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Ethiopia’s developmental statism: the audacity to call a spade a spade

By Eyob Balcha, Special to Addis Standard (@eyobbalcha)

I read two articles written by Merkeb Negash on the Ethiopian developmental state that present the rosy aspect of the current developmental process. I found the following three major points as the main arguments of the writer: that the highly politicized state bureaucracy is fairly on track to deliver development and steady economic growth; that the clientelistic, corrupt and paternalistic political economic system that is apparent in the current Ethiopian political economy is a positive route to a desirable end if it is well-managed. And, in his latest article, the writer focused on the effectiveness and efficiency of the current Ethiopian state in its mission of becoming developmental compared to the East Asian counterparts 30 to 60 years ago.  

It is commendable that the writer builds his argument based on scholars who wrote about the developmental state discourse and also locate his argument into the historical context and a comparative analysis. However, there are multiple elements that are completely missing or intentionally omitted from his reflections. To start with, I prefer to talk about present day Ethiopia and the political economic dynamics than comparing it to countries some 60 years ago. It is simply illogical and wobbly to rely on events in the past, elsewhere to explain the present day Ethiopia because of some incomparable historical, socio-economic and political contexts. Rather, I would like to focus on the following two interrelated issues to counter the narrow and misleading reading on the processes of the current Ethiopian ‘developmentalism’. These are the element of ‘democracy’ in the developmental discourse and the position of Ethiopian citizens in the process.

Not only developmentalism, its ‘democratic developmentalism’

The current developmental plan of the Ethiopian government, the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), states that the creation of a stable democratic and developmental state’ is one of its objectives. It is obvious that the day-to-day governmental propaganda has this monotonous slogan of ‘… the democratic and developmental route that the country has embarked on.’  Hence, any effort to analyze what the Ethiopian government is currently doing needs to consider both the declared intention of the government and the implicit and explicit practices that may or may not suffice to its declaration. All the countries that are presented to compare the Ethiopian current status did not have the democratic element in their developmentalism. Everything was made possible through corrupt, patrimonial and above all dictatorial regimes. The global political context was also relatively conducive for such states to function in a way that did not threaten their existence.

However, the Ethiopian case is completely different. It is at least declared by the government that ‘democracy’ is a necessary element in this developmental endeavor. Any explanation that tries to use the East Asian countries as a point of reference needs to be cautious of this stark difference. If the goal is to achieve economic growth by any means, yes we can learn a lot from them. But, any reasonable observation will not take their ‘success’ for granted. One may appreciate the outcomes of the processes; however there should also be a rigorous reflection about the desirability and legitimacy of the steps taken.  Hence, it can be argued that to whatever extent the South Asian model is presented as a success and inspirational case for Ethiopia, the contextual differences are more important and powerful which require more of an absolute reflection than a relative one.

One may ask how the incumbent is pursuing democracy in Ethiopia. This takes us to one of the missing elements within the debate on the Ethiopian developmental statism i.e. the ideological orientation of the ruling party; Revolutionary Democracy. Critical reflections on the ideological leaning of a government helps to analyze the underlying beliefs and practices of the ruling elite as well as its characterization of competing political actors and the nature of its relationship.  The revolutionary democracy ideology has been evolving and remains vital since the gorilla years of the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) to become the ideology of the ruling party and now embedded into the developmentalist discourses and practices of the government.

An incisive reflection into the rationale and practices of revolutionary democracy offers a better departure point to understand the political aspects of institutionalizing developmentalism in Ethiopia, particularly since 2005. As Jean Nicholas Bach argues, one of the essential elements of the revolutionary democracy ideology is presenting both liberal and illiberal practices and institutions in the same political system and manipulates them according to the political interest of the ruling elite.  One can mention the presence in Ethiopia of the Constitution, the Parliament, the Court and other similar institutions juxtaposed with legislations and political practices but are unequivocally undermining and quashing democratic contributions. The primary purpose of revolutionary democracy is ensuring the absolute dominance of the ruling elite by dominating the public sphere and creating systems and structures of control and indoctrination. The main developmental and political game that the Ethiopian government has been playing since the 2005 election is deeply entrenched into practices inspired by this ideology.

The Ethiopian government is using legal, administrative and political mechanisms to set up the current seemingly ‘developmental’ but clearly dictatorial regime. The legal mechanisms include the infamous anti-terrorism law, the civil society and charities law and the press freedom law. All these laws have been very instrumental in ensuring the superior dominance of the government’s ‘developmentalist’ discourses and practices and to close down on any possible aspect of challenging its dominance. The political and administrative aspects of the regime are presented within the camouflage of developmentalism. The pretext of making the government closer to the people is used to justify the expansion of the local level elected council members into millions (300 at each district level); establishment of different structures of control, indoctrination and often times harassment. The one-to-five organization in every public institution including education institutions, the developmental group (limatawi budin) of five to 10 members, neighborhood (got) of 90 households and the governmental group (mengistawi budin) of 30-40 households in the rural areas are few of the manifestations. These all are done within the context of establishing a ‘democratic developmental state’. Funny enough, the government is also organizing regular election every five year which is nothing but ‘unfair and unfree’. It is evident that the democratic aspect of development is severely compromised.

