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Opinion: Writing Ethiopia’s future: Reflections on Destiny Ethiopia’s transformative scenario planning process

Dr. Awol Kassim Allo, For Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, January 08/2020 – In April 2018, Destiny Ethiopia, a not-for-profit organization established by nine Ethiopians concerned about the future direction of their country, invited 50 prominent and highly influential individuals to build scenarios for Ethiopia’s future.

Presciently responding to the challenges and opportunities created by the transitional process in Ethiopia, Destiny Ethiopia began to explore a constructive way forward for Ethiopia as early as July 2012. Inspired by the wave of popular movements that swept across the country and concerned by the structural vulnerabilities and fragilities laid bare by those movements, Destiny Ethiopia agreed to convene what came to be known as the Transformative Scenario Planning (TSP) in August of 2017.

TSP is a process that has its genesis in business strategy – major companies used strategic scenario planning to define their critical business uncertainties and develop clear and plausible scenarios to adapt and mitigate the impacts of those uncertainties on their business. Over the last three decades, TSP was taken beyond the realm of business and has been used to construct scenarios of possible futures to deal with, to adapt, and transform the future.

Convened by Negusu Aklilu, a very capable, talented, and tenacious man of very good erudition, the Destiny Ethiopia team, assembled one of the most diverse, representative, and influential group of individuals and organizations from across Ethiopia’s political, ethnic, religious, ideological, and gender divide to construct scenarios of possible futures for Ethiopia.

The Participants and the Workshops

While the team did not succeed in securing the participation of everyone they approached in the first instance, they nevertheless managed to convene a truly diverse group of individuals that included Hassan Moalin of ONLF, Dawud Ibssa of OLF, Birhanu Nega of EZEMA, Merara Gudina of OFC, Desalegn Chane of NAMA, Rahel Baffie of ESDP/Medrek, Abreha Desta of Arena Tigray, representatives of the four parties that make up the now-defunct EPRDF coalition, representatives of EPRDF-allied parties, and other individuals from the academy, the arts, civil society, and media.

I was one of the academics who participated in the process and what follows is my brief evaluation of the process. 

The Transformative Scenario Planning process began with the assumption that the scenarios are not something we already know. They are ideas that we generate collectively and in several stages, based on our shared experiences, knowledge, and languages. In three consecutive workshops held in Arba Minch and Bishoftu over a period of five months, the TSP team carried out a systemic diagnosis of the political and economic uncertainties facing Ethiopia and constructed four possible scenarios for Ethiopia’s future.

The 50 participants, all of whom were influential individuals heavily involved in various political movements or advocacy groups and networks, are people who hold different views about Ethiopia’s past, present, and future. These are individuals who represent communities who see each other as historical or strategic adversaries, and for that reason, have a different analysis of Ethiopia’s structural challenges and its solutions. But how did these diverse groups of individuals manage to engage in this collaborative exercise and managed to produce an agreed final report on Ethiopia’s future? Well, there may be several contributing factors but the methodology and the ground rules that governed the TSP process are the most important reasons for the success of this project.

The Methodology

In August 2017 Destiny Ethiopia began conversations with Reos Partners, an international firm with extensive knowledge and experience of working in transitional societies around the world, to help convene the TSP process in Ethiopia.

Drawing on their extensive experience in facilitating dialogue in transitional societies emerging out of violent and intractable conflicts, Rios Partners used an already tested and rigorous methodology to guide and steer the conversations among the TSP team. While the methodology is designed in a way that allows the participants to focus on a specific set of questions and provides a pre-defined framework for those conversations, the TSP team played a central role in designing and defining the terms of the workshops. Throughout the process, Rios Partners made clear that the TSP process is wholly owned by the TSP team, and that their job is limited to facilitating the conversations in accordance with a prearranged rules. One such rule is that scenarios must be relevant, challenging, plausible and clear. Participants are required to discuss what could happen within the next 20 years and not what will or should happen.

In this way, the methodology curved out a much narrower scope for dialogue, a ‘contact zone’, where participants can focus on key structural uncertainties and construct possible scenarios for Ethiopia’s future with the diverse others, without morphing into discord or a shouting match.  In other words, by bracketing out those contested issues and themes that are irrelevant to the task at hand, the methodology enabled them to focus on the construction of scenarios that are relevant, clear, plausible, and challenging. 

