude of constraints for entrepreneurship while trying to build up a privately financed health service establishment in Ethiopia.

[10] The fact that a few journalists and bloggers were suddenly released just before the arrival of US President Obama on a visit to Addis Ababa can only highlight the arbitrariness of their arrests.

[11] Gebru Asrat, 2006. Most of the book is devoted to the struggle between two factions within the TPLF, mainly concerning the strained relations and conflict between TPLF and EPLF. Here and there, the book offers some general observations that appear honest and self-critical.

[12] In the early years of the EPRDF rule, cadres of the party used to argue that opposition elements had no right to hold public office by asking the rhetoric question in Amharic – man yabokawen man yigageral? In plain language, this meant that only the EPRDF had the right to political power by virtue of having ousted the Derg.

[13] We are also aware that statistical figures in general, and GDP figures in particular, can be unreliable in Africa. (See for example, Jerven:2003). Despite the possibility that the statistics may have been “doctored”, we have chosen to take all figures at face value in this study.

[14] A sobering study of the 1979-1991 Ethiopian National Literacy Campaign (during the Derg regime), which claimed a reduction of the illiteracy rate from 93 percent to 24.7%, is provided by Tilahun Sinehaw (1994). In contrast to this claim, the illiteracy rate was reportedly 77 % (i.e. a literacy rate of 23%) in 1996 (Befekadu and Berhanu (eds): 1999/2000).