For the past several months, there has been much display of public sorrow and grief in Ethiopia. But not for the millions of invisible Ethiopians who are suffering and dying from starvation, or what the “experts” euphemistically call “acute food insecurity”. These Ethiopians are spread across a large swath of the country (see map above, “Estimated food security conditions, 3rd quarter 2012 (July-September 2012, Famine Early Warning Systems Network FEWS NET).
According to the international “experts”, starving people are not really starving. They are just going through “scientific” stages of food deprivation. In stage one or “Acute Food Insecurity”, people experience “short term instability (“shocks”) but are able to meet basic food needs without atypical coping strategies.” In stage two or “Stressed” situations, “food consumption is reduced but minimally adequate without having to engage in irreversible coping strategies.” In stage three or “Crises” mode, the food supply is “borderline adequate, with significant food consumption gaps and acute malnutrition.” In stage four “Emergency”, there is “extreme food consumption gaps resulting in very high acute malnutrition or excess mortality”. In stage five or “Catastrophe”, there is “near complete lack of food and/or other basic needs where starvation, death, and destitution are evident.” When are people in “famine” situations?
Rarely will the international experts, donors, multilateral organizations, NGOs or ruling regimes use the dreaded “F” word. In Ethiopia, the word “famine” has been deemed politically incorrect because it conjures up images of hordes of skeletal humans walking across the parched landscape, curled corpses of famine victims under acacia trees and children with distended bellies clutching their mothers at feeding camps. It also portends political upheavals. In their analysis of recurrent famines in Ethiopia, Professors Angela Raven-Roberts and Sue Lautze noted, “Declaring a famine was also a complicated question for the Ethiopian government. Famines have contributed to the downfall of Ethiopian regimes… Some humanitarian practitioners gauge their successes, in part, according to ‘famines averted’… President George W. Bush challenged his administration to ensure that famines were avoided during his tenure, a policy known as ‘No Famine on My Watch’; declaring the existence of a famine could be seen as a political shortcoming and, therefore, a political vulnerability.” The one exception to the official embargo on the use of the word “famine” is Wolfgang Fengler, a lead economist for the World Bank, who on August 17, 2011, definitively declared, “This [famine] crisis is man made. Droughts have occurred over and again, but you need bad policymaking for that to lead to a famine.” In other words, the fundamental problem with “acute” or “chronic” malnutrition (short-term or long-term starvation) in Ethiopia is poor governance, not drought.
In January 2010, Mitiku Kassa, the agriculture minister in Ethiopia, declared, “In the Ethiopian context, there is no hunger, no famine… It is baseless [to claim hunger or famine], it is contrary to the situation on the ground. It is not evidence-based. The government is taking action to mitigate the problems.’ The late Meles Zenawi was equally dismissive: “Famine has wreaked havoc in Ethiopia for so long, it would be stupid not to be sensitive to the risk of such things occurring. But there has not been a famine on our watch — emergencies, but no famines.” If a technical definition of “Emergency” was intended, that would mean “extreme food consumption gaps resulting in very high acute malnutrition or excess mortality”. To the average observer, that sounds like old fashioned famine. But it is all a semantic game of euphemisms. Kassa made bold assurances that his regime had launched a food security program to “enable chronic food insecure households attain sufficient assets and income level to get out of food insecurity and improve their resilience to shocks…and halve extreme poverty and hunger by 2015.”
In 2011, according to the U.N., some 12.4 million people in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti were affected by chronic hunger and tens of thousands of people died from starvation (excuse me, “acute food insecurity”; or was it “acute malnutrition”?). Needless to say, there is not a single case in which starving Ethiopians have been surveyed to classify themselves into one of the five neat “scientific” categories. There is little doubt the vast majority of people presumed to be facing “acute malnutrition” would readily declare they are actually facing famine. But the fact of the matter is that the scope and magnitude of the “acute malnutrition” (or whatever fancy term is used to describe plain old starvation) in Ethiopia could never be independently verified because there is a conspiracy of silence between the ruling regime, international donors, NGOs and even some members of the international press who mindlessly parrot the official line and rarely go out into the affected areas to observe and document the food situation on a regular basis. So, the chorus of silent conspirators would chime in saying, “4.2 million people face acute malnutrition and need immediate life-saving help.” They would never say “4.2 million people are facing life ending famine”. The fact of the matter is that famine by any other fancy name is still famine and just as deadly!
The so-called “acute” (short-term) food shortages, malnutrition, insecurity, etc., are now a permanent (chronic) feature of Ethiopia’s food political economy. “Droughts” are blamed year after year for the suffering of millions of Ethiopians and year after year the regime’s response is to stand at the golden gates of international donors panhandling emergency humanitarian aid. The regime has done next to nothing to deal with the underlying problems aggravating the conditions leading to famine (see my July 2010 commentary “Apocalypse Now or in 40 Years?”), including high population growth, environmental degradation, low agricultural productivity caused by subsistence farming on fragmented small plots of land, government ownership of land, poor transportation and dysfunctional markets that drive up the real cost of food for the poor and other factors. Instead the regime’s solution has been to give away the most arable land in the country to so-called international investors who “lease” the land for commercial agriculture and export the harvest for sale on the international market while the local population starves. Alternatively, the regime relies on the so-called Productive Safety Nets Programmes (PSNP) which purportedly aim “to prevent asset depletion at the household level, create assets at the community level” by providing vulnerable populations income through public work projects and direct support. A joint undercover team from BBC’s Newsnight and the bureau of investigative journalism at London’s City University, separate investigations by Human Rights Watch and other international organizations have documented that PSNP resources have been used to reward supporters of the ruling party and punish members of opposition parties or non-supporters.
In 2012, to say that millions of Ethiopians will face starvation every year (disguised in the bureaucratic lingo of “acute malnutrition”, “food insecurity”, etc.) is like predicting the sun will rise tomorrow. But it is the long term prospects for “food insecurity” in Ethiopia that are unspeakably frightening. In 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau made the catastrophic prediction that Ethiopia’s population by 2050 will more than triple to 278 million. Considering the fact that Ethiopia cannot feed its 90 million people today, how could it possibly feed triple that number in less than forty ears? But such facts have not stopped the ruling regime from denying the existence of famine conditions and declaring a crushing victory on famine in just a few years. The late Meles Zenawi in 2011 declared: “We have devised a plan which will enable us to produce surplus and be able to feed ourselves by 2015 without the need for food aid.”
Ethiopia and to a lesser extent many African countries face a formidable challenge in feeding their people in the next year or so. In 2011, Africa imported $50 billion worth of food from the U.S. and Europe. Food prices in Africa are 200-300 percent higher than global prices, which means higher profit margins for multinationals that produce and distribute food. With a steady growth in global population, the prospect of transforming Africa into vast commercialized farms is mouthwatering for global agribusinesses and speculators. One of the new “hunger games” that was recently proposed by the G-8 Summit is the “New Alliance for Food Security” aimed at accelerating the “transfer” of hundreds of millions of hectares of arable African land to Cargill, Dupont, Monsanto, Kraft, Unilever, Syngenta AG and the dozens of other signatory multinationals. Working jointly with Africa’s corrupt dictators, these multinationals aim to “liberate” the land from Africans just like the 19th Century scramble for Africa; but will they really liberate Africa from the scourge of hunger, famine, starvation and poverty?
