The Cost of Economic Development in Ethiopia: Is It Worth IT?

By Seble Teweldebirhan


Ethiopian developmentAddis Ababa, June 25, 2012 ( - The current Ethiopian generation has numerous complaints on its predecessors. Regardless of the historical claim throughout the years on ‘independence’ and ‘pride’, for those who struggle for daily bread, history seems to lose its actual relevance. The most often heard complaint today is that the past generations failed to pay the appropriate price for the current generation to have a better life.


To further understand how the present generation really views this issue, myself and a couple of friends have been asking many people under the age of 30 years how they value the past generation for the price they paid for them. In general, we managed to question 300 people in Addis, Awassa, Mekelle and Dessie.


Around 210 said they feel the past generation has been selfish and never really considered its successor for any of its decisions. Most took the position that our history is nothing to be proud of.


The rest 90 chose to see the past generation with mixed feelings. Some appreciated those who fought in Adwa, but felt Ethiopia did not manage to have a generation worth mentioning after that. Others claimed the generation in the 60s and 70s, though it did not achieve its goal, it was the candle of revolution, and the rest were nothing but self-centered who didn’t much to society. Others also claimed that the generation that fought to defeat the Derg regime is the only one that paid a real price for the coming generations. However, what almost everyone agreed on is that, the past generation, whether by intention or not, failed to make a better day for both themselves and future generations.


Regardless, the main question now is whether the present generation itself is making history different from the past. The dominant view, among the 300 people we have interviewed is that the present generation is paying a price it cannot afford to make the future better for everyone. Our respondents seem to agree that it is important to strive and make sure the future generations have at least the minimum conditions to believe in the country. 


However, there were arguments that said the development goals are too ambitious, those who are paying the price are largely not aware of what is happening and it is forced on them. Some agreed that if given a choice, several communities would not agree to give up this much. The common references are farmers and tribal groups evicted from their land for the purpose of mechanized agriculture and/or the construction of hydroelectric dams, or the elderly citizens who have had their urban houses demolished to make way for malls or hotels. 


Today, Ethiopia is like a new state that just realized the importance of infrastructure and economic transformation. For any observer, the whole country might look like going under a revolution of construction. From the capital Addis Ababa, to rural areas and other small towns, construction of every aspect is a common sight.


As a result, people suffer from different takeovers. They are evicted from their land for the construction of roads, hydroelectric power dam, mechanized agriculture, and buildings. They are shaken financially by what appears to be a messed-up free market situation, just with a promise of a strong and dependable private sector in the future. While the country is still under continual crises on food security, sanitation, and health services, the people are paying for a multi-billion dollar development projects that might not serve them in their lifetime.


All of this, at the face value, seems to be a worthy sacrifice paid today for a better tomorrow. Indeed, if the projects meet their desired goals, the coming generation might have a lesser pain on energy and infrastructure. However, the question is whether this generation is actually happy and informed about it. Can long-term and sustainable economic development be realized just by top-down directive and without meaningful participation of citizens who are actually paying the cost? In simple terms, can this money be managed without any checks and balances?


There are also crucial issues that challenge the worthiness of the sacrifice in terms of economic growth. For example, some worry on the point that the country opted to invest its entire resources on infrastructure and energy and seems to fail to nurture the people who might end up using it. The issue here is, all the effort and the pain of today’s generation has no happy ending if children are not taught critical concepts like social responsibility, a sense of unity, respect, freedom of thought and expression, creativity, and most importantly endurance and patience to stick around and a discipline to win through sincere hard work.


In addition, there seems to be a silent acceptance that democracy and economic growth are two separate issues. As PM Meles Zenawi clearly indicated at the World Economic Forum on Africa, though both issues are very important, there is no need to confuse them as interdependent. This argument, to a certain extent, has theoretical accuracy. However, while the country is striving to make sure the future generations have enough energy and roads, there are clear signs of reversals on building the culture of democracy. Of course, just as we blame the past for the messy political culture and the lack of accountability and transparency, 20 years down the line, the blame will be on the present generation of Ethiopia; and the cycle continues.


Different international human rights institutions also stress that Ethiopia is pursuing growth (or the appearance thereof) at the cost of human rights. For example, Amnesty International in its recent report claimed that Ethiopia is violating human rights under the pretext of economic growth. The report admitted that the country achieved a fast growth and considerable reduction of poverty. Regardless, this came about at the cost of several human rights violations, especially freedoms of expression, speech, and association, according to the Report.


Human Rights Watch (HRW) also criticized Ethiopia for forced eviction of people especially in the Lower Omo region. According to a recent report by HRW, in order to give a land for investors on sugar plantation, the tribes of Omo are forced to leave their land, which their livelihood and social existence is dependent on.


At this point, it might be appropriate to suggest that, the claims by international human rights groups on Ethiopia, frequently lack support of proper evidences. If one examines the claims in the reports, it seems the institutions mostly fail to send a monitoring or examining group for their claims and get first hand information. In fact, most compile the reports from different bodies based in and outside Ethiopia. The point here is not Ethiopia is a clean slate in respecting human rights. However, in a country where the opposition politics is based on abhorrence, the report they might get can be suspicious and not dependable. 


There are counter arguments to the reports of international human rights groups that say if the future generation is ever to see a better day, there are prices that are necessary to pay. In fact, these arguments refer to the development process of other countries that essentially enslaved their own people claiming to achieve long-term goals. However, it must be noted that any government can make such claims. In fact most totalitarian regimes the world has ever seen have made one, but only to leave ruin behind them.


Environment is another concern of those who question Ethiopia run to economic development. Especially on the construction of hydroelectric dams, environmental degradation is the concern for most western nations and activists. PM Meles on one occasion responded to this claim saying that while people are still living in the dark and suffer from lack of energy, it is unfair to argue about the well-being of butterflies and fish.


I would like to follow up on this topic by initiating a dialogue with my readers. The question I would like to ask is whether the current generation is paying worthy price for future generations, and whether it is doing it knowingly and willingly. Is it all worth it for you as the current generation?


Seble Teweldebirhan



Seble Teweldebirhan is Addis Ababa based Reporter for She can be reached by sending email through this form.


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