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Defending Ethiopia’s Developmental Statism: Moralizing immorality

Taye Negussie (PhD)

Recently, this magazine has been publishing a series of articles debating against and for developmental statism that the government in Ethiopia claims is now its leading political and economic ideology. I assume in the Ethiopian media context such critical engagement on the same magazine between those who subscribe to clashing views is quite a rare move that needs to be commended and further encouraged.

In the face of this ongoing debate there needs to be a separate work that commits itself to reviewing the diverse viewpoints of the preceding articles so as to keep track of the direction of the discussion, which I hope will be done on some latter date. However, in this edition, this piece seeks to advance its own reflection on the article, “Ethiopia’s Developmental Statism: Dotted by pitfalls but functional”, published in February on Vol. 4.  No. 36 of this magazine. The article has put forward some rather odd arguments apparently with the intent to defend, at great length, the immoral practices that may arise with the reign of developmental statismin some countries including Ethiopia.   

In the earlier sections, the article attempts to defend the indictment of excessive political interference, weak institutional and technical capabilities as marking the Ethiopian version of developmental statism.  Nevertheless, in its defense the article seems to offer some ambivalent and contradictory arguments. For starters, while seemingly acknowledging the problem of “loyalty and political affiliation” as “endless pitfalls”, a significant part of the article was entirely committed to justifying and defending the same “endless pitfalls”.    

Rationalizing political coaching and incompetency

In its positive evaluation of political interference and coaching, the article cites the Brazilian experience saying: “a remarkably unprecedented socio-economic development has coincided with massive politicization of the bureaucracy”; then, by analogy, implying it is okay if Ethiopia goes down that lane, too.

Here, the logical and empirical fallacies are quite evident. First and foremost, the premise that technical and specialized institutions perform better when guided and coached by incompetent political loyalist is prima facie, self-defeating and questionable premise that doesn’t beg any labor for empirical proof.  So, the reference in the article that “empirical evidences from South Asia, Latin America and some African countries…” and the misappropriation of the notion of embeddedness and informal relationships – which actually stand for non-formalized relationships among peer organizational actors – to vindicate the appointment of inept loyalists and cadres, is at best a futile exercise that never convinces any astute reader.

Granted that by some chance non-merit based institutional working has been followed by some “miraculous economic development”, even then, this doesn’t warrant the conclusion that they are causally interlinked. The presumption of a causal relationship between two phenomena only because one preceded the other in time without any other sufficient reason commits the fallacy of questionable cause (after this, therefore because of this).    

Certainly, asserting a causal relationship between political coaching and economic growth in a given country essentially demands a deep and exhaustive investigation of the effects of many other intervening variables or factors, inter alia, general attitude towards the political entity, integrity and wisdom of political leaders, legal framework, generalized level of trust, social cohesion and integration, organizational management and technical capacity, global political and economic circumstances.

By the same token, the supposition that what has worked in Brazil must also be true to Ethiopia commits the fallacy of analogy’. The difference between the two countries – in terms of historical, political, economic and socio-cultural framework may be more significant than the similarities; therefore, the conclusion drawn from the one may not necessarily apply to the other. 

On the other hand, given the daily grim realities evident in the provision of basic public and other services, the argument that attempts to attribute the alleged Ethiopia’s phenomenal economic growth to the ‘efficient’ working of a rather crippled governmental institutions would amount to an insult to readers’ intelligence. It suffices to have a glimpse at 2013 Failed States Index by the United States Think-thank Fund for Peace – which annually releases a report on the level of social, economic and political performances for more than 170 countries – that has placed Ethiopia  as the 19th failed state within the top “Alert” category of thirty-five failed states led by Somalia.

      Normalizing rent-seeking and corruption                     

Under the subtitle, ‘The tale of two thieves: Suharto and Mobuto” the article argues that although both Suharto of Indonesia and Mobuto of Zaire “ripped off” their countries’ resources, “ranking high at world corruption scale”, the consequences of the plunder significantly diverged: “while Mobutu’s Zaire failed miserably, Suharto’s Indonesia emerged to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world”; and the “secret behind” the divergence “… lies at the way rent-seeking and corruption were organized.” The article also invokes such paradoxical expression as “growth-enhancing rent seeking actions”.

By any measure, this is but a weird argument which bluntly states that “rent-seeking and corruption” are not per se a problem; the problem instead lies in “the way” they are “organized”. This exemplifies how much ideological outlooks at times may impair our judgment of right and wrong, and obliterate our common sense view of decency and justice.

I know of no society that would say to its members: ‘it’s alright that you steal but be aware of its usage!’ Without a doubt, in many societies theft is always prima facie unethical, illegal and unjust act that goes against the law, the moral standards and the spirit of justice and fairness. Note that I consider here corruption and rent-seeking as white collar theft.

To our surprise, while exalting Suharto’s Indonesia, the writer seems to have no idea or else has completely forgotten the human tragedy that claimed thousands of lives, and the social and economic chaos which apparently reversed Indonesia’s economy back to square one, that subsequently surfaced following the collapse of Suharto’s regime – apparently owing to his fatal policy and practices of patrimonialism, chronism, and corruption that created a huge wealth gap between ethnic Chinese Indonesians and the rest.

All in all, the implication of the whole reading of the article is that: we should only and only be concerned with how to achieve the goal of economic growth in the shortest time possible to better fare in the ‘catch-up’ game – whether be it through unethical, immoral or illegal means –seemingly in confirmation of the odd parable, ‘the end justifies the means’. Alas, this argument has apparently lost sight of the fact that economic growth –in and of itself – is not an end; rather, it’s just a means towards the realization of the ultimate objective of a prosperous, just, ethical, humane and reasonably fulfilled society. Thus, in such a case any means that we opt to all along is immensely as important as the end itself. Understandably, here the problem may be that, as the famous German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put it nicely, “at the critical moment mankind too often forgets precisely what it is trying to accomplish”. 


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