Ethiopia One of the Saddest Countries in the World?

By Seble Teweldebirhan

Happy EthiopianAddis Ababa, January 1, 2012 ( - Last week Forbes Magazine, in its list of the happiest and saddest countries in the world, disclosed that we are one of three saddest nations in the world. The recently released 2011 index, billed as an "inquiry into global wealth and well being," provided the status of 110 countries on happiness and prosperity. According to the list Ethiopia, next to Central African Republic and Zimbabwe, has become a country where its citizens are sad and unsatisfied with their living standard.

The magazine detailed the standards it used to determine whether a people in a given nation are in a state of fulfillment or frustration. Based on the forty years of study in several countries, there seems to be identified ingredients for happiness. According to the magazine, these ingredients of happiness and prosperity are economy, entrepreneurship, governance, education, health, safety, personal freedom, and social capital. Among eight countries topping the list from bottom, Sub Saharan African countries are cited as the most miserable places in the world to live.

No matter how hard we fought to make the world believe we are actually going on the road of prosperity with a double-digit economic growth every year, Forbes seems to ignore the numbers. From the list of 110 countries that represented 93% of the global population and 97% of the overall GDP, Ethiopia ranked at 108, which made her part of the top three sad countries in the world.

However, seriously, what is happiness for Ethiopians? Happiness is a natural human emotion, but where it comes from has to be relative, which makes it difficult for a universal definition. If I have to define it in an objective terms though, I choose, Ayn Rand’s definition who defined happiness as follows: "Happiness is not the satisfaction of whatever irrational wishes you might blindly attempt to enjoy. Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy - a joy without penalty or guilt..."

Forbes started its listing with the definition of Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, who wrote, "Happiness is a warm puppy," and John Lennon’s different take stating: "Happiness is a warm gun." The point the magazine tried to make was whether happiness is a gun or puppy people need money to buy them, time to enjoy them and warmth and security to keep them. Apparently, our country happens to be a place where all this is difficult.

Taking the definition of Ayn Rand that states happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy, the mere fact that people got the puppy or gun, or whether they are in a situation where they enjoy and keep them worry free, doesn’t seem to fit the entire definition of happiness. Ayn Rand’s definition seems to consider how people come to afford the gun or the puppy. To a certain extent, for Ethiopians, this has to be taken into consideration, especially given the fact that governance is the next ingredient for prosperity. Just like our double digit economic growth could not convince Forbes to give us a better status in its list, our anti-corruption laws and good governance propaganda with democratically elected leaders did not catch the list maker’s attention at all. Therefore, the list is telling us Ethiopia is in a place where poor governance is at its best.

Unfortunately, there seems to be several reports supporting this conclusion. The continuous illicit money outflows from the country (with double digit billions, closely similar to the country’s growth every year) and the report of Transparency International on its annual Corruption Perception Index that indicated corruption in Ethiopia is getting worse in 2011 is a clear support in favor of Forbes assertion. This actually has a direct relation with the definition of Ayn Rand, since even those who can actually afford the toys or gun have probably ill-gained them which opens a wide open door for a mind state of contradiction. In short, both who got the guns and the toys and those who could not afford them are in a state of dissatisfaction in Ethiopia. Alternatively, maybe, sticking to the strict sense of non-contradictory joy, those who could not afford anything might be in a much happier state since they have nothing to be confused.

What is important here is, when it comes to happiness, the ingredients provided by Forbes might not be as critical as the western world’s perception of them. Bad governance has a much-limited effect on the happiness of Ethiopians than Forbes people like to think. For most of our people, facing corruption and bad governance is the story of their lives. No matter who led the country, and whatever ideology is taking its turn, Ethiopians always pay bribes, seek favors from someone they know, or have the required social status to claim their rights. What makes this less ingredient of happiness is that most Ethiopians do not know any better and that they probably consider their fundamental rights as a privilege given to them because they were lucky or paid a bribe or belonged to a certain group. Therefore, the effect of bad governance on a person’s happiness is probably less important for Ethiopians. Ethiopian will probably go to church and tell god to help them out, or find a relatives who knows certain official, or may be find some money to give bribe, or give up on the matter considering he/she is undeserving. But they certainly do not go on rage and commit suicide.

Smiling EthiopianThis brings us to the bottomline of the definition of happiness for Ethiopians. Ethiopians seem to choose the non-contradictory state of mind affirming that the poor and the powerless are much happier than the rich and the powerful. Whether it is denial or heartfelt, Ethiopians usually seem to be thankful for whatever little they have and pray for only a daily bread. Thanks for the religions who constantly preach the sins of richness and having excess, the majority tend to believe god has given them the amount that they need and the extra would have cost their soul to the everlasting fire in hell.