2013 as a Year of “Catastrophic Global Food Crises”
Scientists are predicting that 2013 will be a “year of serious global crises” with significant food shortages and price hikes. The crises is triggered by recent droughts in the main grain producing countries including the U.S., Russia and Australia. According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 80 percent of the U.S. has undergone some drought or “abnormally dry” conditions this past summer. This has resulted in significant loss of corn, wheat and soybean crops and is expected to reduce exports of grains and trigger increased prices on the global commodities markets. This crises will inflict a double whammy on the food importing countries of Africa. Increases in commodity prices (food, energy) will have a disproportionate impact on large vulnerable populations in Ethiopia because the impoverished households typically spend more than half their total incomes on food.
Two decisive factors for the coming global food crises have been identified. According to a highly regarded recent study by the New England Complex Systems Institute, [NECSI] (a group of academics from Harvard and MIT who specialize in predicting how changes in environment can lead to political instability and upheavals), the global food crises is driven by efforts to replace food crops with biofuel crops and greedy global investors (e.g. hedge funds, investment banks, etc.) who speculate (bet) on commodity (food) prices. NECSI researchers Marco Lagi, Yavni Bar-Yam and Yaneer Bar-Yam argue that because “the American breadbasket has suffered debilitating droughts and high temperatures [this summer], leading to soaring corn and wheat prices in anticipation of a poor harvest, we are on the verge of another crisis, the third in five years, and likely to be the worst yet, capable of causing new food riots and turmoil on a par with the Arab Spring.” NECSI researchers predict that in 2013 a “spike in prices is inevitable.”
Catastrophic Famine and Food Riots in Ethiopia in 2013?
On November 24, 2010, the Ministry of Agriculture in Ethiopia announced that the number of people in need of emergency food aid had decreased from 5.2 million from earlier in the year to 2.3 million. Agriculture minister Kassa was quoted as saying that the “overall good performance of rains in 2010 and successful disaster management endeavors have reduced the disaster risks and vulnerabilities and decreased the number of food beneficiaries”. In April 2011, the Ethiopian regime appealed for emergency food assistance in the amount of USD 398.4 to meet the needs of some 3.2 million people. Later that year, officials reported that the number of needy people had increased to 4.5. On September 12, 2012, the agriculture ministry announced that 3.7 million Ethiopians will need humanitarian assistance between August and December 2012. According to Kassa, “The country needs 314 million metric tons of food to meet the gap.” Of the 3.7 million “food insecure people”, 47 percent of them are in Somali region followed by 27 percent in Oromiya, 10 percent in Tigray, and 7.7 percent in Amhara regional states.
Food prices have been soaring in Ethiopia for the past three years. In August 2011, the Ethiopian Central Statistics Agency reported food prices, which comprise more than half the Consumer Price Index, were up 47.4 percent from 2010. Transportation costs and housing were up more than 40 percent during the past year (the price of a liter of gasoline was 21 birr). In 2011, the regime imposed price controls on basic staples which led to shortages and was subsequently dropped after the controls proved to be ineffective in controlling inflation or increasing supply. Michael Atingi-Ego, head of the International Monetary Fund mission to Ethiopia in a press statement this past June noted, “For 2011/12, the mission projects real GDP growth at 7 percent and end-year inflation at about 22 percent… Gross official foreign reserves have declined to under two months of import coverage… Rebuilding gross official foreign reserves will provide a buffer against potential exogenous shocks given the current volatile global environment.” The fact of the matter is that when the “inevitable global food crisis” hits in 2013 with inflation running at over 20 percent and foreign reserves of two months, the only outcome to be expected is total disaster.
One does not need a crystal ball to predict famine in Ethiopia on the order of magnitude seen in mid-1970s and mid-1980s given the “inevitable price hikes” in the global food markets and the manifest lack of meaningful preparedness and remedial policies by the ruling regime. In a recent “confidential preliminary” report, Tadesse Kuma Worako of the Ethiopian Development Research Institute offers an analysis that exposes the multidimensional effects of food price increases on the population beyond mortality rates:
In Ethiopia, food expenditure of total household income estimated to account for more than 60 percent that any increase in food price has negative effect on the well-being of large majorities… Food-price increases are having serious consequences for the purchasing power of the poor. Affected groups include the rural landless, pastoralists, small-scale farmers and the urban poor. Despite the various causes of food crises, the hardships that individuals and communities face have striking similarities across disparate groups and settings. These include: inability to afford food, and related lack of adequate caloric intake, distress sales of productive assets, and migration of household members in search of work and reduced household spending on healthcare, education and other necessities… Ethiopia is a country which registers one of the highest child malnutrition rates in Sub-Saharan Africa. Child stunting, which is measured as abnormally low weight to height for age in children, is an indicator of poor long-run nutritional status. Although the prevalence of child stunting in Ethiopia decreased during the second half of the 2000s, the prevalence is still significantly high compared to developing countries average. Early childhood malnutrition (among children between six and 36 months) can cause irreversible damage to brain and motor-skill development, stifle human capital formation by causing delays in enrollment and later increasing the probability of grade repetition and drop-out, lower current health status, and increase in lifetime risk of chronic disease associated with the premature mortality.
Tadesse believes that proper policies could have averted much of the hardship on the population yet remains concerend about the decisive role of global food proices and the exchange rate. “The negative effects of high food prices could have been ameliorated if policy makers had been better informed about the food price situation. In the long-run however, domestic food and non-food prices are determined by the exchange rate and international food and goods prices which means that the exchange rate and international prices explain a large fraction of Ethiopia’s inflation.”
An Early Warning for Famine and Political Upheaval in Ethiopia in 2013
On December 13, 2011, NECSI scientists reportedly wrote to the US government alerting policy makers that global food prices were about to cross the threshold they had identified resulting in global political upheavals. Days later, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia and set the Middle East on fire in what is now known as the “Arab Spring”. Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1975 because he neglected to address the famine situation in the northern part of the country, which to this day suffers from famine or as they say “acute” and “chronic” malnutrition. The military socialist junta that ruled Ethiopia denied there was a famine in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s and was overthrown in 1991 by those who are in power today. History shows that high food prices often trigger major political upheavals. In a study of the “food crises and political instability in North Africa and the Middle East”, NECSI scientists argue:
In 2011 protest movements have become pervasive in countries of North Africa and the Middle East. These protests are associated with dictatorial regimes and are often considered to be motivated by the failings of the political systems in the human rights arena. Here we show that food prices are the precipitating condition for social unrest and identify a specific global food price threshold for unrest. Even without sharp peaks in food prices we project that, within just a few years, the trend of prices will reach the threshold. This points to a danger of spreading global social disruption…. Conditions of widespread threat to security are particularly present when food is inaccessible to the population at large. In this case, the underlying reason for support of the system is eliminated, and at the same time there is “nothing to lose,” i.e. even the threat of death does not deter actions that are taken in opposition to the political order. Any incident then triggers death-defying protests and other actions that disrupt the existing order.
