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Jeffrey Sachs Ethiopia

Lessons From Columbia U.

Alemayehu G. Mariam

“Let Ethiopians Debate Ethiopia”

Following Meles Zenawi’s speech at Columbia University on September 22, Prof. William Easterly of New York University expressed his delight in seeing Ethiopians “participating in a debate about Ethiopia.” In his AID WATCH blog under the title “Lessons after the Meles Speech at Columbia: Let Ethiopians Debate Ethiopia”, Prof. Easterly noted[1]:

It sure was nice to see mainly Ethiopians vigorously participating in a debate about Ethiopia, in contrast to the usual Old White Men debating Africa. The Meles visit to Columbia had the unintentional effect of promoting this debate. We were very happy at Aid Watch to have had the privilege of turning over our little corner of the web to host some of this debate, and then just get out of the way.

Prof. Easterly is the author of the widely-read book, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. He is one of the most informed and critically skeptical economist in the world today on the failures of foreign aid to produce sustainable growth in the so-called Third World. His views stand in clear contrast to Columbia professors Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs who are avid advocates of foreign aid as a vehicle for economic development in countries such as Ethiopia.

Prof. Easterly’s colorful intimation about “Old White Men debating Africa” masks two bold-faced and painful truths from which the Ethiopian “intelligentsia” cannot escape. The first is that Western-educated Ethiopian intellectuals in particular have curtsied and made way to the two “Knights of Columbia” who earned their fame and fortune thrusting lances in the heart of the International Monetary Fund and panhandling Western governments to keep Africa on the dole indefinitely. The second truth is that Ethiopian intellectuals have stood by idly as the “Gang of Two” have made it their mission to promote Zenawi internationally by spinning fairy tales of “economic growth” and “development” in Ethiopia.

For well over a decade, Profs. Stiglitz and Sachs have served as intellectual godfathers to Ethiopia’s dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi. The “objective” of these two “academic entrepreneurs” and “unacademic professors”, to use the recent words of Prof. Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia, is to “ingratiate” themselves ” with influential African leaders regardless of their democratic and human-rights record, to get PR and ‘goodies’ for themselves at African summits, at the UN where these leaders have a vote…” Their style has been to rub elbows and hobnob with iron-fisted and human rights-trashing kleptocratic African dictators while preaching and pleading for more foreign aid and spinning fairy tales of “double-digit economic growth” in the international media and policy forums to promote the dictators.

According to the Stiglitz-Sachs theory, decisive and benevolent dictators powered by massive amounts of panhandled Western aid could pull Ethiopia and Africa out of the darkness of poverty into the sunshine of development. All of the human rights stuff is a frivolous distraction that should be ignored in the single-minded pursuit of the Holy Grail of foreign aid to solve the problem of poverty once and for all by 2015, if one is to believe, as does Sachs, in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Such fatuous nonsense has become the credo of the Western foreign aid world thanks to the likes of Stiglitz and Sachs. In 2010 alone, the U.S. has dropped nearly $1 billion in aid to Ethiopia.

The fact of the matter is that the much vaunted foreign aid provides a lifeline to dictators and stokes the furnace of corruption that incinerates the poor and the powerless on a daily basis in countries such as Ethiopia. Suffice it to say that expecting economic growth from foreign aid is like expecting a harvest from desert rains; only the succulent plants benefit from it.

Prof. Bhagwati, charitably, but grossly understates the relationship between Ethiopia’s dictator and Stiglitz-Sachs as ingratiation. Since 1997, Stiglitz-Sachs have been Zenawi’s unofficial hagiographers (biographers of saints). Stiglitz wrote: “These intellectual attributes [Zenawi’s ‘deeper and more subtle understanding of economic principles’] were matched by integrity: Meles was quick to investigate any accusations of corruption in his government. He was committed to decentralization–to ensuring that the center did not lose touch with the various regions.”[2] In 2010, Ethiopia ranked 138/159 (most corrupt) countries on the Corruption Index; 17th among the most failed states (Somalia is No. 1) on the Failed States Index; 136/179 countries (most repressive) on the 2010 Index of Economic Freedom; and 107/183 economies for ease of doing business (investment climate) by The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in 2010. But we have only seen the tip of the glacial iceberg of corruption in Ethiopia.[3]