Forbes does not understand this state of mind of Ethiopians, which makes them content with their existing standard of living and does not make them miss things they do not know. This also explains the low entrepreneurship status the magazine tried to use against us to label the country sad. For centuries, Ethiopians did not find anything wrong with doing their agriculture with domestic animals, living in one room hut with their cows when there is excessive land around them, or waiting for the rain when the river in walking distance is stealing their fertile land while they are sitting and drinking coffee or tela in their huts.

If it is a question of happiness, then those Ethiopians are thankful and happy than the people of Norway, who topped the list of the happiest people in the world, but still rank high in suicide rate list of the world – number 34 among 107 countries rated, according to Wikipedia.

Forbes also does not seem to give us mercy when Ethiopia is busting its energy and finance to make sure everyone got at least some basic education. In fact, especially when it comes to primary education, Ethiopia did admirable job and should not have been compared with the Central African Republic whose half adults are illiterate. Whether the list makers accepted it or not, Ethiopia also took tertiary education to the next level when it comes to numbers. Currently, we have more universities than industries. Almost every region and province in some cases has a university, and Forbes should have asked their number before reaching conclusions. They should have had considered the students who are satisfied because they join a ‘university’ and the families who tell the success stories of their children who are in a university.

Ethiopia, however, is still one of the top countries for infant mortality rate, life expectancy at birth and maternity death, health service might not have an exaggerated effect in the peoples’ happiness to label it sad. Ethiopians, unlike many of the ‘happiest and prosperous people’ in the world, believe their health is entirely up to God’s fate. They have their holy water, prayers, witches, whom they believe have a healing power, and so many spiritual alternatives than the western world. Even when their health is in a great jeopardy and know they might not make it, Ethiopians mostly believe in the afterlife, which makes them think death is not the end of it all. If we talk about happiness, then Forbes should have considered this attitude of Ethiopians that makes them content up to the end regardless of their health status. Just because Ethiopia is labeled by many reports as a place where there is the worst health care, it does not make its people as sad as Forbes indicated in its list.

Safety is also another ingredient provided for happiness. If one tends to believe the list by Forbes, Ethiopia is not safe at all. This means, whether happiness is a toy or a gun, those who got it are not safe to keep it. In this case, their prosperity, according to Ayn Rand, is subject to guilt and penalty, which clearly created dissatisfaction. What Forbes did not realize is, Ethiopians know exactly what it takes to be safe. That is in fact why they survive in some of the worst scenarios possible. In Ethiopia, to be safe, you watch your mouth especially what you say about politicians and politics, you keep a low profile, and not to be mugged, you buy the cheapest cell phone in the market and never wear jewelry, if you have anything valuable in your house you build your fence with electric shock. If you do all of these, then you are certainly safe. You can keep your gun or toy and play as much as you want. This is certainly a small price to pay than having your kid kidnapped for ransom in broad daylight in Mexico, or being the target of drive-by shooting in New York. Forbes does not seem to understand this at all.

The last two ingredients by Forbes – personal freedom and social capital – also might have less significance for Ethiopian happiness. Personal freedom, as many like to define it is something inside a person. It is related with free will of individuals no matter what the circumstances might be in the outside. It is what makes a person in prison happy than a person who is physically free. It is being able to choose once attitude towards the circumstances in the outside world. However, Forbes did not elaborate from which angle they defined personal freedom. However, if we actually follow this definition anyone who knows Ethiopia must understand Ethiopians are not a fan of this freedom at all. Ethiopians do like their defined place in a society, and their choice has always come from the outside. As a society that mostly fights to keep things just the way they are, Ethiopians does not appreciate a different choice than the society already provided for a given situations. In this case, those who dance with rhythm are always content and happy. Whether you have the gun or the toy, in Ethiopia, making choices than what the society already provides and expects will create what Ayn Rand called contradictory state of mind.

Social capital, a sociological term that refers to the value of social relations and the role of cooperation and confidence to get collective or economic results, also has Ethiopians back for centuries. It is undeniable that Ethiopians trust their neighbors, families and their ‘leaders’ to support them in their struggle to get the gun or the toy. Forbes used trust in family and society as one ingredient for happiness as a people. Therefore, Forbes probably have never been in Ethiopia, a country where half of the population depends on the other half for survival. If Forbs happened to know so many Ethiopians who start their day believing someone will provide them with their daily meal, then the amount of our ‘social capital’ might not have been seen as low. The magazine mentioned its happy and prosperous nations based on their trust to other members of their community to be there for them for better or worse. It is my opinion that there is no example that better illustrates this than the case of Ethiopians, who supported one another through all the ups and downs the country went through in the last few decades.

As a conclusion, labeling Ethiopia as the saddest country in the world based on the numbers and reports, which are mostly against us, might be easy for Forbes. However, for those who know Ethiopians closely, it is possible to understand that those numbers and reports do not actually represent the people. Of course, they might represent the reality, but unfortunately, Ethiopians have so many things to help them escape the reality and be thankful for what they got, even when that is nothing.


Seble Teweldebirhan



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



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