The government of PM Hailemariam Desalegn must come forward and explain how it expects to deal with the effects of the “inevitable global food crises” in Ethiopia in light of its depleted foreign reserves and how his government will avert potentially catastrophic famine in the country. Planning to panhandle more emergency food aid simply won’t cut it. Relying on Productive Safety Nets Programmes simply won’t do it. If the government of PM Hailemariam Desalegn cannot come with a better answer or alternative to the looming famine over the horizon, it should be prepared to face not only a hungry population but also an angry one!
*** Over the past few years, I have written numerous commentaries on famine in Ethiopia (click here and see footnotes for partial list).
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Alemayehu G. Mariam
In 1987 when Time Magazine featured a famine-stricken Ethiopian mother on its cover page, it failed to ask the most important question of all: What should Ethiopians do and not do to help themselves?
It is the privilege of those who give to pity those who receive. One of the great indignities of being a perennial object of charity and handouts is the perception by those lending a hand that handout recipients are not only moneyless and helpless but also hopeless and clueless about what they need to do to help themselves. Well-intentioned donors and benefactors often mistakenly assume that recipients of charity should “ask what the world can do for them, and not what they can do for themselves.” But history shows that all societies that have succeeded economically, socially and politically had to pull themselves up by their bootstraps with a little help from friends. Ethiopians are no exception; they must do all of the heavy lifting by themselves if they are to permanently cast off the burdens of poverty, famine, disease, dictatorship and corruption. What should Ethiopians do to save themselves?
Ten Things Ethiopians Can Do to Help Themselves 
It is all about humanity, community and civility, NOT ethnicity, nationality, sovereignty, animosity or disunity.
If Ethiopians have a chance of overcoming their enormous economic and political problems, they must first make fundamental choices. They can choose the politics of their common humanity and collectively build a harmonious civil community, or remain trapped in the dungeon of identity politics and become pawns in the ethnic chess game of uber-dictator Meles Zenawi. If Ethiopians affirm their common humanity, they will see that human rights abuses do not have an ethnic face, nor poverty a nationality. They will understand religion is not a weapon of animosity but a way to divinity. National disunity will never produce prosperity, but it will surely keep the people in perpetual poverty. Ethnicity and identity add diversity in a genuine democratic system. Under a dictatorship, they become powerful tools of dehumanization breeding fear, hatred and distrust among the people. Ethiopians must choose to climb up and steer the Ship of Ethiopia into the horizon or remain lost in their ethnic boats on a sea of tyranny, poverty and famine. That is why I believe Ethiopians need a new unifying civic ideology that transcends ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, language and other classifications susceptible to insidious use. Ethiopians inside the country and in the Diaspora must build a civic culture based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the most translated document in the world. If the values of the UDHR are widely accepted and practiced, Ethiopia will be able to overcome poverty, famine and internal division and achieve prosperity and greatness within a generation.
Ethiopians must become a little bit utopian.
Ethiopia is today a dystopia– a society that writhes under a dictatorship that trashes human rights and decimates all opposition ruthlessly. Last year, Zenawi told two high level U.S. Government officials what he will do to his opposition: “We will crush them with our full force.” All Ethiopians, regardless of ethnicity, language, religion, class or region must be able to imagine an Ethiopia where no petty tyrant will ever have the power or even the audacity to say he will “crush” another fellow citizen, or has the ability to use “full force” against any person just because he can. Ethiopians must be able to dream of a future free of ethnic strife, famine and oppression; and strive to work together for a little utopia in Ethiopia where might is NOT right but the rule of law shields the defenseless poor and voiceless against the slings and arrows of the criminally rich and powerful. It is true that Utopians aspire for the perfect society, but Ethiopians should aspire and work collectively for a society in which human rights are respected, the voice of the people are heard and accepted (not stolen), those to whom power is entrusted perform their duties with transparency and are held accountable to the law and people.
Learn from the past, prepare for the future.
More often than not, many Ethiopians tend to dwell on the past than imagining an alternative future. The past is a great teacher; we must learn from past mistakes and do things better and differently. But the past can also be a mental prison. Zenawi always reminds us how we have been wicked to each other in the past and waxes eloquent on the alleged crimes, cruelty and inhumanity of long gone kings and princes. He never tires to tell us how this king, that aristocrat or soldier has been cruel and barbaric. He thinks he can make himself angelic by demonizing past leaders. Perhaps he does not see it, but when one points an index finger outwards, three fingers are pointing inwards. The moral lesson is that we need to find a way out of the mental prison of past grievances and liberate our minds with a new civic ideology to embrace a brave new democratic Ethiopia under the rule of law. As the old saying goes, “One can’t drive forward on the road of life if one is fixed looking in the rear view mirror.” So, we have to make another simple choice: Live in the past chewing on the cud of historical grievances or hold hands, learn from the past and put our collective shoulders to the grindstone and forge a new Ethiopia. If we fail to do that, those who cling to power will entrench and enrich themselves and laugh at the rest of us who remain trapped in the dungeons of our historical grievances.
No country or society ever got prosperity by begging or receiving alms.
No country or society ever got prosperity by begging or receiving alms. But recent evidence from Wikileaks cablegrams shows that Zenawi plans to bulldoze his way into economic development at an annual growth rate of 15 percent by panhandling the West. According to U.S. Assistant Secretary of Treasury Andy Baukol, the “Government of Ethiopia (GoE) has become more vocal about its need for sustained aid flows from the West and more recalcitrant about implementing any reforms or liberalization of key sectors such as banking and telecommunications.” A recent IMF report, which Zenawi wants kept hidden from public scrutiny, concluded that Ethiopia’s “macroeconomic performance has deteriorated markedly” because of loose monetary policy which has fueled stratospheric inflation and mindless government control and regulations which have undermined confidence in the private sector.
Foreign aid as a development vehicle has been thoroughly discredited. As Dambissa Moyo has argued, the “evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that aid to Africa has made the poor poorer, and the growth slower. The insidious aid culture has left African countries more debt-laden, more inflation-prone, more vulnerable to the vagaries of the currency markets and more unattractive to higher-quality investment.” Countries that have achieved rapid economic development have managed to create favorable politico-legal environments for business, industry and commerce, maintained low state debt and accumulated substantial fiscal reserves to meet emergency needs. The spirit of official mendicancy in Ethiopia must be replaced by a public spirit of unfettered entrepreneurship.
