Taye Negussie (PhD)
In its literal definition, the term development is generally understood to mean an intentionally conceived course of action that aims to realize the full potential of a given population. Though previously the notion of planned development was largely confined to communist countries, it now seems to have drawn some attention across the board.
Probably, the reason why the word has attracted attentions outside the communist block was partly due to the phenomenal success registered with US Marshal Plan and “Reverse Course” program to rehabilitate the war-torn Europe and Japan respectively in the aftermath of World War II.
Later on, several attempts have been made to replicate the success of the aforementioned planned development interventions in most developing countries after they won their political independence. Nevertheless, unlike the European and Japanese case, an all-out success with planned development in many of the developing countries, with the exception of a handful of Asian and Latin American countries, had remained until very recently quite a distant dream.
To the contrary, the net outcome of long years of planned development interventions in many of these countries for the most part ended in creating unbridgeable income gap between the rich and the poor, pervasive poverty, environmental degradation, chronic political dictatorship, civil wars, insecurity and instability.
The ever changing economic models and strategies which these countries have opted to on various occasions such as economic growth approach, centrally planned socialist economy, growth and transformation plan, structural-adjustment program, poverty alleviation program, participatory development and all that could well be symptomatic of the crisis of planned development in the past decades.
Of course, in speaking the adoption of a development model, it is worth noticing that there may be several internal and external factors that directly or indirectly impact the choice made by a given country. The competing major international ideological orientations, the fashionable development discourses, the leverage and influence of hegemonic powers, the influence of global financial and economic institutions, bilateral and multilateral diplomatic relationships between and among countries and the political and ideological orientations of the powers that be are to mention but a few.
Be that as it may, in this article I would like to argue about Ethiopia’s adoption of the ‘developmental state’ ideology that can largely be attributed to the incumbent’s political interest to mend legitimacy crisis and carry on with its repressive rule. And for this to happen it has apparently resorted to different political strategies as briefly discussed below.
One of the biggest lessons learned from the failure of the first ever attempted ‘economic growth’ model that sought only to enhance the national economic wealth of the nation – GDP – was that a true and sustainable development must give due attention to all-round development which includes, among others, the economic, social, moral, intellectual and spiritual needs and demands of the larger population.
Subsequently, this has led to the new concept of an inclusive, participatory and human-centered development that has found wide currency since the 1980s. Such concepts of development also compel the need to make citizens active and conscious actors in a development process that ultimately determines their destiny.
Contrary to this, what is now transpiring in Ethiopia largely looks a full-blown psychological campaign to instill false-consciousness among the people by elevating the notion of development to a mystique and idol stature. The intention behind this clearly lies in making people unconscious and unquestioning actors who would readily submit to everything that comes in the name of development.
Consider the unrelenting media propaganda which scarcely misses mentioning development in the course of the day. Now, each and every government initiation comes wrapped with the tag of development. While a view or an action that aligns with the government would soon receive the honorific title of ‘developmental’, in contrast, any dissenting view or action would quickly be admonished as ‘anti-development’. In short, observing how the term development is used today in Ethiopia, probably one gets the impression that it might have acquired a new meaning which approximates something ‘sacred’.
Just imagine for a moment what a message of a sticker commonly put on the door of a soon-to-be-demolished shop that reads, “Sealed for Development Purpose” implicitly implies. In this connection, it is also worth to recall the occasion some years back when the top religious leaders had appeared on the public media to ‘consecrate’ the “Great Renaissance Dam” whereby they pronounced any non-consenting gesture towards the construction of the dam to be viewed as a kind of blasphemy that deserves some sort of admonition.
When people attempt to make the things that they themselves have created an object of worship, in the Marxist economic discourse, it is often said to be a form of fetishism. Thus, the unrelenting effort that the Ethiopian government has been waging supposedly to mystify and idolize the notion of development could be none other than “development fetishism”.
Development as a pretext
One major reason for instilling the attitude of “development fetishism” among the people seems to lie in the government’s ambition of attaching itself with a rather eye-catching infrastructural and building construction activities now underway in the country irrespective of its effect on the living realities of the ordinary mass and thereby portray itself as an indispensable actor without which Ethiopia’s development would be impossible to think of.
In this regard, it’s worth looking back at the circumstances that led the government to proclaim the status of ‘developmental state’ some few years back. Apparently, the government switched to the idea of ‘developmental state’ following the infamous 2005 election when it lost its credibility with the larger public. Furthermore, it was followed by the time when it kept itself busy with issuing some draconian laws. From this it follows that the declaration of ‘developmental state’ was but a tacit act of openly installing an authoritarian system.
After all, the notion of ‘developmental state’ is often associated either with those Asian countries with a communist political system or naked authoritarian regimes that have clung to power for so long, except Japan.
Evidently, all the messages and actions that now emanate from the ruling party in connection with the upcoming election also well signify how the ruling part is determined to use development as an excuse to cling to power indefinitely without any serious contender. Ironically, all this is not only against the unrelenting rhetoric of democracy and freedom but also in flagrant contradiction to the spirit of the constitution that itself has given birth to.
Fought for the sake of development or justice?
While proclaiming the status of developmental state which is in many ways repressive, the present day rulers seem to have forgotten why in the first place they had fought a bitter war against the former repressive regime, the Dergue. Surely, it was not so much for the sake of primarily economic development as it was for social justice.
As a matter of fact, development – especially that of material and physical – is just one among many other important duties and functions that a just government is required to carry out. This is not to say, however, for poor countries like ours the issue of development is not an imperative one. Yet, to promote development at the expense of justice, the rule of law, freedom and democratic rights, which in fact are crucial for sustainable development, presumably by virtue of being a ‘developmental state’ is very much unbecoming of such a sort of government.
Above all, the essence of a truly democratic government lies in its commitment to advance the freedom and democratic right as well as the welfare and security of its citizens. Indeed, the prime difference between authoritarian and democratic government rests on the fact that in the latter such great questions as development that evidently bears great stake in the life of people are to be decided not by whims and illusions of an individual or a group of tyrannical rulers but by well-informed, rational needs and demands of the larger citizens. Certainly, no thoughtful and rational government would attempt to reduce citizens to be blind worshipers of an idol that is created for political purpose. As the eminent classical sociologist Emile Durkheim had put it, “A healthy political system requires good faith and the avoidance of force and fraud. It requires, in a word, justice.”
Ed’s Note: The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org