In his 2003 book, Stiglitz wrote, “His [Zenawi’s] political opponents came mostly from the long-dominant groups around the capital who had lost political power with his accession, and they raised questions about his commitment to democratic principles.” In his Columbia speech on September 22, during the Q&A session, Zenawi said that the only people complaining about human rights violations and opposing him are “remnants” of Mengistu’s regime, the erstwhile military junta gone nearly 20 years, who lost their power nearly two decades ago. It seems they all read from the same tired 20 year-old script.

In 2004, Sachs wrote[4], “When I meet with Prime Minister Meles and President Museveni I feel like I am attending a development seminar. They are ingenious, deeply knowledgeable, and bold.” In 2005, at an award ceremony for Zenawi, Sachs spoke beatifically of Zenawi: “You have distinguished yourself as a one of our World’s most brilliant leaders. I have often said that our many hours of discussion together are among the most scintillating that I have spent on the topics of economic development. I invariably leave our meetings enriched, informed, and encouraged about Ethiopia’s prospects.”[5] Goethe said, “A person places themselves on a level with the ones they praise.” Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum!

The Echo Chamber of the “Gang of Three”

The “Gang of Three” have had their mutual admiration society going for quite a while. They have carefully orchestrated a subtle campaign of disinformation about stratospheric economic growth rates in Ethiopia using the reputable media; and through sheer volume of media references and repetition, many have now come to believe in the fairy tale that Ethiopia has finally become a utopia where economic growth gallops at a steady clip of 14.9 percent annually. As they buttered up each other for their intellectual insights, foresights, hindsights and angelic integrity and put in place their foreign-aid panhandling schemes to rid Ethiopia of poverty, Ethiopian intellectuals, particularly those in the Diaspora, have been standing on the sidelines in catatonic silence. We have heard the “Gang of Three” lying, but we have not testified against them. We have heard them misleading the people with “lies, damned lies and statistics”, and we have failed to lead the people with simple truths. We have stood deaf, mute and blind as our motherland is raped by land-grabbing raiders and marauders from the Middle East to India.

But others, including Prof. Easterly, have not been silent; in fact, they have been systematically demonstrating with data that shaking down the Western donor dollar tree for every last penny will produce neither economic growth nor development. Prof. Easterly has relentlessly exposed those officially pimping foreign aid as the silver bullet to end poverty in the Third World[6]:

The goal [of foreign aid] is simply to benefit some poor people some of the time… In virtually no other field of economics do economists and policymakers promise such large welfare benefits for modest policy interventions as ‘we’ do in aid and growth. The macroeconomic evidence does not support these claims. There is no Next Big Idea that will make the small amount of foreign aid the catalyst for economic growth of the world’s poor nations.

Ghanaian economist Prof. George Ayittey and international economist Dambissa Moyo have also exposed the scam of foreign aid-dependent development and offered alternative views on promoting economic growth and development in Africa ranging from the radical proposal of cutting off all aid to Africa over a period of time to finding money for development through financial markets, microfinance, improving governance, reducing corruption through rigorous accountability structures, focusing aid to meet the urgent needs of the poor in health care, education, clean water supply and by calling for innovative approaches to development. But in an echo chamber of a self-absorbed foreign aid community that resonates with “lies, damned lies and statistics”, Easterly, Ayittey and Moyo have been voices in the wilderness. But because of their persistence, the simple truth that foreign aid is not changing the lives of the most needy in recipient countries such as Ethiopia is coming out and taking hold, much to the chagrin of those pimping foreign aid.