As long as Ethiopia remains under a dictatorship, there will always be famine, and not just of food.
Western aid bureaucrats like to sugarcoat the famine in Ethiopia in the politically correct bureaucratese of “extreme malnutrition”, “food crises”, “green drought” and so on. Interestingly, in a recent official blog and testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Donald Yamamoto and presently Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State acknowledged “famine [is] spreading across the Horn of Africa.” That should not come as a surprise as Yamamoto had long concluded that Ethiopia is trapped in a permanent and unbreakable cycle of famine and starvation. In a recently released Wikileaks cablegram,Yamamoto advised his superiors: “Ethiopia’s perennial emergency food dependence is, de facto, a permanent condition.” He outlined that the U.S. has three choices in light of the permanence of famine in the Ethiopian political economy: 1) “continue to provide massive food aid, which is unsustainable, in meeting Ethiopia’s permanent state of emergency food need each year,” 2) “provide significantly greater assistance for sustainable agricultural productivity”, or 3) “robustly to push for a shift in economic and agricultural policies (regarding land tenure, agricultural technologies and practices, agricultural inputs, etc.) to increase domestic agricultural productivity.” The bottom line is that as long as Ethiopia remains in the chokehold of the current dictatorship, there will always be a famine not only of food but also of democracy, human rights, rule of law, accountability, transparency and vision. Western donors must stop supporting oppression, corruption, persecution and repression in famine-stricken Ethiopia.
Plant and water the seeds of genuine multiparty democracy on the parched landscape of famine.
It is oft-repeated that “there has never been a famine in a functioning multi-party democracy” with a robust free press. In a competitive multi-party political process, there is a much higher degree of political and electoral accountability. A government that ignores or fails to prevent famine is surely destined to lose power. A free press will mobilize public opinion for official and civic action to deal with the problem. Multiparty democracy does not mean the six dozen ethno-tribal “parties” organized by the Zenawi dictatorship to serve as a Tower of Babel and facilitate its divide and rule strategy. It does mean the functioning of political organizations that compete for electoral support and have appeal across ethnic, linguistic, religious and regional lines. Ethiopia can learn a great lesson from Ghana in this regard in light of shared socio-economic and political experiences. Article 55 (4) of the Ghanaian Constitution expressly mandates political parties to have “national character”: “Every political party shall have a national character, and membership shall not be based on ethnic, religious, regional or other sectional divisions.” Any multiparty system to be established in Ethiopia must be guided by such constitutional language.
Ethiopia’s youth are the flowers of today and the seeds of hope tomorrow.
The old Ethiopian saying that the “youth are the flowers of today and the seeds of tomorrow” is true. They need to be carefully cultivated and grown. But the the data on these seeds of hope are discouraging. Forty six percent of Ethiopia’s 91 million population in 2011 is estimated to be under the age of 18. UNICEF estimates that malnutrition is responsible for more than half of all deaths among children under age five. An estimated 5 million children are orphans, a little less than one-fifths from AIDS. Urban youth unemployment is estimated at 70 per cent. The vast majority of Ethiopian adolescents live in rural areas. Some regions in the country have extremely high rates of early marriage. Frustrated and in despair of their future, many urban youths drop out of school and engage in risky behaviors including drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse, crime and delinquency. The ruling dictatorship’s youth, sports and culture agency concedes that youth issues have been long neglected: “In Ethiopia, because of the fact that proper attention has not been given to addressing youth issues and their organizations, therefore, mutual cooperation and networking among youth, family, society, other partners and government had hardly been created.” Much needs to be done to give Ethiopia’s youth hope in the future. Whatever is to be done to help the youth, the starting point must necessarily be a de-marginalization of youth through an explicit acknowledgement of their role in solving problems affecting them. They must be included in all decision-making concerning youth issues and consulted extensively in the policy planning and implementation stages. The bottom line is that without the youth, Ethiopia has no future. Those who ignore the youth should understand that hungry children grow to be angry children and a ticking demographic time bomb.
Empower Ethiopian women.
Birtukan Midekssa, Ethiopia’s foremost political prisoner until her release last year and first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, enjoyed talking about an allegorical ‘future country of Ethiopia’ that would become an African oasis of democracy and a bastion of human rights and the rule of law in the continent. In Birtukan’s ‘future Ethiopia’ women and men would live not only as equals under the law, but also work together to create a progressive and compassionate society in which women are free from domestic violence and sexual exploitation, have access to adequate health and maternal care and are provided education to free them from culturally-enforced ignorance, submissiveness and subjugation. But if the situation of women in the ‘present country of Ethiopia’ is any indication, Birtukans “future country” is in deep trouble.
The 2000 US State Department Human Rights Country Report on Ethiopia described the status of women in appallingly disheartening terms: “The Constitution provides for the equality of women; however, these provisions often are not applied in practice… Discriminatory regulations in the civil code include recognizing the husband as the legal head of the family and designating him as the sole guardian of children over five years old. Domestic violence is not considered a serious justification under the law to obtain a divorce. Irrespective of the number of years the marriage has existed, the number of children raised and the joint property, the woman is entitled to only 3 months’ financial support should the relationship end.”
The 2010 US. State Department Human Rights Country Report on Ethiopia described the status of women in similar stark terms: “The constitution provides women the same rights and protections as men. Harmful Traditional Practices (HTPs) such as FGM (female genital mutilation), abduction, and rape are explicitly criminalized; however, enforcement of these laws lagged. Women and girls experienced gender-based violence daily, but it was underreported due to shame, fear, or a victim’s ignorance of legal protections. Domestic violence, including spousal abuse, was a pervasive social problem. The 2005 Demographic and Health Survey found that 81 percent of women believed a husband had a right to beat his wife. Sexual harassment was widespread [and] harassment-related laws were not enforced.”
The current dictatorship in Ethiopia manifested its latent misogyny not only by giving lip service to women’s issues but also by dehumanizing the symbol of women in Ethiopia, young Birtukan Midekssa. During her incarceration, the U.S. Government regarded Birtukan a political prisoner because she was imprisoned for her political beliefs as did all other major international human rights organizations. But Zenawi threw Birtukan straight into solitary confinement after arresting her on the streets, and boasted to the world: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” He later literally added insult to injury by mocking her that she was in “perfect condition” in solitary confinement and was eating and sitting around idly and likely to “have gained a few kilos”.
Ethiopian women need to be empowered in all spheres of life. But without young women leaders like Birtukan who can fight for Ethiopian democracy and human rights, and women’s rights, talk of improving the status of women in Ethiopia is a mockery of women.
Only Ethiopians can save themselves.