Since the scenarios are supposed to be comprehensive and all-encompassing and members of the TSP are not experts on everything, Destiny Ethiopia invited experts to provide a high-level, easy-to-digest, and at-a-glance overview of the political, constitutional, historical, and economic realities in which the country finds itself in.

The inputs by the experts informed the conversations, but the final four scenarios are the collective endeavors of the TSP team. The Four Scenarios are represented by Broken Chair, Hegemony, Divided House, and Dawn, and the final report provides a very good description of what these scenarios are and how we can best adapt and transform them. The report is a great asset for policy-makers and stakeholders involved in Ethiopia’s transition.

Lessons for Ethiopia’s Future

The TSP process was overwhelmingly successful in what it was meant to achieve: drawing scenarios for Ethiopia’s future by bringing together key actors within Ethiopia’s transition to build scenarios that enhance our understanding of the future, and how best to adapt and challenge that future.

From identifying and constituting the TSP team to the planning, management, and execution of the three workshops, and the promotion and dissemination of their findings, Destiny Ethiopia accomplished something so rare in the Ethiopian political and cultural scene and something worthy of our genuine accolade and attention. I say so not just because this is such an enormous undertaking from a logistical and operational point of view for such a small team, but also because of the sheer difficulties of bringing almost every significant voice within Ethiopia’s political map into a conversation about the country’s future in a safe and reflexive space.

For me, this was a genuinely all-inclusive and participatory ideas-making exercise. It was not a token of inclusion of the usual suspects from the non-dominant groups but a widely representative group from across Ethiopia’s extremely diverse communities, something that marked the start of a certain paradigm shift from a culture of exclusion and silencing of certain voices to the making of space for as many voices, bodies, and perspectives as possible into the conversation. Precisely because of the diverse and pluralistic composition of the team, we were all exposed to the diverse dimensions of human experience within the country and the different ideologies, histories, viewpoints, and aspirations that exist within the Ethiopian body-politic.

I also found these conversations illuminating and edifying for another reason: in the past, these types of meetings were dominated by a certain notion of who we are; certain epistemologies of the self and knowledge systems in which some ways of speaking, acting, and being are represented as universal or more important than others; where those who speak enact oneness or assume essential similarity between individuals and cultures that are quintessentially dissimilar.

The conversations in these workshops struck me as a perfect example of how a society like ours can actually unlearn its assumptions; rethink, re-frame, and reconstruct relations and conversations across the social and political divides; and prevent the tyranny of a single viewpoint. Differences of views, instead of silencing different political perspectives and perpetuating resentment and animosity, could be made to forge relationships and dialogue. As far as I am concerned, it was a tour de force.

What emerged out of this collaborative process is how a properly crafted, methodologically sound approach can lead to new ways of working together across the political, ethnic, and ideological divide.

In “Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust”, Adam Kahane, also the person who led the Reos team that facilitated the TSP process, deals with the dilemmas involved in this deceptively simple term: collaboration. He says that collaboration is something necessary but at the same time something difficult and seems impossible. Just as it can mean working jointly with another, the word can also mean “to cooperate traitorously with the enemy.” Indeed, Nelson Mandela was both working jointly with the other and working traitorously while he was negotiating with the Apartheid regime.

Ethiopia faces colossal challenges unless it addresses its depth problems – those deep-rooted sources of extreme pain that were being denied or ignored. For too long, debate on Ethiopia’s future has been dominated by antagonisms between those who perpetuate unrealistic fantasies of social harmony and those who exaggerate differences, preventing us from engaging with the other in a truly inclusive and dialogic conversation about Ethiopia’s future.

The Destiny Ethiopia TSP process has shown us how a major national conversation can be had between people who disagree with one another when we embrace the messy realities of political life, or, to use Kahane’s apt subtitle, ‘how to work with people you don’t agree with or like or trust.”

This is an area where we have fallen so tragically short, and if we are serious about national reconciliation and democratic transition, we must take the works of the TSP very seriously indeed. AS


Editor’s Note: Awol Allo, is Lecturer in Law at Keele University, Great Britain. He tweets at @awol_allo and can be reached at  

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