As the “academic entrepreneurs” buy, sell and auction us off on the foreign aid market and the few voices in the wilderness struggle to call attention to the ineffectiveness of aid in spurring economic development, Ethiopian intellectuals in the main have resolved to stand deaf-mute and watch the debate from the sidelines. That’s what makes Prof. Easterly’s remark about “letting Ethiopians participate in the debate about Ethiopia” especially poignant and embarrassing. He is too much of a scholar and gentleman to call us out in the public square and say, “You Ethiopian intellectuals have not been part of the debate. You have been passive spectators as ‘White old men’ do the thinking and acting for you. You have not been engaged, but disengaged to the point of inexplicable indifference. You have not shown righteous intellectual outrage or courage to confront these foreign aid pimps, conjurers and enchanters. Get your shoulders to the grind wheel and ‘participate in the debate’ and come up with your own solutions to the problems your country is facing.” I catch the drift of Prof. Easterly’s delicate and finessed appreciation that they are  “very happy at Aid Watch to have had the privilege of turning over [their] little corner of the web to host some of this debate.”

Let Ethiopians Lead the Debate on Ethiopia

So, what do we make of Prof. Easterly’s suggestion, “Let Ethiopians debate Ethiopia”? Do we ignore it or rise up to the challenge? I say, let us not only “debate Ethiopia”, but also challenge the dictators and their patron saints in all fields of intellectual endeavor. What is it that they got that we ain’t got? Aha! A Nobel Prize! But a Nobel laureate testifying for a dictator is like the devil quoting Scripture for his purpose, as Shakespeare might say: “An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek.” The true measure of that Prize should not be in possessing it to shield dictatorships from scrutiny, but in using it to help free humanity from the yoke of oppression.

I would like Prof. Easterly to know that Ethiopians are not just coming forward to “debate Ethiopia”, they are actually ready, able and willing to lead the debate. In the past few months, they have stepped up to the plate and begun slugging it out with the false prophets of foreign aid. Dr. Aklog Birara, an international economist, in his new book on “Ethiopia’s endemic poverty” takes on the intellectual apologists of dictators head on:

A vicious cycle of poverty afflicts the vast majority of Ethiopians despite incredible good will manifested in billions of dollars of emergency and development assistance from wealthy countries… The ruling-party, its supporters and a few in the donor community argue that substantial growth has taken place. There is substantial physical evidence in the form of hydroelectric power dams, roads and bridges, buildings and housing, schools and other infrastructure to show this… There is no indication that substantial investments into the productive sectors such as industry, manufacturing and agriculture have been made. Lag in the productivity of the real sector is evidenced by recurring hunger, high unemployment and underemployment, especially an estimated 14 million unemployed youth in the country.

Prof. Seid Hassan has debunked the claims of those who underplay and rationalize endemic corruption in the Ethiopian economy:

The government has been either ineffective in collecting taxes or the economy is unable to generate taxable incomes. The economy’s inability to generate tax revenues is strongly tied with the many constraints that the government has imposed on the people of Ethiopia, the most important of them being state seizure and corruption manifested by the transfer of Ethiopian assets to party-owned conglomerates (the so-called “endowments” who now control the most productive sector and commanding heights of the Ethiopian economy) and the reprieve given to them from paying taxes.

Prof. Getachew Begashaw has demonstrated that those who have a chokehold on the economy also have a chokehold on the people’s throats:

In Ethiopia the one-party government of Meles Zenawi owns all the urban and rural land and completely controls the major economic activities, including manufacturing, construction, and finance. This monopoly of the economic activities of the country, coupled with the absence of democracy, has contributed in a major way to the widespread poverty in the country.[7]

We Must Be Masters of Our Destiny

Prof. Easterly’s subtle intimation that we must master the debate before we can master our destiny is an important lesson to be learned from the Columbia experience. To become masters of our destiny, we must challenge those who have become our intellectual masters by default. We must confront the “Knights of Columbia” and their squires in the scholarly journals, in the media, in the conferences, in blogosphere, in any marketplace of ideas and wherever else they are found selling their snake oil of foreign aid and preaching their false gospel of aid-dependent development to deliver Ethiopia and Africa from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. If we fail to do that, we will forever be victims of the formulaic thinking of “Old White men debating Africa” from afar and the policy triumphalism of their puppets at home. Bertrand Russell said, “The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution”. It is OUR job, first and foremost, to state the problem in OUR homeland in a way that allows for OUR solution. That is one of the major lessons we should learn from Columbia U.