Ethiopians should know that the West and its billions in aid and loans will help but not save them from a famine of food and democracy. Ethiopians in the Diaspora can help by becoming the voice of Ethiopia’s voiceless. But only Ethiopians can save themselves from famine, poverty, dictatorship and division. Only they can solve their problems by creating common cause, building consensus and forging genuine brotherhood and sisterhood among themselves regardless of ethnicity or other factors. Only when they are able to forge unity of purpose and are irrevocably committed to democracy and the rule of law will they be able to cast off the boots of dictatorship from their necks. There is no need to look for answers to what troubles Ethiopia in Washington, D.C., London, Bonn or Beijing. The solution for Ethiopia’s problems is in Ethiopia.
Give hope. Always keep hope alive.
The old saying is true that “Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope.” When dictators swagger arrogantly to show the people that they are omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, they are telling them they have no hope. Their message is the same as the one inscribed on the gates of Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” But Ethiopians must never abandon hope. To abandon hope is to lose faith in Ethiopia’s children. When the dictators say, “Look how powerful we are. Give up!”, hope says “keep on keeping on. Tyrants for a time seem invincible but in the end, they always fall.” As Martin L. King said, “We are now experiencing the darkest hour which is just before the dawn of freedom and human dignity.” That is why it is important to keep hope alive in Ethiopia.
Tyrants always fall, but what happens the morning after?
Gandhi spoke an eternal truth: “There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall — think of it, ALWAYS.” In just the past few months, Ben Ali fell in Tunisia; Hosni Mubarak fell and is standing trial in Egypt. Moammar Gadhafi fell and is hiding out in a spider hole somewhere in southern Libya. Bashir Al-Assad is teetering as he continues to butcher Syrians who have kept up the pressure through acts of mass civil disobedience. He too will fall. The question is never, never whether tyrants fall. The question is always, always what happens after they fall!
 This commentary builds upon my set of ten reasons to questions posed by Time Magazine nearly a quarter of a century ago: “Why are Ethiopians starving again? and “What should the world do and not do” to help them?
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/
There is the economics of Adam Smith, the intellectual father of capitalism. There is Levitt & Dubner’s freakonomics of weird stuff. Then there is the fakeonomics (economics by gimmickry) of Meles Zenawi, the dictator in Ethiopia and author of the five-year “Growth and Transformation Plan” (GTP). Zenawi forecasts a “not unimaginable” 14.9 percent economic growth for Ethiopia over the next five years after devaluing the currency by 20 percent, slapping price controls on many food items and watching from the sidelines annual inflation galloping at 34.7 percent. He has accused the country’s business community of price gauging and hoarding and threatened to shut them down, jail them and literally cut the hands of any business person caught in the illicit trade of coffee.
The GTP is a make-a-wish list of stuff. It purports to be based on a “long-term vision” of making Ethiopia “a country where democratic rule, good-governance and social justice reigns.” It aims to “build an economy which has a modern and productive agricultural sector with enhanced technology and an industrial sector” and “increase per capita income of citizens so that it reaches at the level of those in middle-income countries.” It boasts of “pillar strategies” to “sustain faster and equitable economic growth”, “maintain agriculture as a major source of economic growth,” “create favorable conditions for the industry to play key role in the economy,” “expand infrastructure and social development,” “build capacity and deepen good governance” and “promote women and youth empowerment and equitable benefit.”
In my regular weekly commentary on May 5, I observed:
The ‘economic plan’ (“GTP”) itself floats on a sea of catchphrases, clichés, slogans, buzzwords, platitudes, truisms and bombast. Zenawi says his plan will produce “food sufficiency in five years.” But he cautions it is a “high-case scenario which is clearly very, very ambitious.” He says the ‘base-case’ scenario of ‘11 percent average economic growth over the next five years is doable” and the ‘high-case’ scenario of 14.9 percent is ‘not unimaginable’. The hype of super economic growth rate is manifestly detached from reality. The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative Multidimensional Poverty Index 2010 (formerly annual U.N.D.P. Human Poverty Index) ranks Ethiopia as second poorest (ahead of famine-ravaged Mali) country on the planet. Six million Ethiopians needed emergency food aid last year and many millions will need food aid this year. An annual growth rate of 15 percent for the second poorest country on the planet for the next five years goes beyond the realm of imagination to pure fantasy. The IMF predicts a growth rate of 7 percent for 2011, but talking about economic statistics on Ethiopia is like talking about the art of voodoo.
It seems the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has come to the same conclusion. In a May 31, 2011 statement, the IMF artfully asserted:
Strong growth has continued in 2010/11 that the mission estimates at 7.5 percent (compared to an official estimate of 11.4 percent)…. The mission sees lower growth for 2011/12, at about 6 percent, on account of high inflation, restrictions on private bank lending, and a more difficult business environment… The growth and investment objectives of the new five-year Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) are ambitious. The mission urged the authorities to the pace implementation of the plan to avoid any further overheating of the economy. Success will also hinge on allowing room for the private sector to thrive and maintaining a low risk of debt distress…
On June 8, Ken Ohashi, the World Bank’s (WB) country director for Ethiopiacandidly stated:
Ethiopia’s dependence on foreign capital to finance budget deficits and a five-year investment plan is unsustainable… I can’t see it’s sustainable short of discovering huge oil reserves, essentially an unexpected windfall… I don’t see how they can sustain such an aggressive investment plan without getting into serious problems… If you’re not as a nation saving enough, you are dependent on foreign capital or other means of financing investment in an unhealthy, unsustainable way… That’s the sort of trap they seem to be falling into… On debt there is a danger… If this public investment-led growth at some point really stumbles or stagnates for a while then all these debt equations could unravel. … I do worry that without the private sector expanding much more vigorously then rapid growth is not likely to be sustainable and if that’s the case then all these debt balances could go out of control.
On June 6, Zenawi’s finance chief said the WB and IMF are all wrong. He insisted the GTP will “double economic growth by registering 14.9 percent growth on average”. He proclaimed that in the next five years there will be “fast and sustainable economic growth,” and “food security at household and national level.” There will be “more than 2000 km of railway networks would be constructed” and power generation will be in the range of “ 8,000 to 10,000 MW from water and wind resources during the next five years.”
On June 9, Zenawi’s deputy, Hailemariam Desalegn, offered assurances that “economic expansion won’t drop below 9 percent in the fiscal year to July 7, 2012, from 11.4 percent this year.” He boasted that “the whole community has mobilized to buy bonds. This huge savings and mobilization is used for infrastructure development… We are getting loans from China, India, Turkey and South Korea, so all these foreign savings are also mobilized… So I think we can perform on the ambitious plans that are in place.”
Cutting Through the Diplomatic Bull
For the last several months, Zenawi has been staging one farcical political theatre after another to distract attention from his brutal repression and to pretend that he is the one immovable object in the Sub-Saharan universe come the gusting southerly winds of change from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya or high water. He has been engaged in belligerent talk of regime change in Eritrea, inflammatory water war-talk with Egypt, wild allegations of terrorist attacks, proclamations for the construction of an imaginary dam over the Blue Nile, vicious attacks on international human rights organizations and wholesale jailing and intimidation of opponents.
