Ethiopia’s developmental statism: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

Eyob Balcha, Special to Addis Standard  (@eyobbalcha )

The Ethiopian developmental state is getting a comfortable ground in the political economy of the country. It is preached almost every day that it is with a strong and committed political leadership of the ruling party that the current factual success is achieved. But this is happening at the expenses of a compromise particularly in citizens’ democratic and political rights.  This article intends to continue the conversation and debate on the Ethiopian developmental state model reflected in the last two editions of this magazine.

To start with ‘development’ is a highly political endeavor. It is a process of determining who gets what of the limited resources. The current global political economy seriously requires a determined developmentalist political orientation and leadership particularly for African states to remain stable and intact. The Ethiopian case is not different at all. The problem is to what extent this developmentalist orientation and political leadership can be pursued along with some of the basic questions of the present political engagements i.e. citizens’ meaningful role in the decision making process, inclusiveness and recognition of the right to express dissent without fear and intimidation.

 The unrealistic democratic developmental state

The basic characteristics of a developmental state can hardly go along the basic principles of democracy that is being pursued in Ethiopian current political process. Particularly the multi-party democratic system with regular elections that are expected to be blessed as ‘free and fair’ should remain out of reach for the success of a developmental state. A developmental state prefers to get its legitimacy from what it delivers to the social and economic needs of its citizens than through the ballot box. It is this ‘revolutionary legitimacy’ that will be used as a stepping stone towards institutionalizing the developmental state than the ideal representativeness and inclusiveness of the political decision making process. The current practice of democracy which is framed along the liberal democracy model is too dangerous and futile to a developmental state in its attempt to achieve sustained economic growth. One of the prominent scholars of politics and development, Adrian Leftwich, argues that democracy and development are two separate processes that require distinct institutional frameworks. He strongly contends that the process of achieving socio-economic transformation and development requires a radical change in the institutional framework of society. Whereas the consolidation of democracy is more of stability oriented process which needs completely different set of social institutions and structures. The question is, therefore, how to strike the delicate balance between revolutionary development and a gradual democratization process.

In Ethiopia’s case it is proven that the last ten years, particularly the post 2005 election period, has been a period of laying the foundations for unprecedented socio-economic transformation process. The investment made by the government particularly on infrastructure development is phenomenal. EPRDF has not been committed enough in the pre-2005 period to engage in similar large scale development programs. The 2005 election was a timely alarm call for the ruling party to refocus and prioritize its strategic engagement. It is only by answering the socio-economic questions of the society that the incumbent can sustain its dominance. The political questions will be entertained only in a context that is carefully crafted by the ruling party and sometimes only at a nominal level. Hence, the regular elections will continue even though that is not the main channel of getting its legitimacy. Fixing the political process has seen a very slow progress for the last 20 plus years whereas transforming the economy and achieving a dramatic economic growth was done within less than a decade. It seems that the incumbent is contradicting itself when it preaches in all its capacity that it is building a Democratic Developmental Ethiopian state. It is indeed developmental but never democratic. Perhaps, we may need a new consensus to re-conceptualize what a ‘democratic’ state is and what kind of ‘democratic state’ does Ethiopia need.

 Fixing the politics? How broken is it?

In a nutshell, a number of explanations can be considered for the political impasse.  For instance, the inherent nature of the Ethiopian political process and the ideological orientation of ruling EPRDF, which is still deeply in love with Leninist type of mobilizing the public, can be considered as two basic problems to deal with. Ethiopian politics suffers from ‘the winner gets all’ mentality – a ‘binary opposition’ of labeling and nullifying others with different political views which criminalizes dissent – as well as from politics of fear and despair. The ruling party has an extended arm to easily mobilize the public along different lines (the young people, the farmers, the women, the civil servant, religious leaders, the private sector and students – almost everyone from all walks of life – even some ‘political parties’). Considering the political sphere which is compromised by the anti-terrorism, press and civil societies and charities laws, the horizon that gives the dawn of democracy is yet to be seen. This is how it is made by the hands of time through our political culture as well as by the hands of the revolutionary democrats during the last two decades.

The opposition camp also suffers from the broader structural make up of the society as well as from its own internal challenges which is seriously complicated beyond one’s comprehension.

Another entry point to briefly reflect on the politics of the Ethiopian developmental state is through the other crucial characteristics of such a state i.e. embedded autonomy. According to Peter Evans, one of the great scholars in this field of study, the state needs to maintain a consciously and closely monitored relationship with the business sector. It is clear that the business sector is one of the crucial social forces that determine the path of the country both at present and in the future. Hence the state needs to be close enough to the local private sector to feel its heartbeat and provide a comforting policy and legal framework for its smooth functioning. However, this needs to be a cautious engagement so that there is no risk of compromising national developmental interest with a short-sighted and rent-seeking mentality. Indeed having a highly qualified and expertise civil servant is one of the essential pre-requisites for the embedded autonomy to function ideally.

However, what we have in Ethiopia right now is a civil servant which is recruited into the EPRDF membership database willingly and unwillingly but most probably with a belief of having better access to economic benefits. There is almost a ten-fold increase in membership during the last eight years (from 600 thousands to more than 6 million). Rent-seeking and opportunism are few of the most infectious diseases that the bosses of present day Ethiopian politics are suffering from. Both the root cause and the subsequent danger are multifold. Just to mention few, the inherent political orientation of believing in huge membership base which is easily controlled is one of the causes whilst loosing the trust of the larger citizenry and compromising the ‘national interest’ is one of the menaces. But the huge number is still a confidence during elections and a status-quo maintainer through propaganda between elections.

Right now, it seems that functioning under a developmental state model with a broken politics is formula of the day. It is not unwise to assume that the politics is broken deliberately. Hence not broken per se. Therefore, it doesn’t need any fix; at least for the time being. n


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