Has Ethiopian Development Been At The Expense Of Human Rights?

Written by Staff

From TheAfricaReport. Story by Masimba Tafirenyika.

Yes, Ethiopia has been successful in growing the economy, but critics say the gains have come at the cost of human rights. They accuse the government of paying scant attention to basic freedoms and democracy.

Ethiopia is considered as one of the fastest growing economies in the world

At African conferences, brusque comments by Nigerian officials used to dominate conversations. Not anymore.

Ethiopians have usurped the role. And there are good reasons to support the Ethiopians’ new assertiveness: they run one of the world’s fastest growing economies; they have done a good job in meeting the Millennium Development Goals; they are building what will soon be Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam; their national airline dominates the continent’s skies; they have achieved an admirable level of political stability in one of the region’s roughest neighborhoods, and their capital Addis Ababa, whose skyline is dotted with construction cranes, is the continent’s diplomatic capital, thanks to the presence of the African Union’s headquarters.

Experts list countless reasons to explain the economy’s remarkable performance. But top among them is Ethiopia’s pursuit of what economists call a “developmental state model” whereby the government controls, manages and regulates the economy.

They note that similar state-led development policies lifted East Asian economies out of poverty during the late 20th century.

Ethiopia’s laws forbid foreign businesses in sectors considered strategic like telecom, financial, insurance and transport services.

“The Chinese economic model of success resonates with the Ethiopian current economic situation, given that China has gone through similar growth in recent history,” said Haddis Tadesse, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation representative to Ethiopia and to the African Union in an interview with Africa Renewal.

Critics question if such policies can be sustained without active participation from the private sector. The West, in particular multilateral institutions, complain that by not opening up parts of its economy, Ethiopia’s state-led development policies have thwarted private investors.

Despite the impressive economic growth that has lifted millions out of abject poverty, Ethiopia is still a poor country. Its per capita income of $470 is one of the lowest in the world.

It ranks 173 out of 186 countries on the 2015 Human Development Index compiled by the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), although the government has taken tangible steps to fight poverty.

UNDP reckons that by 2012-2013, three in every 10 Ethiopians lived in extreme poverty – or on less than $0.60 per day.

“We are not talking about a (small country) with 2 million people,” said Eugene Owusu, who until recently was the head of the U.N. office in Ethiopia. “We are talking about a country with 95 million people (the second most populous in Africa).”

Even the government’s supporters concede the country has a lot of catch-up to do especially, according to UNDP, in areas such as “improved political space, access to media, viability of opposition parties…and civic education.”

“Development is not just a common transformation,” said Owusu. “It also liberates the energies of the people.”

Tadesse adds: “the late former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi once said human rights were not a precondition for development. ‘You can grow without adequately providing (basic freedoms),” the prime minister said. “But the entire system and your entire survival over time could be questioned because you have to have a democratic society that aspires for a brighter future.'”

Still, the prevailing narrative on Ethiopia is the success of its economic policies and the political clout that comes with it, which has generated skepticism among critics and admiration among supporters.

African analysts watch with awe and wonder if the success can be sustained or replicated in other African countries. The next decade – the period within which Ethiopia aspires to be a middle-income country – will provide the answers.

Read more at TheAfricaReport.