It is undeniable that the government has been investing immensely in infrastructure development and social sector development and also adopted policies that promote steady economic growth. However, how citizens are being incorporated in all these efforts of transforming the political economy of the country needs a critical reflection. What is the humanly face of this ‘democratic developmental’ process particularly from citizens’ perspective? Let’s see it from the perspective of citizens that exercise their human and constitutionally enshrined democratic rights. I believe there has to be a balanced reflection on the current state of affairs between the Ethiopian government and its citizens.

Where are Ethiopian citizens?

I argue that we will have a diametrically opposite explanation of the current Ethiopian democratic developmentalism process if we approach it from the citizens’ perspectives. In his latest article Merkeb Negash seems to be aware of the ‘messy, sometimes unpleasant’ process of building a developmental state. But the messiness of the process is covered up by narrowly focusing on the government’s capacity to collect tax, the creation of national projects that can be used to buy legitimacy and the increase in the current level of saving. Particularly the focus on the national saving level to explain the present context is simply superficial and insufficient. Taking purely economic interpretations of a development process is already an obsolete, if not less-insightful, exercise. It is the politics that significantly controls the economic process and also the economic processes that drives the politics. So, there is a risk of being naïve and too simplistic when we detach one from the other.

The political economic analysis of the Ethiopian democratic developmentalism can be approached through the nature and practices of citizenship that Ethiopian citizens are currently pursuing. It has already become a public knowledge that membership and affiliation to the ruling party is an essential requirement to access social rights like education, employment and other benefits from the government. The government also uses different mechanisms like indoctrination, co-optation and intimidation to forcefully install its ‘developmentalist’ discourse in the minds of Ethiopian citizens and thereby to shape their relation with the government. Since everything that the government is doing is presented as inherently ‘developmental’ and ‘democratic’, any natural act of not agreeing with it is automatically categorized as ‘anti-developmental’ and ‘anti-democratic’; hence a crime. Whoever tried to pursue a different view and perspective is grossly harassed, attacked and demonized by the ‘developmentalist’ government which claims to present itself as a holly-savior of the citizens from the hell of poverty and destitution. It is not reasonable, nor is it intellectually conceivable to remain dogmatic to praise the ‘developmental successes’ of the Ethiopian government by simply stating the process can be ‘messy and sometimes unpleasant’ or by presenting the increase in the current level of national saving rate as a justification. Such explanation wouldn’t help to understand the state of fear, despair and pessimism that Ethiopian citizens are currently feeling only because of their political views under the siege of dictatorship disguised in ‘developmentalism’. I am sure the writer knows the case of many bright young citizens that are behind bars, fled the country or remain forcefully silent because of the politically initiated and ‘developmentally’ justified actions of the government. I find it difficult to draw the line between such one-sided and shallow descriptions from the daily news that Ethiopian government owned media outlets are presenting, unless we take it as a sign and practice of ‘developmental intellectualism’ as there is ‘developmental journalism’.

Last but not least, in the earlier article the writer endorsed the current trend of Developmental –patrimonialism’ in Ethiopia by calling for the creation of more Suhartos that effectively distribute rents through ‘well-managed’ corrupt and clientelistic system. The intellectual debate around this trend sounds logical in explaining what has happened in Indonesia a few decades ago. However, trying to apply it to the current Ethiopian context seems very unwise, if not dangerous. I have two reasons. The first one is purely ideological. Such endeavor has greater tendency to establish a system that favors exploitation of labor by those who have access and ownership of both political and financial capital. This is probably a dangerous move towards institutionalizing home-grown neoliberalism that will have no reason not to fall in strategic alliance with the global capitalist and exploitative class. Issues of social justice like equality and meaningful citizens’ participation will no longer be considered as valuable agendas.

The second reason is directly related to the current Ethiopian context. The ruling elite already has unparalleled dominance in the national economy of the country. It is a public knowledge that EPRDF and its business allies have a huge control over the import & export businesses, financial and banking sector, agriculture, mining, real-estate and media, to mention few. They are already manipulating all legal and policy frameworks or simply by-passing any legal restriction because of their political power and deeply-rooted culture of nepotism and corruption. The capital flight and the money laundering activity that these corrupt government officials, cadres and business persons are involved in is still less known, thanks to the political cover-up they enjoy. Given the presence of multiple armed political movements that are determined to use violent methods to topple the government, in a context where ethno-linguistic and religious tensions are becoming frequent, in a society where the rural population are forced to migrate to urban areas because of lack of access to land, low productivity and forced dislocation and the urban poor particularly the young people facing both underemployment & unemployment; pushing for the institutionalization of crony-capitalism is both short-sighted and suicidal.

The writer is a PhD Student at University of Manchester in Development Policy & Management. He can be reached at

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