Now Zenawi is shifting from political to economic theatre. As the country convulses in spiraling inflation Zenawi says, “It’s all good. Not a problem.” But the verdict of the big time bankers is in: Zenawi’s GTP is pure fantasy, a figment of his imagination. Of course, bankers like diplomats avoid straight talk and prefer to tip-toe and tap-dance around the truth. When they can say the GTP has as much chance of success as a snowball in hell, they would say the plan is “ambitious,” “unhealthy” and “unsustainable.” Instead of saying the plan is manifestly doomed to failure, they hedge on absurd contingencies that the plan will work only if “huge oil reserves are discovered” or the country gets an “unexpected windfall”. When they can say the Ethiopian economy has collapsed, they hem and haw about their concerns that the plan could “further overheat the economy”. They twiddle their thumbs and “worry about the private sector not thriving,” and express concern over Ethiopia’s “dependence on foreign capital”, the “unraveling of debt equations” and “debt balances getting out of control.”
As I have demonstrated in a previous commentary, Zenawi’s economic planning is based on juggled figures, massaged statistics and irrational exuberance about overrated and illusory economic development. Systematic falsification of economic data, fraudulent statistics and creative accounting in economic reports have largely gone unchallenged for years by the learned economists. The lack of systematic and sustained critique by Diaspora economists is all the more surprising and baffling given the fact that the economic swagger and wind-bagging about stratospheric economic growth and development comes from a regime not known for its economic “literacy”. The Economist Magazine in its November 7, 2006 editorial, in the context of the Starbucks coffee row, bluntly stated: “The Ethiopian government, one of the most economically illiterate in the modern world, would do well to take Starbucks’s advice.” The same observation was repeated in 2009 at a high level meeting of Western donor policy makers in Berlin where, according to a Wikileaks cablegram, a German diplomat suggested that Ethiopia’s economic woes could be traced to “Meles’ poor understanding of economics”. Today, to the surprise of many observers, the IMF and WB who have previously swallowed whole the regime’s preposterous economic claims are openly echoing the views of the German diplomat and the Economist Magazine.
Deceit, chicanery, paralogy and sophistry are the hallmarks of Zenawi’s regime. For many years, that regime has managed to scam the multilateral bankers and donors by talking about “sustainability,” “double-digit growth”, “renaissance” and “accelerated development in the developmental state”. It has even sought to shame and intimidate Western banker and donors by moral hectoring of the evils of “neoliberalism”. Zenawi seems to follow the old principle that “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” In the Information Age, if you tell one big lie and embellish it with little lies every day, you will end up fooling yourself and no one else. (That obviously does not apply to Ethiopia which is hopelessly stranded and trapped in the Censorship and Disinformation Age).
The economic facts about Ethiopia are plain for all to see: The economy is in the stranglehold of organized racketeers and regime cronies. Regime-affiliated businesses and enterprises control “freight transport, construction, pharmaceutical, and cement firms receive lucrative foreign aid contracts and highly favorable terms on loans from government banks.” According to the regime’s data, by the end of the 2009 fiscal year, Ethiopia’s outstanding debt stock was pegged at a crushing USD$5.2 billion. Remittances by Diaspora Ethiopians were the mainstay of the economy, and in 2008 Ethiopians in the U.S. alone sent $1.2 billion. “Ethiopia is Africa’s largest recipient of foreign aid (at $3.3 billion in 2008 and rising).” The regime has auctioned off millions of hectares of the country’s best land for less than pennies. “For £150 a week (USD$245), you can lease more than 2,500 sq km (1,000 sq miles) of virgin, fertile land – an area the size of Dorset, England – for 50 years, plus generous tax breaks.”
According to the regime’s data, Ethiopia’s year-on-year rate of inflation jumped to 34.7 percent in May (2011) from 29.5 percent a month earlier; and food prices rose 40.7 percent during the year. Every year, Zenawi’s regime runs up the SOS flag begging for emergency humanitarian aid . So far in 2011, humanitarian pledges, commitments and contributions to the regime exceed USD$212 million. To get a government job or higher education, one has to be a member of Zenawi’s party. Ethiopia’s current population of some 80 million is expected to double in the next thirty years. It is mind-numbing to imagine the number of people who will be living in abject poverty without access to health care, education and employment in Ethiopia in three decades. The regime has failed to implement any policy aimed at controlling population growth.
One has to assume that those in the inner circle of the regime are aware of the massive economic crises in the country despite their manifest lack of “economic literacy.” But that assumption may be questionable given the fact that the regime appears to be in denial and has used its modest economic ingenuity to pin the blame for Ethiopia’s galloping inflation and the rest of that country’s economic problems on global market forces. Zenawi now offers the GTP as a “pie in the sky” plan that will not only provide food security but also catapult Ethiopia into becoming a middle income country like Malaysia in five years. The fact of the matter is that the regime’s self-centered short-term interests in accumulating wealth for its members and determination to cling to power forever have trumped the long-term strategic interests of the country.
Zenawi now is not only having difficulty persuading its bankers that it has the right economic policy, but the bankers are looking at his plan with increasing derision and cynicism. Ohashi says the GTP will work if Ethiopia “discovers huge oil reserves” or gets “an unexpected windfall.” Ohashi might as well have said the plan will work if manna falls from the sky.
Zenawi’s fakeonomics is nothing new. The old communist regimes in Eastern Europe used to pull the same types of political and economic stunts. They would hold “elections” and declare they won it by 99 percent (to their credit not by 99.6 percent). They also had their “five-year economic plans” in which they predicted and “achieved” incredible economic growth. For instance, they would set a production target of ten thousand tractors a year and actually produce five thousand. They would publicly report they produced fifteen thousand tractors and give the factory bosses increased wages and bonuses for exceeding the production target. The communist regimes would even say they did not have inflation just high prices and deny high quality food items and other amenities to the masses while the nomenclatura (party bosses) and their cronies wallowed in luxury. The reality in Ethiopia is that basic necessities are unavailable and unaffordable to the vast majority of the people, and even those who could afford the inflated prices must have the right connection to get an adequate supply. A regime incapable of providing sugar, cooking oil and other basic staples to the people now boasts of making Ethiopia a middle income country in five years.
Are Ethiopians better off economically today than they were five years ago? The answer to that question will be the answer to what they will be five years from now!
In the final analysis, it is not about the plan. It’s about the man. As George Ayittey said, “Africa is poor because she is not free.” I say Africa is poor because of dictators who cling to power like ticks on a milk cow.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/
“There are lies, lies and implausible lies,” to quote Meles Zenawi, the dictator-cum-economic spinmeister of Ethiopia. Last week, Zenawi told a snickering Parliament a story that is the equivalent of the proverbial bull that gave birth to a calf (or in Amharic “bere welede”): “We will be seeing an economic growth rate of 10.1 percent this year, while inflation will fall to 3.9 percent. This is the result of sound economic policy.” (Sorry, but this is the result of voodoo economics!)
For the past several years, Zenawi has been making hyperbolic claims of economic growth in Ethiopia based on fabricated and massaged GDP (gross domestic product) numbers, implying that the country is in a state of runaway economic development and the people’s standard of living is fast outstripping those living in the middle income countries. In March 2009, for instance, Zenawi’s bragged that he expected the Ethiopian economy to grow by 12.8 percent. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) disagreed in the same month stating that given the global economic crises Ethiopia could expect only about 6% economic growth. Zenawi dismissively countered those who pointed out the discrepancies: “We have differences with the international financial institutions when we predict our economic growth, but we usually agree on the economic growth statistics at the end of each year.” The questions remain: Did the Ethiopian economy grow by 12.8 percent in 2009/10? Could it be expected to grow by 10.1 per cent in 2010/11? Who is keeping track of the economic statistics?
The Central Statistics Agency (CSA) and the “National Accounts Department of the Ministry Finance and Economic Development” are the two institutions in Ethiopia that are responsible for keeping track of the statistical data and providing analysis on economic performance. But neither organization has the institutional capability to collect reliable and accurate economic data, let alone assemble complete and comprehensive data sets which could serve as empirical bases for economic prognostications. This fact was emphatically stated on March 24, 2010 in the official statement of Paul Mathieu, the IMF team leader who, after conducting an evaluation of the current half fiscal year economic performance of Ethiopia, said: “Statistics collection of the country requires transformations, and we advised the government to do that.” Translated from “diplomatese” into ordinary language, Mathieu’s statement makes it plain that the statistics and data generated and used by the regime to describe Ethiopia’s economic performance and make predictions are basically “cooked up.” The simple fact of the matter is that the statistics buttressing Zenawi’s exaggerated claims and projections of stratospheric economic growth, vanishing inflation and red-hot performance of key economic sectors originate from seriously flawed, massaged and deficient economic data cooked up in the kitchens of the two institutions for whom the IMF recently prescribed “transformations”.
Zenawi’s stated claims of multi-year runaway GDP growth taken at face value defy not only economic realities but also common sense. On March 4, 2009, the IMF reported that Ethiopia’s economic growth could slow to 6 percent in 2009 based on objective factors rooted in the global economic slowdown and specific trends in the critical foreign exchange earning sectors in Ethiopia such as coffee exports (with decreased demand and a 19 per cent decline in price), tourism and transportation, and depreciation of effective foreign exchange rates by 30 percent. The IMF also indicated that Ethiopia has the highest inflation rate (26%) in Africa outside Zimbabwe. In its April 2010 “Background Note: Ethiopia”, the U.S. State Department reported an average inflation rate (FY 2008-2009) of 36%. There is no IMF (or any other credible multilateral institution) year-end or any other report which indicates that Ethiopia could expect a 12.8 or 10.1 percent economic growth or a decline in inflation to 3.9 percent in 2009/10 or any other subsequent year. Indeed, IMF’s Mathieu stated on March 24, 2010 that “non-food inflation remains close to 20 percent, and has been rising in recent months.” The claim that “we usually agree on the economic growth statistics at the end of each year” is simply not true.
However, for a number of years Zenawi’s regime has been pulling a public relations sleight-of-hand by using the IMF as a front to channel its own preferred economic statistics to prove its economic prowess and unrivalled success to the world. For instance, IMF Country Report (Ethiopia) No. 08/264 (July 2008), states: “Growth has averaged 11 percent since 2003/04, far exceeding the minimum target of 7 percent in the Program for Accelerated and Sustainable Development (PASDEP), that is estimated to be consistent with keeping the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) within reach.” On pp. 20-24 of this Report, the origin of the data indicating an 11 percent growth is not some independent data collection and analysis source but the very same Central Statistics Office which last month the IMF said needs massive “transformation”. The footnotes in the above-referenced pages state: “Sources: Ethiopian authorities; and IMF staff estimates and projections.” Similarly, the data source for “Financial Soundness Indicators for Banking” is identified as the “National Bank of Ethiopia; and IMF calculations.” In its official reports, the IMF simply accepts and incorporates at face value the data for GDP growth given to it by the Central Statistics Office (with its own staff estimates) and incorporates those figures in its own report without so much as qualifying it for completeness, accuracy or reliability.
In the above-referenced report, the IMF further presents GDP growth data given to it by Zenawi’s regime for 2005/06 at 11.6 percent and 11.4 percent for 2006/07. The IMF uses its own “estimates” (without fully disclosing its methodology given the fact that IMF staffers are allowed considerable latitude in incorporating country-specific circumstances in making estimates) to make additional GDP growth projections for 2007/08 at 8.4 percent, followed by 6.0 percent for 2008/09; 6.5 percent for 2009/10; 7.5 percent for 2010/11; 7.5 percent for 2011/12 and 7.5 for 2012/13. The discrepancy between the IMF’s and the regime’s estimates appears to reflect the IMF’s clear lack of confidence in the regime’s economic data and analysis.
The bottom line on the regime’s statistical claims of economic growth, financial soundness and the rest of it is that the figures are cooked up in the Central Statistics Office and fed to the IMF, which slavishly (with a wink, nod and a smile) parrots back to the world the same figures with some of its own “staff estimates and projections”. This is the extent of the economic statistical game that continues to be played before our eyes.
On the other hand, with respect to inflation, the World Bank (Policy Research Working Paper 4969, June 2009), citing IMF data concluded, “One of the most affected countries is Ethiopia, which, with the exception of Zimbabwe and small island economies, has had the strongest acceleration in food price inflation during recent years. Average food prices rose by more than 34 percent in 2007/08, but annual inflation reached historical record growth of 91.7 percent in July 2008.” On March 17, 2010, the regime’s Central Statistics Office reported, “Except for cereals, all food components have shown a rise. The prices of fuel, construction materials, clothing and footwear, furniture and personal care (products) are on the rise.” What empirical evidence exists in the first half of 2010 to justify a prediction of a steep decline in inflation to 3.9 percent in 2010/11 or beyond?
All of the statistical fairy tales about the economy told in Parliament were a source of puzzlement and amusement for Mr. Bulcha Demekssa, the leader of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Party (OFDM) and former vice-minister of finance and senior official at various international institutions. Mr. Bulcha asked Zenawi in Parliament how such fantastic GDP figures could be achieved: “The prime minister and the government have repeatedly said Ethiopia has grown by 10 and 11 percent. The prime minister and Ethiopian economists know that it is a miracle for Ethiopia to grow by 11 percent. How is it that Ethiopia grew by 11 percent? We know that China, South-Korea are registering such economic growth. But we are confused how Ethiopia ’s economic is growing like these countries. Our unemployment and poverty is on the rise.” Zenawi’s response was characteristically evasive, and he denied any real discrepancies: “We have differences with the international financial institutions when we predict our economic growth, but we usually agree on the economic growth statistics at the end of each year.”
The answer to Mr. Bulcha’s question, of course, is obvious. Magic! All one needs to achieve an 11 percent growth is to invoke the GDP Spirits and recite to them the right incantations about “sustainable development”, “export-led growth” and “improved export revenue sector”. Then sprinkle a palmful of that fine IMF gold dust and command: “Shazam! Let there be economic growth of 10.1 percent! (or 12.8, does not matter any number will do). Abracadabra! Inflation, I command you to go down to 3.9 percent (or 1.1).” But the real “miracle” occurs when the magic wand is waived to deliver economic growth to a precise tenth of a percentage point such as 10.1 percent instead of merely 10.
All of the economic swagger and wind-bagging about unrivalled economic boom, prosperity and progress comes from a regime not known for its economic “literacy”. In an editorial published in the Economist magazine on November 7, 2006 in the context of the Starbucks coffee row, the magazine was graphic in its description of the regime: “The Ethiopian government, one of the most economically illiterate in the modern world, would do well to take Starbucks’s advice.”
But there is a more fundamental question to be answered: Could a nation’s economic health be reduced to a single statistical summation? Does GDP growth necessarily mean improved in standard of living? Zenawi says GDP is the only measure of economic performance that has universal acceptance, and he will continue to use it until a better measure comes up. As anyone with an elementary understanding of economics knows, GDP has little value in meaningfully understanding a country’s economic growth, development and prosperity. Its analytical and descriptive value has been thoroughly critiqued in the economic literature. Suffice it to say that to claim that an economy grew by an 10.1 percent is like saying “activity” on city streets increased by 10.1 per cent. The street “activity” without specificity as to crime, car accidents, pedestrian traffic or other events by itself is meaningless. Yet for the past few years, the regime has been trumpeting GDP numbers as some sort of fetish that definitively explains Ethiopia’s economic growth. The GDP numbers, for instance, tell us nothing about the enormous disparity in incomes between the rich and poor in Ethiopia. By overstating economic welfare, GDP calculations do not tell us the magnitude of environmental damage that is taking place. GDP is certainly not a measure of the sustainability of growth, a point repeatedly made in numerous IMF reports on Ethiopia.
Even if actual GDP growth in Ethiopia is 11 percent or more, it is a meaningless statistic when considered in light of the basic needs and well-being of the people. In the vital area of health, for instance, Ethiopia is in a state of absolute wretchedness. According to World Health Organization (WHO) (2006) data, to serve a population of 77 million people, there were 1,936 physicians (1doctor for 39,772 persons); 93 dentists (1: 828,000); 15,544 nurses and midwives (1: 4,985), 1,343 pharmacists (1: 57,334) and 18,652 community health workers (1: 4,128). Total expenditure on health as a percentage of gross domestic product was 5.9 per cent. General government expenditure on health as a percentage of total expenditure on health was 58.4 per cent, and private expenditures covered the balance of 41.6 percent. Hospital beds per 10,000 population was less than 25. Per capita expenditure on health was USD$3 at an average exchange rate. WHO’s minimum standard is 20 physicians per 100,000 population, and 100 nurses per 100,000 population. Such is the real matrix of Ethiopia’s 12.8 or 10.1 or whatever fictional GDP number that is pulled from thin air.
On November 3, 2007, the Economist magazine reported:
The fact is that for all the aid money and Chinese loans coming in, Ethiopia’s economy is neither growing fast enough nor producing enough jobs. The number of jobs created by flowers is insignificant beside an increase in population of about 2m a year, one of the fastest rates in Africa…. The government claims that the economy has been growing at an impressive 10% a year since 2003-04, but the real figure is probably more like 5-6%, which is little more than the average for sub-Saharan Africa. And even that modestly improved rate, with a small building boom in Addis Ababa, for instance, has led to the overheating of the economy, with inflation moving up to 19% earlier this year before the government took remedial action. The reasons for this economic crawl are not hard to find. Beyond the government-directed state, funded substantially by foreign aid, there is—almost uniquely in Africa—virtually no private-sector business at all.
The IMF estimates that in 2005-06 the share of private investment in the country was just 11%, nearly unchanged since Mr Zenawi took over in the early 1990s. That is partly a reflection of the fact that, despite some privatisation since the centralised Marxist days of the Derg, large areas of the economy remain government monopolies, closed off to private business. This is where Ethiopia misses out badly. Take telecoms. While the rest of Africa has been virtually transformed in just a few years by a revolution in mobile telephony, Ethiopia stumbles along with its inept and useless government-run services…. There is no official unemployment rate, but youth unemployment, some experts reckon, may be as high as 70%. All those graduates coming out of state-run universities will find it very hard to get jobs. The mood of the young is often restless and despairing; many dream of moving abroad…. Just as the government is slowing the pace of economic expansion for fear that individuals may accumulate wealth and independence, so it is failing to move fast enough from a one-party state to a modern, pluralist democracy. Again, the reason may be that it is afraid to.
The Heritage Foundation, the pre-eminent conservative American think tank echoes the Economist in its 2010 Index of Economic Freedom concluded:
Ethiopia underperforms in many of the 10 economic freedoms. The business and investment regime is burdensome and opaque. The overall quality and efficiency of government services have been poor and are further undermined by weak rule of law and pervasive corruption. Monetary stability is hampered by state distortions in prices and interest rates, and trade freedom is hurt by high tariff and non-tariff barriers…. All imports must be channeled through Ethiopian nationals registered as official import or distribution agents with the Ministry of Trade and Industry. Foreign participation is prohibited in domestic banking, insurance and microcredit services, and several other activities…. Ethiopia ranks 126th out of 179 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2008. Despite legal restrictions, officials have been accused of manipulating the privatization process, and state-owned and party-owned businesses receive preferential access to land leases and credit.
Zenawi is desperate to show economic development of epic proportions in Ethiopia after nearly 2 decades of clinging to power. The fact remains that despite the incredible claims of economic growth, tens of millions of people are starving and go without any health care. Millions of young people remain unemployed and trapped in hopelessness. There is no rule of law and human rights violations are widespread. Whether or not Zenawi’s regime has accomplished an economic feat with few rivals in modern history is not a matter of wishful thinking or public relations. It is a matter of evidence: accurate, complete, reliable and comprehensive statistical evidence that is systematically and carefully collected, analyzed and verified. Such evidence can not be invented, fabricated, manufactured, contrived, concocted or cut from whole cloth. Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th Century British prime minister said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” In Ethiopia today, we are witnessing all three!
 To see a consistent pattern of “economic gamesmanship”, see also IMF Country Report (Ethiopia) No. 07/247 (July, 2007); IMF Country Report (Ethiopia) No. 06/159 (May, 2006); IMF Country Report(Ethiopia) No. 05/25 (January, 2005) and other reports prior to these dates.
Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on pambazuka.org, allafrica.com, newamericamedia.org and other sites.